Caleb Caudle wanted an earthy, funky sound for his new album. He assembled several Grammy-winning musicians to chase it down in the Cash Cabin, a small place with a big history. “It feels like you’re in the shadow of giants,” Caudle says.
He emerged from the shadows with Better Hurry Up, his eighth studio album. Its 11 songs showcase Caudle’s vivid lyrics and foreboding vocals, as well as the work of an A-list cast of musicians. John Jackson of the Jayhawks produced, and guest vocalists include Courtney Marie Andrews, Elizabeth Cook, Gary Louris, and John Paul White.
A large sound emerged from the little cabin, which Johnny Cash built in 1979 as a private sanctuary near his home outside Nashville. It evolved into a recording studio more than a decade later. Since then the rustic structure has hosted sessions by everyone from Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris to Jamey Johnson and Todd Snider, as well as Cash’s own work on his acclaimed series of American Recordings. Caudle and Jackson used the space to create a dramatic, compelling record.
We caught up with Caudle a few weeks back and talked about recording in such an iconic venue, how the band came together, and some unintentional irony in song titles.
I thought Crushed Coins was one of the great albums of 2018. There’s stark contrast between it and Better Hurry Up. Could you describe your thought process or approach …maybe your goals for a new/different sound as you set out to make this album?
I think the main difference was that this time I wanted to do as much live as I could: sing it live, play it live. Because that’s what I do every night. The approach was so raw that if you don’t like this record, you probably don’t like what I do every night. I came to terms with that and was fine with it, so…yeah. We just did it live. It felt good.
John Jackson of the Jayhawks produced the album, and his bandmate Gary Louris is one of several outstanding artists singing harmony vocals. What’s the connection with Jackson, and was your choosing him to produce based on his penchant for a particular sound?
He came to see me at a show in New York. He came up to the merch table afterwards and introduced himself, saying he had played with the Jayhawks. I had always loved the Jayhawks, so that was really cool. And we got to be friends, sharing music back and forth whether it was mine or whatever each of us was listening to at the time.
At some point he said, “Hey, would you mind sending me some demos, because I know you’re always writing?” So I just started sending him song after song, and we’d talk about each one: what he thought of it, what should be the focus of a particular song. One thing led to another and I was back in New York and at dinner he asked if he could produce the record. It just felt right; I liked his vibe and how he was really in tune with the songwriting. We pitched around some different studios, and he mentioned that he had worked at Cash’s Cabin – I think on a Loretta Lynn album. He suggested that, and I thought it felt perfect.
Y’all made liberal use of keyboards and pedal steel, which gives the whole album an ethereal, spacy feel. Was that something you set out to do ahead of time, or was it more of an organic thing during the arrangement process?
It was pretty spontaneous. Because what we did this time was hire all these people that I really trusted. I wasn’t given a ton of direction. Because you’re not gonna tell, for example, Mickey Raphael [harmonica] what to do; because he’s just gonna do his thing and be himself, and that’s what you’re looking for in the first place. Know what I mean? Because he’s gonna give it back to you better than you could ever ask for it.
Everything was just organic. I just told people to be themselves and do what they thought was right. They were all such high-caliber musicians that it all fell together really nicely.
Who put the band together for recording?
John and I had equal say when it came to the band. I had met Dennis Crouch [bass] – we had done a few demos together a few months before recording. And he just knows everyone in Nashville; he put me in touch with Fred Eltringham [drums] and Russ Pahl, who plays pedal steel. John knew Pat Sansone [keyboards] from Wilco and brought him in. And all the singers who were on the record, I had toured with the previous year. You know how it goes in this business; you meet everybody if you tour long enough.
It just came together naturally, and the record was really an easy one to make. By far the easiest record I’ve ever made.
Speaking of harmony vocals, one could do worse than Elizabeth Cook…
[Laughs] Yeah, she’s the best!
She makes three appearances I believe. Had y’all worked together before, and how likely are future collaborations?
She had taken me out on tour a couple times last year, so we were on stage singing together a lot. So, yeah, it came together really easily. She lives around the corner from us here in Nashville. She was great, of course.
There’s a line in “Feeling Free:” “It’s true I really ever only wanted to be a slave to things that’ll set me free.” Is that an allusion to anything particular?
Probably the road, you know? Touring. I’m really feeling it right now, you know, because of all the shows getting swiped. I’m so used to being on the road. Being on tour is second nature for me. Most of that song, though, is about being outdoors and trying to get away from it all. But I feel like I’m always on the chase; always trying to get to the next situation.
The first cut on the album is called “Better Hurry Up.” The next-to-last song is “Wait a Minute,” with a line in the chorus that says, “We get there when we get there.” Mixed messages? Irony? Tongue in cheek?
Ha! I didn’t even really know I did that until we were mixing the record. I said, “Oh, I wrote one called ‘Wait a Minute’ and one called ‘Better Hurry Up. I wonder if patience had anything to do with that?” It wasn’t really intentional, but it is kind of funny. Our whole routine on tour is a bunch of hurry up and wait. You just have to figure out when to take your shots, I guess.
The official release date for Better Hurry Up was April 3, not long after this virus changed everyone’s life. Obviously, tours are off the table indefinitely; what are some of the things you’re doing to adapt? And is there any reason for optimism going forward, in your view?
Aw, man. There’s always a reason for optimism, you know? If I lost hope, this would all be for nothing. I can’t go there; I don’t want to do that.
I’ve been going on long walks each day that the weather allows. There’s a nice park not far from our house…I’ve been doing some guitar work, learning some old traditional stuff. I’m just trying to learn. And I’ve been writing a bunch, too. Working on some clawhammer banjo here and there. Cooking. Eating a lot. [Laughs]
A lot of artists are streaming shows; have you dipped your toe in that at all?
Yeah, I did one for NPR last week and I did one for Wide Open Country yesterday. I’m trying not to do more than one a week. I just feel like everyone is going live all the time.And it’s how everyone’s getting by, so I totally get it. I just don’t want to take up too much space, so about once a week is all I’ll do.
What led you to record at the Cash Cabin? Is that a bucket-list thing for Nashville artists?
It was amazing. I got to sit in Johnny’s rocking chair while playing his guitar. The guys all gathered around me in a semi-circle with their pens and paper. I’d play them a song and they’d take their notes and we’d go in and run it once. Then we’d hit “record” on the second one and that’s usually the take we did.
Wow. What an experience.
Yeah. I knew we were going to Cash Cabin but had no idea I was going to get to do that. They handed me his guitar on the first day and I was blown away by that. It was a pre-War Martin for one thing; whether it belonged to someone famous or not, it’s an incredible guitar. But when it belonged to such a character as Johnny…and sitting in his rocking chair where he’d carved his initials in the right arm? Yeah, it was pretty special.
They say Gram Parsons was the Godfather of alt country, and I believe them. Evidence abounds. If that’s the case, Steve Earle was the Michael to Parsons’ Vito. I don’t know – though I doubt it – that they ever met. If they had, I’m sure Steve would have told us. Funny thing: Neither knew they were part of a musical movement. At least Steve didn’t in 1986, when Guitar Town came out, and I was a sophomore in college and about to ship out for Army basic training. (I have Auburn University’s WEGL to thank for even knowing who he was at the time.)
It was a record that transformed my musical life. Suddenly it was okay -- cool, even -- for a kid raised on rock ‘n’ roll to dig country music. He was part of the “new traditionalist” movement that included Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam. But there was something extra-edgy about this guy. A few years later I’d learn to play guitar, inspired by the songs on Guitar Town and Exit 0. I’d write to him in prison, after I’d wondered, pre-Internet, where the hell he’d gone.
There was always a populist, working-class ethos to his music. But it stayed mostly below the surface, never predominating his work. Well, for a while, anyway. His dad was an air traffic controller who got bounced when Ronaldus Maximus fired him and the rest of his brethren in the PATCO strike of 1981. I don’t think Steve ever got over that. Politics sprinkled his musical world for a while, but eventually covered it. Early on, he was clever and nuanced about it; later, he decided you needed to be punched in the mouth with his Che Guevara chic. Steve Earle, you see, was “woke” before “woke” was a thing…you little savage capitalists.
He had his (then) pet projects. Death penalty bad! Land mines bad! I guess we can let Steve in on the bad news – not that he doesn’t know.
Quadruple murderers can still get the needle.
American soldiers in the Second Infantry Division just south of the 38th Parallel in Free Korea can still count on defensive land mines to help stave off Kim Jong Un’s communist hordes, at least until the cavalry can arrive.
Western Civilization can be thankful that Steve Earle failed in his woke crusades to abolish the death penalty and land mines.
We’re here to break down the albums of Steve Earle. Well, the ones of his pre-WOKE era, anyway. And by “pre-woke,” we mean every album up to the point he became so overcome with hatred for America that he felt compelled to write an ode to the American Taliban, John Walker Lindh. Nah. We stop just before the album Jerusalem.
Oh, wait. I’m getting angry and political, aren’t I? Sort of like you and all your records after 9/11? Mike Spann’s buried in Arlington. Think you’ll ever write a song about him? Here’s a picture.
Sorry. Let’s look at the Steve Earle albums before he got so angry and political, shall we?
Okay, let’s break them down…
One more thing, sorry. Hey, Steve: I’m sure your reaching out to Trump voters has nothing to do with making money for your stupid effing play that trashes the coal industry that employs millions of people, right? Because that would make you a capitalist…and a hypocrite.
Okay, I promise. I’m done.
We’ll look at them in chronological order, highlighting the great songs, then do a rating, which will be purely subjective. Sound good? Okay.
The pre-prison albums
Guitar Town, 1986
The one that started it all. The title cut is so good and attention-grabbing. It was just SO different for the time. Kathy Mattea and Randy Travis and Michael Martin Murphy were pulling country back to its roots, but there was an anti-hero vibe from this guy who’d learned his chops from Guy Clark and Townes. This sad song is the one that hooked me. “Lovers leave and friends will let you down.” I think he might have been singing about heroin.
Exit 0, 1987
The perfect follow-up record. If you go through the whole (pre-woke) Steve Earle catalog, I challenge you to find two back-to-back albums that pair together more seamlessly. “The keeper at the gate is blind, so you better be prepared to pay.” So much unintentional foreshadowing. “The Rain Came Down” was his answer to Mellencamp’s “Scarecrow,” and it was better. “Six Days on the Road” made it onto the Planes, Trains and Automobiles soundtrack. “Someday” is a teenage wonder-hit.
Copperhead Road, 1988
At this point, Steve and MCA knew they were headed for a breakup, even as he had his first – and only – crossover hit. He didn’t LOOK like a country singer was supposed to, and he was basically telling Nashville to pound sand. So very many great songs… “Snake Oil” is his song of rage against Reagan, and well done. Maria Mckee of Lone Justice sings with him on the most unlikely Christmas song, “Nothing But a Child.” My favorite? The WW II ode, “Johnny Come Lately,” with the help of The Pogues.
The Hard Way, 1990
Things are really starting to fall apart for him now, though no one really knew – again, pre-Internet. Crack and heroin are in control of Steve’s life right now. There are two or three decent songs on this one. “Billy Austin” is the best, but it’s a bedwetting, anti-death penalty, pro-murderer ballad. We’re posting the other good one:
Shut Up And Die Like An Aviator (Live), 1991
If we’re to believe the storyline of “Johnny Come Lately,” we have to believe the title of this album is from a saying of Steve’s granddaddy. He’s pretty out of his gourd during this one. But this cover got me interested in the Stones’ (Keith’s, really) country fixation.
A truly unplugged album, and a new beginning. It features a Beatles cover (“I’m Lookin’ Through You”), and his first recorded cover with Emmylou, “Nothin’ Without You.” We also got a taste for Steve’s appreciation for history with a couple cuts. “Tom Ames’ Prayer” is an outlaw ballad that makes mention of Arkansas Judge “Hanging” Isaac Parker. But what’s really chilling is his point-of-view tale of a Confederate soldier:
I Feel Alright, 1996
The post-prison triumph and return to form, and maybe the best pre-woke album. “The Unrepentant” is a straight rocker. “Hardcore Troubadour” is the most Steve Earle song ever, and a duet with Lucinda Williams is the unheralded gem of a great record.
El Corazon, 1997
Notable for several collaborations, and Steve’s first foray into bluegrass. Del McCoury and his band (FORESHADOWING ALERT) post up on “I Still Carry You Around.” The Fairfield Four accompany him on “Telephone Road.” Emmy makes a return on the historiography “Taneytown,” another great point-of-view song. “You’d think that they’d never seen a colored boy before.” What a line in a great murder ballad.
This next one’s so good it deserves its own
Separate Heading. Though Still Chronological, The Bluegrass Record:
The Mountain(With The Del McCoury Band), 1999
The thing about bluegrass is, you don’t just dabble in bluegrass. Yet Steve wrote a really good record in the genre. It didn’t hurt that he got a really good band to back him. Steve, being Steve, managed to offend Del not long after by using a bunch of foul language at the bluegrass festivals they played together. Still, what a bunch of keepers on this record. “Carrie Brown” was his vision of an enduring bluegrass hit. It should be.
But just to bookend things, I like the Civil War song, this time from a Yankee’s point of view. Based, incidentally, on a composite character in the Michael Shaara novel The Killer Angels.
“I am Kilrain from the 20th Maine and I fight for Chamberlain. ‘Cause he stood right with us when the Johnnies came like a banshee on the wind.”
There will never be a better couplet written about July 2, 1863. Makes this Johnny weep. It’s that good.
“…now we’re all Americans.”
Transcendental Blues, 2000
As we wrap up our tour of the pre-woke catalog, we see a transition into what might have been: that old/new Steve Earle sound without virtue-signaling pretense. There are a handful of really good songs here. The title cut is great. “Everyone’s In Love With You” is an electric rocking/stalking tune in the tradition of “More Than I Can Do” from I Feel Alright. “The Galway Girl” is a return to a Gaelic thing we’d heard hints of on a bunch of records. “All Of My Life” is a real keeper. Sucks he had to get all preachy after this record.
If you were to sit down with Will Kimbrough’s new album & simply glance over the track listing, you could surmise that this is a record of place. Titles like, “I Like It Down Here,” “Alabama (For Michael Donald),” and “When I Get to Memphis” make it abundantly clear that this album is going to be dealing in mostly southern matters.
The ever-consummate sideman, Kimbrough’s years of music with artists such as Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris, and Todd Snider are probably impossible not to mention. He’s done solo work, been in groups, written songs for others, produced albums for others, and more. But on I Like It Down Here, we find Kimbrough returning to a very natural version of himself and to a very familiar place, both geographically and emotionally.
The American south is full of things we all love—good music, good food, and good people. This beautiful trifecta is also riddled with bullets of extreme racism, crooked politics, and bad people. Unsurprisingly, Kimbrough’s album echoes these ideas throughout. The lead-off track, “Hey Trouble” is a minor groove about a man lost and, invariably, in trouble. With trouble as his companion throughout the journey, Kimbrough speaks in vaguely heartbroken blues lyrics about the lonesomeness and longing that accompanies a woman gone. If I wanted to wax poetic (or political), I’d tell you that the woman is a metaphor for hope—and that the man left behind is our country, having to deal with the hostile climate we find ourselves in today.
The most interesting lyrical content is delivered in the title track—a greasy creeper about a couple of trashy characters who, unmistakably enjoy their lives in the south. Rife with imagery and language that could be foreign to someone not from down there, the song and message sit in stark contrast to the following track, “Alabama (For Michael Donald)’—a gruesome recounting of the 1981 lynching of a young black man in Mobile, Alabama. These two songs not only define the album, but also the double-edged sword that many from the south have to lay down upon when speaking about where they’re from.
The rest of the album bounces around quite a bit, but has something for most tastes. “I’m Not Running Away” is a jangly pop anthem about getting away from it all; “Salt Water & Sand” is a lilting ode to the gulf shores, and “Anything Helps” is a mid-tempo jaunt about homelessness.
Lyrically, the album has some bright spots of quirkiness (“I Like It Down Here,” “It’s A Sin”) but is mostly comprised of classic blues-based phrasing and generality—in my opinion, on purpose. Musically, Kimbrough is s fantastic producer and played a myriad of instruments on the album. The songs, though many may be sparse instrumentally, are tightly arranged and well-executed. There’s no over-playing, just tasty riffs and licks—which brings me back to southern food.
This is an easy afternoon record. If you’ve got nothing to do, put it on and shuck some oysters, stew over a pot of dark gumbo, or crack a beer next to the barbecue pit and you too can ponder where you’re from and what that might mean to you.
I Like it Down Here is available now on Amazon, iTunes, and pretty much everywhere you like to consume music.
Some would imagine that the quaint, earnest folk music scene would not be as likely to contain divas and d-bags as the more mainstream genres of music. They'd be wrong. Here are some of the genre's most egregious offenders.
10. Joni Mitchell
Has said Counting Crows cover of "Big Yellow Taxi" is far better than her original.
Before retiring from touring, only played Rascal Flatts songs over the monitors before shows.
Refuses to play "Take Me to Church" in concert.
Blocks anyone who complains about it on social media.
8. Tracy Chapman
Refuses to play "Fast Car" in concert.
Only plays "Give Me One Reason" 'in the style of Post Malone.'
7. Bon Iver
Won't apologize for being the godfather of modern hipsterism.
Drives a jacked up Hummer with a Salt Life sticker on the back.
6. Wesley Schultz (The Lumineers)
Constantly rails on millennials despite being one.
Uber driver on the side; car smells like sweaty leather.
Makes fake business cards with different names but his phone number to drop in those "win free lunch" fishbowls.
5. Skyler Skjelset (Fleet Foxes)
Writes shitty pop-country under the pen name Chris DeStefano.
Listens to hick-hop albums loudly on the tour bus.
Slaps people with a fencing glove if they misspell his last name.
4. Damien Rice
Speaks in an unintelligibly thick Irish accent at meet and greets so fans will move along quickly.
Next album will be entirely dirge-style Neil Diamond covers.
Tour rider calls for only "mass-produced light American lagers" to piss off his band.
3. Emmylou Harris
Thought Gram Parsons was a "pretentious dickhead hack" but he paid well.
At shows, she has any fans wearing tennis shoes violently removed and humiliated.
2. Scott Avett (The Avett Brothers)
Wears sweat pants to strip clubs.
Drives with his brights on in fog.
Lays five dollars on the table at restaurants and takes one away for every slight error the server makes.
Leaves his spit cup in the cup-holder at the movie theater.
If Dallas, or other bro-ish songwriters had penned these great Americana tunes...
Turtles All the Way Down
Every time I'm crankin' up my new green Raptor pickup truck
I'm chillin' like a villain cause I'm chromed out and so sweet and so fly
Grappler Nittos, LED, silver gearshift, and HIDs they all changed the game for me
But girl, the only thing I want's your ass tonight
Two More Bottles of Wine
Two guns on my back, tattoos lookin' fine
Haters on Twitter saying I'm out of line
But it's all right 'cause I'm so tight
And I got two more bottles of shine
Cover Me Up
So girl leave your Dukes by the bed/I'm bout to drop tha boom
Till there's an illegitimate child growing there in your womb
The Road Goes on Forever
Down farm road after midnight with some Jeremiah Weed
Drivin' drunk with a big ol' dip and Axe sprayed all over me
She's wearing those old Levis that show off suntanned skin
The bro goes on forever and the party never ends
Pancho & Lefty
Driving gravel roads my bro
Is gonna get your truck in dirt
While you wear your barbed wire tatt
And way too tight Ed Hardy shirt
You weren't your high school's smartest boy
But the most badass one it seems
You give every guy the mad-dog eyes
Never turn off your high beams
Pancho was a country boy
His Ford had flames and polished chrome
Wore his ripped-up studded jeans
To make the hotties sigh and moan
Pancho saw a bae so hot
Down at the Sonic parking lot
He stepped to her and spit some game
Took a Fireball shot