Tres Chicas: Tight Harmonies, Pitiful Rehearsals

Three North Carolina Musicians Team Up for Sweetwater

For most new bands, rehearsal is a time to run through the set list, work up some fresh material and figure out how to make the unit succeed.

Rehearsal time for Tres Chicas, on the other hand, is a chance to dye each other’s hair and drink wine.

“They’re famously underproductive,” says Caitlin Cary, one of the three women in Tres Chicas. “We talk a lot. We’re almost too good of friends. All kinds of girly concerns can take over. It’s so easy for us to sit around and talk, sometimes we never get around to getting out the guitars. But we do love singing together, so practices are always fun.”

Cary is joined by Tonya Lamm and Lynn Blakey to form Tres Chicas. All three women have earned their stripes in other bands — Cary, for example, is a vet of Whiskeytown — but ultimately realized their impromptu harmonies were too comfortable to ignore.

For their first practice session, Blakey invited Cary and Lamm to her house in 1999 to play a song she had just written, “Sweetwater.” The second time through it, Cary and Lamm effortlessly picked up harmonies — as close longtime friends are inclined to do. The soothing results even prompted Cary’s dogs to curl up and nap.

“I remember it being instantly really beautiful and feeling just right,” Blakey recalls. “Seriously. I knew it was going to be good, but it was almost like we’d already rehearsed it. Everybody just fell into the right place. I remember calling somebody on the phone — who wasn’t there, of course — and made Tonya and Caitlin sing it again so we could sing it on their answering machine.”

The trio recorded a few songs to use later as demos, but in time, individual projects distracted them from Tres Chicas. Lamm traveled to Europe with her band, Hazeldine, and returned seven months pregnant. Cary offered several solo efforts for local label Yep Roc, and Blakey released an album from her band, Glory Fountain.

However, producer Chris Stamey kept tweaking the demos. After several years of tinkering with the project, he brought the somewhat forgotten project back into view.

“Caitlin and Lynn may have a different take on it because they weren’t immersed in motherhood at the time, but it sort of bubbled back into my life in a beautiful way,” says Lamm. “It was like, ’Wow, we really did make this record, and it may be three years later, but it sounds really good, and I think somebody will really want to put this out.'”

Indeed, Yep Roc asked them to finish the project. The crucial matter of timing worked out for all three women — something they all cite as a positive omen for Tres Chicas. (No, they aren’t Latin. A club promoter gave them the name when it came time to advertise their first show there as a trio.)

While much of Sweetwater was written by one or more of the Chicas, old-school country fans might recognize obscure covers from George Jones (“Take the Devil Out of Me”) and Loretta Lynn (“Deep as Your Pocket”). At last month’s CD release party at a small club in Raleigh, N.C., Cary referred to Loretta Lynn as the band’s patron saint.

“Nobody can say she’s a beautiful singer, but she gets across these amazing and beautiful sentiments,” Cary explains later. “Tough women, but something to say that’s not all about being angry — that’s what the Chicas are about.”

Sweetwater resembles what a dream-team album from Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea and Pam Tillis might sound like, while Lucinda Williams’ fans may appreciate the cover of “Am I Too Blue.” The Chicas also hope to acquire some new fans by playing the side stage at Kenny Chesney’s concert in Raleigh on Saturday night (July 17). The trio’s future tour stops include Arlington, Va., New York City, Philadelphia, Winston-Salem, N.C., Lexington, Ky., Nashville and Charlottesville, Va.

“It’s strange for me going out again because it’s going to take me back in time for three years,” says Lamm, who hasn’t toured since Hazeldine disbanded. “You know how when you go away from something for a while, then you come back to it, you start back right where you left off? It’s going to throw me back to the time before I had a baby and remembering Hazeldine stuff and how much fun we had. I might get the opportunity to pretend for a few moments that I don’t have any responsibility. So that’ll be fun, and it’ll be great to go out and rock again.”

Cary adds, “I’m really committed to Tres Chicas, and I didn’t really know that it was going to feel like this. It feels really good to be doing this, and it feels really right. I think the initial response to the record has been really good, and that makes us excited. We love each other. After having done a couple years of solo stuff, I feel like, ’Ah, I get to be in a band again.’ It’s really a relief, sharing the responsibility three ways, and also the pure fun of being with people I really like and making music.”

“I think a big part of what I like about this is, the three of us have a really strong friendship, and that is what is going to help us and save us at the same time,” Blakey says. “It makes it easy to make music with people you really love, and it makes it very natural, too. It’s working out. I’m really excited about it.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.