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Caitlin Cary
I'm Staying Out
Yep Roc

It's a thrill to track a promising musician's journey through the often cruel world of songwriting, recording, and the grind of the road to see her emerge all the better for it. Caitlin Cary is no stranger here, having endured untold numbers of trashy gigs and drunken tantrums as a fiddler/harmonizer with the Pablo Picasso of Americana, Ryan Adams, right up to the end of his former band, Whiskeytown.

It shouldn't be long now, folks, until music writers will no longer feel the need to explain Cary's background, to drop Adams' name as a point of reference. Instead, a competent reviewer will assume that the obvious backstory is wasted space on the page. At some point, the media stopped dropping the name Gram Parsons every time they wrote about Emmylou Harris; her own light began to shine brightly enough on its own to make her early benefactors fade into the shadows. And Caitlin Cary's talent and maturation deserve our full attention with the release of her second full-length record, I'm Staying Out.

A second album can be a pressure cooker: Will it bear out a potentially long-term talent or reveal the cheap tricks of another quick-change artist best left behind? When you love a first record (as I did Cary's, While You Weren't Looking, and said so in this very forum), you want to love the second even more. The first few listens are spent wondering if you really dig it, or are you just trying to convince yourself that you didn't waste your 15 bucks? I should not have worried. Caitlin Cary's last year touring with a solid band, playing the world over, and road-testing new material has produced a tight and confident work that transcends many third and fourth attempts by artists of similar caliber. Add the return of producer Chris Stamey and there's really no room for doubt.

The lead track is a first-rate example of what's great about country music — it tells a sad tale well. "Empty Rooms" breaks hearts as Cary's pure and clean vocal relates a woman's struggle with her utter absence of feeling. The couplet marrying "empty room" with "empty womb" may be meant literally, but not necessarily. Our storyteller knows when to leave well enough alone, let us make up our own minds, and does it with slow, seeping beauty.

"The Next One" is a lost-love song, a country and blues staple subject done in a traditional twangy manner. Within the regimented forms of honky-tonk-style songs, the listener turns to lyrics and rendition for satisfaction, and Cary's words never disappoint. In this case, hope for better luck with "the next one" turns out to be a longing for "the one I left behind," served up with the kind of melodic hook that subverts obvious tradition, or perhaps adding to it for future songwriters to crib for themselves. Every time this chorus bit comes around, it snips a bit of my heart out along with it, making me skip a breath.

"Cello Girl" is perhaps the centerpiece of this record, where Cary's narrator wonders what happened to that pretty but awkward girl she knew of in school, the one who played the cello and never seemed to quite get along. The weirdos of childhood may have been ridiculed then, but don't we all suspect that they are the lucky ones now? "What was her name?" repeats the hook, again and again, as she muses that the cellist now plays with the New York Philharmonic and has somehow pushed her dream to realization. The soaring, ringing and rough guitars and anthemic drums meld with a teasing cello line that insists Cary is right: A star has emerged and she's having a blast playing her clunky old instrument on a real, live record, while her former classmates only listen along on the radio during their compromised evenings of make-do. It's almost a revenge tune against the schoolyard bully, but more of a celebration of the persistent freak who not only survives, but thrives.

If there is a pop-country crossover single on I'm Staying Out, it's got to be the bouncy, don't-worry-be-yourself "You Don't Have to Hide." Normally I might ride a song like this one a bit harder, and it is true that if there was a cover tune out of this bunch for Celine Dion, this is it. Still, Cary's voice is never a chore to endure, and I mean never, and besides, country radio needs Caitlin Cary just like it needs Johnny Cash and "Man of Constant Sorrow," even if the moneychangers can't comprehend it. All is forgiven with the terminally cool and Willie Nelson-y 'Please Break My Heart,' another honky-tonk jewel that drips Patsy Cline all over the rutted barroom floor. Other pleasures include the boyfriend-defiant title track, "I'm Staying Out," and an achingly poignant love ballad, "I Want to Learn to Waltz," rendered in 3/4 time, naturally. That's another thing great about country music, 3/4 time. When was the last time you heard a waltz from Faith Hill? (Just to clarify, Hill is a pop star, not a country singer.)

Caitlin Cary, however, sits nicely alongside Patsy, Emmylou, Gram, Willie, and heroes with whom she's played, including Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter (who guests on the record). I want to just call her "Caitlin." I want to tell her how proud I am of her. She's that kind of good. Ryan who?

by Bob Toevs

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