Regular readers of these pages will understand what this writer means when I say that it felt like the answer to a prayer when the CD compilation “Lantana,” by Americana roots musician and writer Caroline Herring, was officially released on March 4. After a trip to Tokyo for an international conference on art, music and literature, the stranglehold of major American music labels on what the public “should” hear seemed insurmountable. Even though market analyses predict that record labels, which control everything and anything played on the radio, will no longer be in existence in five years, radio stations are still largely ruled by sacrosanct corporate “play lists.” Along comes Herring and the buzz is that Indie music has finally found a savior—Herring is the go-to “it” girl in Indie music this year.
It is about time that excellent writing and singing is making its way back into the genre of Americana. Caroline Herring nails every single track on Lantana, and national critics should be shouting from the rooftops that art and Americana can co-exist. Traditionally, most if not all big name music critics are sycophants and dilettantes who are as about as reliable as movie critics who loved the English Patient. Real roots writing and the craft of musicianship has been largely ignored in favor of a bizarre infatuation with drug addicts, losers and alcoholics, who, while certainly part of American culture, have somehow assumed a faux representation of family life, and especially women. Real life in the American heartland and southern landscapes has been co-opted, and it is no wonder that the demographic for music sales favors males.
A better way to say it might be that family life and the inherent challenges women face have been degraded in favor of an infatuation with the idea of woman as loser. This is an insult to the culture of music and literature that is historically as rich as a Mississippi bayou night and bright as fireflies in a Georgia hayfield. Thank the gods that Caroline Herring has returned public credibility to music that comes from the heart of the landscape that nurtured Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner. That is not to say that there aren’t many, many female roots musicians who know how to craft an honest tune.
Listen to the intelligence that crafted Lantana in this wonderful documentary about artistic development and how the deep south shaped the artistry of Caroline Herring.
The problem is that the critical favorites thus far have not painted an accurate portrait of women in rural America, or mothers in general. The only time this all-but-forgotten-demographic has received any attention is during an election cycle when the candidates are desperate to figure out what it is that makes these women tick. Obama and Hillary should go out and purchase Lantana today. Or, contact me and I’ll order a couple of disks on Amazon and send it to their boiler rooms.
Unlike many Americana singer/songwriters who hide behind the banners of true iconic artists like The Carter Family, Emmy Lou Harris, and recently, the great Lucinda Williams, Caroline Herring grabs their standards and rides like Joan d'Arc through the images of the southland--firmly planting her flag in the red dirt of the Mississippi Delta.
The opening cut, Stone Cold World, explores the fear, isolation and dedication of motherhood. How many young mothers have found themselves “slouching in my shoes, damning expectations, because nothing here comes easy?” Herring nails the sentiment and self-recriminations of the constraints of marriage—“I’m a selfish girl in a selfish world and each town has his her selfish ways and each girl has her selfish days…especially me.”
How many moms feel sorry for themselves, until someone, something arrives… “smiling when I couldn’t smile, drawing me to tears…”
“I saw the tip of an iceberg explode, but I’m no tourist on this deep blue sea.”
Life goes on. Life is not a dress rehearsal. You have only one chance to get it right. And getting it right requires strength of character; the quiet struggles of everyday people who are not wacky, unrealistic characters conjured by formula writers and money hungry record executives who thrive on the pain of society, and encourage pathos and hopelessness by ignoring the quiet triumphs in everyday American families.
Herring writes about Stone Cold World and how it was partially inspired by a particularly difficult year.
“During that year I learned the hard way to exist beyond myself, literally how to be married, and how to adapt to a new city. I did so in the midst of serious changes in my career, my health, and the health of other family members. For me, it’s a song about the essential- ity of sacrifice and the inevitability of change.”
Herring is also willing to take the bold leap to explore the darkest side of a woman’s psyche. No one in recent memory has been able to craft a southern gothic tale as well as she does on Paper Gown. Has any writer ever been bold enough to tell the truth about motives for infanticide in a compassionate manner? The fact that Herring not only takes the risk, but also comes through with flying colors and a punch line that leaves the listener gasping, should qualify her for Grammy.
Paper Gown tells the true story of Susan Smith, the young mother from South Carolina who drowned her sons in the hopes of cementing a bond with a lover who did not want her “ready made family.” Herring describes Smith watching as her boys “ride the incline down” while she stands, with “her lovers sweatshirt wrapped around me (her).”