December 1, 2023

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Caleb Caudle Builds a World on New Album ‘Forsythia’ – Rolling Stone

In late 2020, Caleb Caudle did the thing you’re not supposed to do when you’re focusing on a music career and moved from Nashville back to his North Carolina hometown. The onset of the pandemic had brought his touring operation to a complete standstill, leaving his future as a musician in grave jeopardy. It was a tough decision, but, along with the financial benefit, it made him see things in ways he hadn’t before.

“I felt like I reconnected really strongly. You spend all your days trying to escape [from] there and then you go back,” Caudle says, calling after a brief jaunt to New Mexico for a gig. “For me, I’ve traveled all over the world now and you go back and you realize how special the place you came from was.”

That connection to home and the outdoors is all over Caudle’s new album Forsythia, which was composed both before and after the move. Recorded at the fabled Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and produced by John Carter Cash, the project features musical contributions from Music City luminaries like Jerry Douglas, Elizabeth Cook, Carlene Carter, and Sam Bush, but its contemplative heart rests in the Tar Heel State. There are references to people in Caudle’s life, like the tireless character in “Whirligigs” (inspired by his uncle) and a heartbroken mechanic in “Crazy Wayne.” There’s even a reference to the street where he and several members of his family once lived in close proximity in “Red Bank Road.”

“I thought that was super normal,” he says, laughing. “It’s stuff like that where I would take it for granted when I was a kid, but as an adult it’s sort of a different thing.”

The reflective mood of Forsythia also comes through in more acoustic, stripped-down songs than its predecessor, 2020’s Better Hurry Up. Even so, Caudle and the band find space to rock, cranking out a greasy groove in “Texas Tea” and embracing the power of being different in the strutting “I Don’t Fit In.” It came from realizing Caudle could just sound how he wanted to sound from song to song, a philosophy that holds true for the full album.

“If it doesn’t fit neatly in a box, then maybe I’ll get fans who don’t fit neatly into a box,” he says. “We talk about the ‘rub’ a lot — somewhere where gospel, folk, country, blues, all that stuff lives together, and I feel like I’m trying to come up with my own recipe for that, musically. With this record, I had my first bite. It might need a little tweaking, but it’s really close.”

You’ve said you thought Forsythia might be your last album. Why is that?
When we recorded it, touring wasn’t a thing at all. Where I’m at, career-wise, if I don’t have touring… there’s really not a path forward without live music for me. You put so much into a record and I had the last one come out April 3, 2020, so I lost all the touring around it. I just felt like if I couldn’t tour this one, it was hard for me to justify trying to spend a lot more money on something I couldn’t make the money back on. This was before vaccines, before touring had resumed in any way. Going into it, I was thinking, I gotta bring my 10 best songs. I always feel that way, but this time it felt more important. I just felt like if touring wasn’t around, I wasn’t around.

What did that look like to you? Would you be doing music at all?
I thought I’ll just see how this shakes out and go from there, because I’ve never had a backup plan or a plan B. I’ve been writing songs since I was old enough to write. It’s such a part of how I move through life. Luckily, I started going to therapy a little over a year ago, and I think that helped with some of that existential dread, trying to figure out what would be next. And I go hiking every day when I can. Both of those things helped a bunch with trying to navigate all of this. Now I’m busier than ever and obviously I’m hoping this isn’t my last record… I’ve been writing a bunch. But it was a really scary time.

Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush provide instrumental support on Forsythia, which has shades of bluegrass and folk music that weren’t as obvious on Better Hurry Up. How did that come about?
It felt really natural. I never even think of genre when I’m writing. I just think of what is the best song I can do. We had moved back home and I had never spent that much time off the road in a decade. I was in a really reflective space and reconnecting with some of my North Carolina musical heroes like Doc [Watson] and Elizabeth Cotten. I knew that I wanted the rhythm for these songs to follow my right hand. All these songs… I felt some connection with something that was more ancient. Roots instrumentation made a lot of sense. I wasn’t like, “You know what, we should add some bluegrass legends to this.” It was more like, man, we have access to that caliber of player, people I’ve been listening to my whole life. I would have been a fool to not jump at the chance to work with them.

A lot of the songs here feel like you’re singing about home in some form, or a longing for home. Did moving back to North Carolina play into that at all?
I think so. The first track that really stands out when we’re talking about this is “Forsythia.” I wrote that pretty directly after everything shut down and I lost my touring. It came from this place of, I felt like all innocence was lost. The dream I had been dreaming for so long had been taken away. I started thinking about, alright, where do I go from here and what makes me feel good? Who was I before all of this? I remember writing “Forsythia” and thinking, that feels really special and I feel really connected to that.

It’s interesting to me that a song like “Crazy Wayne” can be so specific about someone from your past, but somehow that makes it even more relatable.
I don’t want to say it’s a lost art, but I do feel like it’s something that’s missing in a lot of modern songs. There’s people who’ve been great at it — Tom T. [Hall], Prine, Guy Clark. For me it’s like, the more detailed I can get, the more universal it becomes. It might not be the same details as someone’s life, but it causes them to go there. It takes them to a place where they can connect the dots on their own.

It makes it feel more cinematic, certainly.
And that was a big thing going into this record. I felt like I wanted to create this little world that people could escape into for 30 minutes. The more details I could give the listener, the further they could go into this world. That’s become a really important part of my writing. Details are like the last frontier. Everything’s been written about at this point. I don’t need another generic love song — there are so many good ones out there. I don’t feel like I need to add to that canon. So what I’m trying to do now is go heavy on the details, make it relatable in that way.

I like that you say you wanted to create a world with this album. There’s something very comforting about listening to it, but not in a cheap or obvious way. It’s more hard-won.
For me, it’s pretty obvious that I deal with depression and anxiety. There had to be a thread that ran through the record that had some hopefulness about it, just so I wouldn’t go too far the other way. I definitely tried to include that, because it’s important to have that kind of hope: “Maybe the world isn’t ending! Maybe I’ll get to tour again! Maybe I’ll get to connect with fans again.” That was the big draw for me, always, when I first started writing. I was like, I’m writing for myself, yes, but I’m also writing to connect with other humans. There is some sort of calm, comforting thing about the record, but there’s also some darkness there. That’s always part of what I do, because that’s part of who I am. I think I got the balance right.

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