As a musical descriptor, “Americana” has lost its meaning, its context, slowly bastardized by the easy metamorphosis of a sound into something bigger, like a mouse birthing all other mammals over time.
The same is true of the descriptor “roots”, which is a catchall for anything predisposed towards a folky sound with tones inspired by the more-distant past. Without context, they are nearly meaningless terms. These genres were giving their proper context in a powerful show by Caitlin Canty at Jammin’ Java on Friday.
Caitlin’s music embodies roots-influenced Americana in the truest sense. From the gentler slope of her first album, Golden Hour, to the meatier blues-tinted tunes of Reckless Skyline, she sings songs of traveling that evoke the wide-open expanses and kitchen-window-small settings of our big little country.
Stream Reckless Skyline by Caitlin Canty on Spotify:
Timeless, but relevant. I find myself staring at the sky as I walk the waterline to “River Alone.” I count the cracks webbing the drywall in the corner of my time-rattled office to “True.” And I see the imagined stories of passersby to “Who” and “Basil Gone to Blossom.” Caitlin created a rarely-observed dichotomy of the macrocosm and microcosm within her songs, something that encapsulates the country but still renders sharply the smallest shadows of our golden hours. Every proclamation of feeling was indirect — the absence of that directly stated emotion was instead observed tangentially, felt in the songs’ tones, the images she conjures.
From the very first moment I met Caitlin’s most recent record, Motel Bouquet, I felt the journey of it, which is not necessarily uniquely American, but roads spider like veins under these songs — and where else do roads define a place as readily as this country? I heard the name and I remembered a story I lived years ago as I traveled the highways, imagining my own past on a silver screen; we settled in Memphis a few days, blocks from Beale Street, ceiling dripping and electricity broken in the deadest heat of summer. Outside our window, through the bars, in the buzzing hum of the late-night night-life, an undying rose rested in a bottle emptied of whiskey, behind a fence, in an unplugged refrigerator. There is meaning in these songs, lived-in.
Stream Motel Bouquet by Caitlin Canty on Spotify:
The new album has a bouquet of cut flowers in a makeshift vase of a water bottle nested in a red Solo cup. Caitlin took the photo on a tour with the band Darlingside, carrying the gift of flowers throughout the tour, a symbol of life on the road. She recorded it in Nashville (her new home) with Noam Pikelny (of Punch Brothers fame) and a host of stellar musicians — Paul Kowert, Jerry Roe, Stuart Duncan, Aoife O’Donovan, and Gabe Witcher. It is, in its way, a little more country and a little less northeastern, perhaps by nothing more than proximity. They tracked it mostly live, giving the songs that honest heft, with nothing more than Aoife O’Donovan’s backing vocals and Gabe Witcher’s fiddle overdubbed.
Caitlin rolled into town on her Americanafest tour, the familiar smells of coffee and pizza percolating around Jammin’ Java as she took to the stage. Not exactly a coffeehouse show, coffeehouse music, but there’s an adjacency to it; I heard more of the back porch sound, looking out over the wild world, be it made by humanity or nature herself.
Fronting a lean and muscular trio, with Miss Tess (a Maryland native) on upright bass and Rich Hinman on guitar (steel and electric), they slid gently into “River Alone” after an a cappella introduction, a smile that would well define the night leaping out on Caitlin’s face with the first crack of applause.
Caitlin carefully introduced her bandmates, emphasizing how lucky she felt to share the stage with them, both stellar and in-demand musicians. This configuration gives the songs a somehow wider vista, painting landscapes and enveloping skies. It is music that runs, like ink or blood, flowing into the world to create something new — to bring a breath of air or meaning.
Fittingly, the band played “Take Me for a Ride,” the opening track from Motel Bouquet, followed by the closest thing she has to a big hit (on Spotify, anyway), with “Get Up” — the song’s stream-strong refrain and the direction to “Knock the breath out of your madness / Burn your photographs at the edges /Send your heart back from where you left it” setting a hopeful tone for change.
Caitlin was a storyteller through both her songs and her stage banter. She briefly mentioned a wild who’s who of songwriters from Nashville and the Northeast, including (I think) Mark Erelli when she introduced “Wyoming Wind” and Kristen Andreassen when she introduced “Scattershot” (a highlight on the album and during the show), the latter of which included a story about the floods in Tennessee and how close they came to total destruction.
At one point, the band left the stage, leaving Caitlin alone; she shared that she’d forgotten to do the solo portion in previous shows, not wanting to say goodbye — however temporarily — but that she’d committed to doing it tonight. She then told the story of the song she wanted to sing — “San Antone Rose” — and how she sang that song in front of Emmylou Harris at a tribute concert, her boots knocking together with nervousness. She made sure the audience knew Susanna Clark wrote the song, but the singular Emmylou memorialized it. And then she more than did it justice.
After the band came back onstage, Caitlin led them through the soul of the new album, playing “Motel” and “Cinder Blocks” back to back, two songs of love and shadow, twilight and moonrises. She ended the set with, “Lost in the Valley,” a buoyant tune with a refrain that can and will define a hopeful future, “tell me when I can start again / I’ll get it right this time / send me where the sunlight bends / I’ll find it by and by” before ending with a hopeful hum.
They left the stage, the lights cut on, but they floated back onstage to the audience’s continued applause, a true kind of encore. Caitlin’s sun-bright smile continued to light the room, she thanked everyone and led the band through a “Tennessee Waltz” that, to my ear, included Leonard Cohen’s verse, a fitting poetic comparison. (Go here for a live version she recorded with Noam Pikelny.)
Caitlin entranced the audience (and herself), calling it her favorite of the year in conversation at the merch table. It’s hard to imagine a show topping it. Make sure to catch her the next time she comes through the DC area.
Here are some pictures of Caitlin Canty performing at Jammin’ Java on Jan. 11, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.