Each generation has its own lot of honest, sincere singer-songwriters. Most work in coffeehouses, and tour not for money, but for the opportunity to bring an audience to their knees with tales of heartache, loss and sometimes, personal triumph. They are not famous for stunts or for flashing body parts. They let their songs do their talking. Every so often, one breaks through to a national audience, and is recognized through record sales and better places to play. That is how I came across Caroline Herring. I was mystified with her “Song For Fay”, and have been a big supporter since then. Her new album, “Golden Apples of the Sun”, has rightfully garnered rave reviews, and is a testament to intelligent songwriting and the sweetest, aching voice this side of a young Dolly Parton with a dash of Patty Griffin.
II. For the sake of our readers, tell them a little about the early Caroline Herring.
CH. I grew up in Canton, MS. I lived in the same house throughout my childhood. My dad was a lawyer, and my mother was a librarian. I didn’t leave Mississippi until I was 29 because I went to school at Ole Miss as an undergrad and also for graduate school. Then I taught high school.
II. You taught high school?
CH. I did. Right out of college, I taught for four years.
II. How was that?
CH. I had three different first year experiences, so it was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. That was what prematurely ended my teaching career. It was good, I learned a lot. I hope the kids did.
II. Do you have siblings?
CH. I have a brother and a sister.
II. Did your mother being a librarian affect you?
CH. She didn’t really push us to do anything, but she did encourage. We got prizes for reading certain books. If we got ten points for reading books, we could different things, including records. That’s how I heard Joni Mitchell the first time, and REM. We always loved going to the library and our parents had a lot of books a home. So it was a really natural thing to read a lot.
II. Were your parents big music fans?
CH. Yes, they were. They didn’t go to a lot of concerts, but they both loved music.
II. Do either of them play instruments or sing?
CH. My dad plays guitar and sings in the choir, and my mom plays piano.
II. In the South, I think everybody sings in the choir.
CH. From seventh grade on, I was in the adult choir.
II. Do you remember your first times singing outside of the church?
CH. At camp, and at college. In my twenties, my friends and I would do house concerts, do some covers. I played at a couple of coffee shops. I joined my first band in Oxford, the Sincere Ramblers. We were a bluegrass band.
II. Is that all you did in your early career?
CH. Our band, the Sincere Ramblers, started a live audience radio show in Oxford, called the Thacker Mountain Rodeo Show, which is still going on now. We were the house band for two years. That helped us gain an audience and also a place to play our live show and also introduced us to a lot of different writers and musicians.
II. Did that get you signed to your label deal with Signature Sounds?
CH. No, they didn’t come along until almost ten years later. I was playing with the Ramblers and doing the radio show, then decided to move to Austin, TX. It was presumably for graduate school in American Studies. But that didn’t last very long once I got there.
II. Did you like Austin?
CH. It’s a fantastic town. I loved living there.
II. A lot of people say that about Oxford.
CH. That is true. But Austin is …different. It got me out of my comfort zone.
II. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about the South. A lot of that centers around the belief that there aren’t any people with intelligence or cultural curiosity. But I’ve found pockets in each town that are full of culture and tolerance.
II. It is funny, I played a show recently and a woman from MS came up to me and said “You represent Mississippi so well, because it has the best and the worst”. I thought that was interesting, because we all know the history of the Deep South. So some of the criticism is justified. But it also oozes with great writing and art. All of the great American musical traditions come from the South, in addition to the best writers. It’s always been something that inspires me. I just wrote a song about Walter Anderson, a Mississippi artist, called “Tales of the Islander”. We just finished the video.
II. I see that David Byrne directed it.
CH. Not that David Byrne. But this David Byrne is better. He works for Turner South Classics.
II. My favorite song of yours is “Song For Fay”, from the Larry Brown tribute album.
CH. Thank you.
II. When the tribute album came out, we sold most of it on the strength of your song and the Cary Hudson song.
CH. I just did a show with Cary Hudson a couple of weeks ago.
II. How did you get involved with the Larry Brown album?
CH. I was called. I was told that when he died, he had a stack of CD’s by his computer, and that my CD “Twilight” was in that stack. He was always very encouraging of me, and I knew him when I lived in Oxford. In fact, for one of our Christmas shows on Thacker Mountain Radio, he wrote a Christmas story. It’s called “Beam Me Up, Scotty”, and it’s about a guy in a bar on Christmas Eve, and it is snowing and there were no rooms at any of the hotels. So they pitched a tent for him outside the hotel and ran electrical cords so that he could watch cable. They also strung up Christmas lights on it for him. It was a wonderful story, and also funny, because it never snows in Oxford, MS. But that Christmas Eve, it did snow. Anyway, I was asked to be on the album, and I knew I had to write something for it because he had written something for the show. I decided to focus on one of the female characters. I wrote it when I was in Holland while I was touring there. I also wrote it in Harlem in my hotel room, I stayed up all night.
II. Have you read all of his books?
CH. I haven’t. He is definitely a man’s man writer. But I do my best. But I have read some of them.
II. Did you read “Joe”?
CH. I did. That’s how I knew about “Fay”.
II. I want to go back to Walter Anderson for a bit. How did you come across him, and what do you think people should know about him?
CH. I’ve known about him since I was born. He went through all of these different periods. At one point, he pumped out thousands of one-block paintings. He did things for children’s rooms. He wanted children to have beautiful art in their rooms. He always was looking out for people who couldn’t afford expensive art. There were some fairy tales, etc. I have them in my children’s rooms. I have always been taken with him. I have followed him in stages throughout my life. His time at Horn Island and the murals he painted there in the little cottage fascinate me.
II. You covered Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”. Why that song?
CH. My producer suggested it. I thought, “No Way”! He suggested a different song of hers at first, but went with that song after spending time with the lyrics and came up with a melody.
II. Are you a Cyndi Lauper fan?
CH. Sure. She sings great songs and is amazing artist. She is a true original.
II. We mentioned the South’s contribution to the arts. Could you give examples of some of your favorite Southern artists? Let’s start with authors or even a book.
CH. I’m reading a lot of Eudora Welty. I love her book, “The Optimist’s Daughter”. She is so funny on the surface, yet so incredibly insightful about the Deep South. I also love “The Worn Path”. I have been doing these “Celebrating Eudora” shows with Kate Campbell and Claire Holley and Mary Chapin Carpenter. We did it in Jackson, MS for the hundredth centennial. We also did one in Atlanta for a book festival and we’re doing one in Savannah for their book festival.
II. How about a movie?
CH. “Crimes of the Heart”. My mom grew in Havenhurst, and the author grew up on the same street. I love “Tender Mercies”.
II. How about a CD?
CH. It’s more Texan than Southern, Willis Alan Ramsey, I love the album he made about his maid. So many Texans, Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett included, based their careers on what he did. It’s nothing fancy, but it embodies that place.
II. If someone is looking for a great Southern artist, I would suggest that they pick up a Caroline Herring CD.
CH. I appreciate that. I just try to be myself and not put on any airs.
II. Are you going on the road to promote your new album?
CH. I am on and off the road. I have two young children, so I can’t be out for long periods. I do a lot of weekends. I have more Eudora shows coming up and some co-bills with Cary Hudson. We’re going to Europe next year, that’s a fun market to be a part of.