Posts Tagged With: Chris Stamey

Caitlin Cary sings for her supper

When it became apparent that Ryan would not be interviewed for “Losering” and I started trying to figure out who might talk, I had some high hopes for Whiskeyown fiddler Caitlin Cary. Sure, it would have put her in a difficult spot — which was nothing new, given that she had been Whiskeytown’s only other lineup constant for the entirety of the band’s existence (which she seemed to spend apologizing for the behavior of her bandmates). Still, if there was anybody who could maintain friendly relations with Ryan while talking to me, I figured it was Caitlin.

Alas, it was not to be. Caitlin demurred with the explanation that it just didn’t feel right to cooperate on a Ryan biography when he himself wasn’t participating; a disappointment, but I had to respect that. And the upside was that I had tons of vintage material from back in the day on Caitlin as well as her husband, Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore. So while it would have been nice to have a fresh perspective, at least I was able to quote them both.

Post-Whiskeytown, Caitlin has had a very fine career in a variety of guises starting with her solo act, which got off to a roaring start with her 2002 full-length debut, the aptly titled While You Weren’t Looking. I was delighted to write a lengthy No Depression feature on her when that album came out (although it probably didn’t help my standing with Ryan when I called WYWL “the best recording yet to surface from the remnants of Whiskeytown”). And Caitlin shared space with Ryan on the track list of Joan Baez’s 2003 album Dark Chords on a Big Guitar, which featured the ’60s folk icon covering her “Rosemary Moore” and his “In My Time of Need.”

Caitlin also recorded a very fine album with Thad Cockrell, 2005’s Begonias; and she is one-third of Tres Chicas, a vocal trio with Lynn Blakey (Glory Fountain, Let’s Active) and Tonya Lamm (Hazeldine, who were on the 1997 No Depression tour with Whiskeytown and the Old 97s). They’re a sublime trio of singers, the Chicas are, and still one of my favorite groups in the Triangle. They were also kind enough to have me write liner notes for their debut album, 2004’s Sweetwater, which I was honored to do. This is still my only venture into writing liner notes:

My favorite Tres Chicas moment: a warm spring night a few years back when I happened upon a pre-show rehearsal in the parking lot of a nightclub in downtown Raleigh. Tonya Lamm, Lynn Blakey and Caitlin Cary were gathered around the tailgate of a pickup truck with Chris Stamey, their producer and bassist, working out a few songs. The playing was loose, the harmonies sweet, the vibe amiable. A private moment, one freely shared with anyone who wanted to stop and listen. Even a train passing nearby couldn’t spoil the mood.

There’s always been a stolen-moment quality to the Chicas, who have had to make time for this group within the demands of their other bands, including Whiskeytown, Glory Fountain and Hazeldine. But Caitlin, Lynn and Tonya keep coming back to each other for one simple reason: They’ve never sounded better than they do with each other in the Chicas. And somehow, they found the time to make this record, which will put you in mind of friends getting together to sing just because it’s a good night for singin’ pretty.

Lucky us, that goes for tonight, too.

The Chicas have been semi-inactive for the past few years, back-burnered in favor of other projects. But they’re scheduled to play Nov. 3 at the Berkeley Cafe, site of my long-ago first interview with Ryan way back in 1995. Meantime, Caitlin is still busy with her latest group, The Small Ponds, which she leads with Matt Douglas. I think I’ll always feel like Ryan is her perfect vocal match, but Matt comes awfully close to matching that on their excellent 2010 EP. They’re playing Friday (Oct. 5) at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh.

The drummer for a lot of Cary’s projects has been none other than Skillet Gilmore, who has kind of turned into the Triangle’s answer to former Replacements drummer Chris Mars — drummer from semi-legendary band turns out to be an amazing visual artist. On the right here, one of the many show posters Skillet has done in recent years; and he’s also taken a venture into the political arena.

Can his own run for office be far behind?

ADDENDUM (4/26/15): Tres Chicas’ first show in many moons.

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Back to the music

While I was writing “Losering,” I also put some effort into reconnecting with Ryan’s music. Of course, I’d been obsessively listening to all his records over the years. But the downside of how much I’d played them was that I was no longer hearing a lot of the details. I needed a fresh pair of ears, some outside perspective and a better sound system than the boombox and computers I use for most of my listening nowadays.

Enter Holden Richards, a longtime friend and fellow Ryan fan who also has a long history here in North Carolina — going back to his early-’80s days with the Chapel Hill indie-pop group One Plus Two. Holden first came to my attention in 1992 with a record called Bones of Contention, issued under the name the Swamis. It’s long out of print, but Bones of Contention still sounds terrific 20 years later if your tastes run toward the dB’s and Let’s Active (which mine definitely do). And while Holden still plays, recent years have found him putting a lot of energy into photography. Take a look at his portfolio and you should agree it’s been energy well-spent.

Holden and I conducted a couple of marathon sessions where we gave close listens to the key records in Ryan’s catalog, concentrating on the Whiskeytown period. Holden pointed out some technical things I doubt I would have picked up on, such as Ryan’s fondness for the metalhead’s favorite tuning, Drop-D (an effect that gave Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac all sorts of dark overtones).

He was also the perfect tour guide to the finer points of Chris Stamey’s sonic overhaul of the 1998 reissue of Whiskeytown’s debut full-length Faithless Street, which is immeasurably more nuanced and detailed than the original 1996 version. For example, “Drank Like a River” was a muddy roar in its original incarnation. But Stamey cleaned it up by panning the guitars — Ryan on one side, Phil Wandscher on the other — leaving more room in the middle for Ryan’s vocal and Caitlin Cary’s fiddle. Though subtle, that’s the kind of tweaking that makes a difference you can hear, and it made Ryan’s raspy vocal even better.

“Man,” Holden marveled as we listened, “the microphone loves Ryan.”

Geeking out on Ryan’s records was a ton of fun and incredibly helpful. It also made possible a rare flight of fancy on my part, in how I wrote about Strangers Almanac — which was something I struggled with because Strangers is a record that still means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it away here, so please read the book for that. But I will say that I don’t think I could have pulled it off without Holden’s help, which allowed me to get immersed in Strangers as never before.

Thank you, sir!

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