There are several ways to take the measure of a music career as it advances and grows. From the artists' point of view few things matter more than the hard-won amenities of the road. A few years ago, Caroline Spence released the true-story song "Hotel Amarillo" in which she's traveling solo, doing 500 miles in a day, eking out enough scratch to end a tough day with a room and a bottle of wine.
She sings a music biz double entendre: "I've been playing shows out west with no guarantee/ That anybody's ever gonna give a damn about me."
Well now it's 2019. Folks do indeed care about the music of Caroline Spence, and the surroundings are better. Rounder Records, a historic roots label, is behind her. And on her Rounder debut Mint Condition, released in early May, the song "Long Haul" is a more resolute and forward looking take on the endless tour. Asked about it in a recent interview for The String, Spence said this:
"One night I was playing 'Hotel Amarillo' and thinking: 'I rolled up in a nice van and I didn't have to drive today. And my band helped me carry things. Things are good!' I'm moving slowly away from Hotel Amarillo. But also, I love playing live. I absolutely love it. I love touring and being reminded that there are people who listen to music outside of Nashville that just love it and want to be inside it and are excited to hear music. That has been the greatest gift."
It was not clear upon moving to Nashville from Ohio eight years ago that Spence would be a touring recording artist. She was an avid songwriter but her notion was more about being a behind-the-scenes professional. Yet her heroes included Mary Chapin Carpenter, Julie Miller, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. So eventually, through a network of East Nashville artist relationships and accumulating chances to play, the stage won out.
"I think it's helped me keep my priorities straight," she said of that reluctance. "The creative side and the writing side of what I do feels so innate to who I am that it doesn't matter what else is going on. That side of me is always going to be there. Whereas the artist side, if someone thought I was cool enough or pretty enough to be an artist, I wouldn't even let myself have those conversations. I was like I'm not going to worry all the other things that go into being an artist. My artistry is my songs. I have control over that."
The album Mint Condition steps up the tempo and energy from Spence's prior albums. It opens with a punching drum beat and an electric guitar riff that sounds like college radio in the 80s and then goes in a lot of directions sonically. The songs, true to form, are about the relationships she's had, known or imagined. The title track, falling last in this case, is more character driven than her norm, getting in the heads of older people reflecting on a life-long love.
Hear the full conversation and samples of the album on the String.