In early 2019, Caleb Caudle arrived in Nashville with his wife/manager to settle into a new home and a new chapter in Music City, but it was as if he’d already been here for years. The singer/songwriter didn’t have to set out on a five to ten year plan to build a support community and artistic respect. Instead, he celebrated his arrival by nipping off to the Cash Cabin, one of Nashville’s most storied and exclusive recording sanctuaries, to cut an album with the help of some elite musicians.
Make no mistake, Caudle put in the work and the sacrifice, about which more in a moment. He’d done so from a base in Winston Salem, NC, a city whose musical story is oft identified with Southern pop maestro Mitch Easter. After releasing his opus Tobacco Town and quitting normal jobs for the road life in 2012, Caudle had been through Nashville so often he became a virtual citizen. The intervening years have seen him tour the country, move to and from New Orleans, get in trouble and get sober, get married and release a string of records that build in an unforced way on the legacies of Leon Russell, J.J. Cale and Levon Helm.
Caudle’s songs are tartly truthful, exploratory in their language and calmly grooving. And while some of his professional momentum is being interrupted by the coronavirus at the moment, that Cash Cabin album, the soul-satisfying Better Hurry Up is being released today to great acclaim. He’ll be on the road again one day, and he’ll have a fresh new batch of songs about self-determination, the things we aspire to and the things we must rail against. The artist’s backstory and the new project are at the heart of the conversation in this week’s episode of The String.
Caudle grew up in Germanton, NC, about 25 miles north of Winston Salem, learning about music and staving off boredom. “You know, just like all the things that loners do. You go skateboarding. You go hike by yourself and you write songs in the woods,” he says, “I know that the small town just felt too small. And my head was always like, ‘Man where are The Clash from? What’s their neighborhood like?’ I just felt like there was a lot more out there. I mean I love my home, but I always have that wanderlust.”
One might at this point evoke the old adage about being careful what one asks for. Getting established required a mind-boggling commitment to playing wherever, whenever, however many miles apart. “For five years I really just drove alone in my SUV. And man, it’s so lonely to tour for yourself for that long,” Caudle says, “Sometimes you’re showing up in a town and you literally don’t know anyone because the guy you booked the show with isn’t at the venue. So, you’re super insecure. You’ve just left your job. I just remember those being some really big lessons, where it was like ‘You’ve got to prove yourself right on this. You can’t let anything shake you too hard. You’ve got to do it.’”
The other thing that had to be done was to release increasingly impressive music. Carolina Ghost of 2016, Caudle’s first album after moving back to North Carolina from New Orleans and getting sober, broke through to national media attention. Crushed Coins two years later added some new textural layers to a sturdy country rock foundation. Today’s release, Better Hurry Up, may be one day seen as the finale of a triptych of albums that have laid out Caudle’s story, manner and vibe to a lifetime of devotees.
It opens with the title track, a kind of revivalist stomp on behalf of a seize-the-day mindset and forward motion toward a personal promised land. “It seems out of reach but if you get to moving it ain’t far,” Caudle sings, with the assistance of Americana stars Elizabeth Cook and John Paul White. Other musicians of note here include Dennis Crouch, arguably Nashville’s most in-demand bass player, plus steel player Russ Pahl and the guest harmonica of Willie Nelson’s band member Mickey Raphael. The Cash Cabin sessions evoke the natural performance feel that space invites. John Jackson of The Jayhawks produced.
“Call It A Day” is a slinky minor keyed blues that argues for picking one’s battles. “The Dirty Curtain” drags the venal and corrupt out into the daylight as best as one can, set to a smoldering stride, with vibraphone playing the part of the light at the end of the tunnel. “Let’s Get” is the album’s brightest hand clapper. There’s a head-bobbing Steve Earle Copperhead Road vibe to “Monte Carlo,” a story that spins true memories of Caleb’s grandfather’s car into a fantastical little portrait of a hillbilly gamblin’ man.
Only in his early 30s, Caudle has earned the right to dispense the wisdom of an old soul, which he does throughout and especially well in the finale “Bigger Oceans.” When the coronavirus touring moratorium is over, it will be cathartic to see Caudle get back on that quest.