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Scarlet Begonias

Two of NC's best country rockers team up for one beautiful disc

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For most, a duet is the harmonic melding of male and female vocals, but for Thad Cockrell and Caitlin Cary, the partnership extends to the songwriting as well. Their new ten-song album, Begonias, revels in the pair's wonderful, intertwining vocal lines and canny, crisp writing that pokes at the corpses of dying relationships.

Cockrell and Cary both are talented writers and, at times, great collaborators. Cockrell liked to work early in his career with Roman Candle, the supremely talented Chapel Hill country-rock act whose drummer, Logan Matheny, helps out on Begonias. Cary, of course, was the honey-throated fiddle playing foil to Ryan Adams in Whiskeytown. Her style differs a bit from Cockrell's, but the two find common ground in their penchant for blazing honesty.

From the sad but clear-eyed parting of "Two Different Things," which acknowledges the distance between "what we wanted and what we had," to the stark wasted hope of "Something Less Than Something More," the songs resonate with hard-won truths. They're familiar stories about familiar characters — like the guy who chases a flighty girl across the country in "Conversations About a Friend (Who's In Love with Katie)" — but they're told with a straightforward grace that highlights the universality, not the banality.

"One of the things I love about working with Thad is that all (my) compulsion to be literary gets thrown out the window, because he writes such great, straightforward country songs in plain language," says Cary.

The two met when Cary was waitressing at the Humble Pie in Raleigh. Cockrell handed her a tape one day and asked her to give it a listen. Cary's expectations weren't high, she says, "but I did listen to it, and I was impressed right away."

The two became friends, talking about music and writing together on Sunday afternoons in Cary's backyard. "I had been writing with other people for quite some time, but he was pretty new at it," she says.

Those initial sessions produced a couple of songs that Cary would include on her solo albums — "Thick Walls Down," from her 2002 album While You Weren't Looking, and "Please Break My Heart," from 2003's I'm Staying Out — but it would be several years before they found the time to collaborate on a full album of their own.

"Everything cleared out and the time was right," Cockrell says from his new home in Nashville. "It's like you keep thinking something is going to happen and the time is just not right, and when it finally is, you know it, and that's what happened with this."

When Cary, who had been touring in support of the debut album by her group Tres Chicas, found she shared a six-week gap with Cockrell, the two met in Nashville and began recording. They assembled a group of seasoned session musicians as well as 24-year-old drummer Logan Matheny, who once roomed with Cockrell. The vets brought professionalism to the sessions and Matheny brought a huge dose of creative energy, including using a Moog synthesizer and other offbeat ideas about song arrangements. He joins the duo on tour, and Cary says she sees big things for him.

"That kid is a force. If he's not a famous producer by the time he's 30, I'll be surprised," she says. "He's got wonderful ideas and is fun to work with."

For his part, Matheny found the sessions with seasoned Nashville musicians to be eye-opening, if a bit nerve-wracking.

"We'd be sitting there and I'd be studying the song, because I'm like, 'I don't want to be the guy that misses the chorus,'" Matheny says with a laugh. "And they're not even listening, they're talking amongst themselves. And I'm thinking, 'They're going to miss the chorus.' But in reality, we go to do the take and I miss the chorus. Everybody stops and I'm still banging away."

Cockrell, who attended Southeastern Baptist Seminary at Wake Forest before settling in the Triangle in the mid-90s, moved to Nashville this past year. He's already been wowed by the quality and attitude of the musicians in town.

"There's just a lot more musicians here, and it's crazy how supportive everybody is," he says. "The support that comes from the average musician here and the people you run into in small towns — there's really no comparison. Plus, the people here have sold millions of records... I just wanted to move, it's a real cool city. I'd been looking for a change in my environment for like two years."

Of course, with a new album to support and tours planned for the States as well as overseas, it will be a while before either Cary or Cockrell see their homes. And when they do, it'll be back to work immediately. Cockrell has a whole bunch of new songs and plans to start recording his third solo album. Cary and her Tres Chicas mates just finished their follow-up to last year's Sweetwater in England, with a bunch of Nick Lowe alums — producer Neil Brockbank, drummer Bobby Irwin and keyboardist Geraint Watkins. Cockrell's heard an early mix and calls it "un-freaking-believable. It's really, really beautiful."

If it's as beautiful as Begonias, it's a mighty pretty thing.

Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell perform at the Visulite Theatre at 9pm Thursday. Tickets are $8.

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