Country Duets Like Nashville Used to Make

Cary, Cockrell Unite for Begonias

Longtime friends and musically kindred spirits, Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell have achieved the near-impossible in modern-day Nashville. Not only did they write and record an album’s worth of easygoing, 70s-styled country duets, but they also made it look incredibly easy.

“It’s the first record I’ve made that I immediately wanted to come home and listen to,” Cary says. “This was really fast and furious and exciting and, honest to God, I put it on while I’m washing dishes, which I can’t say about any of my other records.”

“I really like it a lot too,” says Cockrell, calling from a visit to his parents’ house in New York. “It just came out wonderfully. I was listening to it for the first time in a month and a half this weekend, because my parents and my brother listen to that thing nonstop. She sings so amazingly on it.”

The album, titled Begonias, has been in the planning stages for a little while. When they were both living in Raleigh, N.C., Cary and Cockrell would occasionally meet up on the weekends to write songs together. Cockrell moved to Nashville in August, then suggested they record their duets album there. A proud fan of Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and the George and Tammy duets — “even the cheesiest of the cheesy ones” — Cary agreed.

While their voices certainly have a unique and uncommon blend — Cary’s a firm alto and Cockrell’s a tender tenor — their opposites-attract songwriting adds another dimension to their partnership.

“I feel like the main thing that I’ve said over and over again, that I love about Thad, is his ability to somehow convey the simplest thing and get away with it,” Cary says. “I don’t want to say that he writes in clichés, because that’s not really the case, but it’s the simple country song. The ‘I miss you and I need you and I love you’ kind of song with just the right amount of pertinent detail. He lets me step away from my more literary self and really speak simply.”

“I love her writing,” Cockrell counters. “Her voice is what it is. It’s absolutely beautiful. I think her spirit comes through. She has an amazing spirit about her. That doesn’t always come through people’s music, but it does though Caitlin’s.”

Cary describes Begonias as “organic” and “by no means some kind of Nashville patchwork record.” When the question is posed about why some alt.country musicians have such a chip on their shoulder about making albums in Nashville, Cockrell bristles.

“I’m not alt.country, man. Just country, man,” he says. “I mean, there’s not a distorted guitar on this whole damn record. Yeah, they do. Alt.country musicians, they tend to bad-mouth Nashville. I don’t get that. Most of them would like to make music that’s a quarter as good as the stuff that comes out of Nashville.”

He cites Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Johnny Cash as artists who recorded their own style of music in Nashville without the gloss that the city is known for. He also counts the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers among his favorite artists of all time.

“I’m all for people getting to make the music they want,” he says. “Whatever they make, that’s really cool. I make the music I make, you make the music you make. I don’t think it’s an either/or type of deal, which some of the artists do. That’s why it’s so hard to get artists to help other artists because they always have this either/or thing going on in their head. It never made any sense to me. But I’ve got nothing bad to say about Nashville. I’ve loved it since I moved there.”

Well, maybe not from day one.

“When I first moved there,” Cockrell says, “I was a little freaked out, just because there’s so much amazing music that gets written, and has been written, there and I felt the weight of it for the first couple months. I went through a stage of insomnia for about two weeks. I woke up just about every morning of those two weeks and wrote a song or two before 10 in the morning. From then on, I’ve been fine.”

Though Cary has two solo albums to her credit, alt.country fans first noticed her voice as a member of Whiskeytown. (Asked if she’ll ever collaborate with front man Ryan Adams again, she says she wouldn’t turn it down.) She’s also in Tres Chicas, a folk-rock trio of female friends who just finished recording their second album in London.

She notes that several of her musician friends, in addition to Cockrell, have moved to Nashville over the last year and that the city now has a home-away-from-home feel.

“Even though Whiskeytown made a record in Nashville, I’ve never made a Nashville record,” she says. “Somehow the idea of it always sort of scared me and didn’t appeal to me because of the whole reputation of Nashville. But now, all of a sudden, I feel like I’m ‘in the know’ about all these fantastic musicians that are waiting in the wings there. It was a really, really great experience to make phone calls, and we had a little budget to pay people and to be able to get this amazing talent to walk through the door.”

Begonias includes all the songs that Cary and Cockrell had written together, although some were actually composed in the middle of recording the album. They also harmonize on Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love” and the soothing “Waiting on June” — as in Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — written by friend Skip Matheny.

“Half the songs were old, and half the songs were new,” Cary says. “Half the band was familiar and old friends that we’ve all played with before, and the other half was new guys astounding us with their experience. It was a really good Nashville experience.”