You know the adage "Winners never quit, and quitters never win"? That's bullshit. Sometimes, the key to success is knowing when to throw in the towel. While in college, singer-violinist Caitlin Cary walked off a waitressing job at a pizzeriamid-shift and with a full sectionafter the abusive owner told her he intended to deduct the difference in price between a large and medium pie from her wages, simply because she accidentally ordered the wrong size.
But the reason music fans know the name Caitlin Cary and are lining up to hear her brand-new album, I'm Staying Out (on Yep Roc Records), is because of the one gig she didn't walk out on when many thought she should. Of all the musicians who played in alt-country outfit Whiskeytown, only Cary weathered frontman Ryan Adams' erratic behavior for the duration of the band's run, from 1994 through its gradual dissolution as the group's swan song, Pneumonia, was shelved for three years (it was finally released in 2001).
Stepping out on her own in 2000 with the Waltzie EP, Cary showed that the heavily hyped Adams wasn't the only exceptional performer and songwriter in Whiskeytown. But it was her debut full-length, last spring's While You Weren't Looking, that truly brought recognition. Cary was invited to open for Lyle Lovett, and Mary Chapin Carpenter (who guests on I'm Staying Out) bought 20 copies of the CD for friends.
Thanks to that success, Cary found herself making a follow-up much sooner than she anticipated. "About six months after the first album had been released, they said it was time to start working on another," recalls Cary from her North Carolina home. "And I thought, 'God, don't I get to rest on my laurels for a minute?'" This time, the winner couldn't quither label wanted to keep the momentum going, which meant cranking out a spate of new songs. "I was scared to death," she admits. "But as an ex- graduate student, I found that it was actually good for me to have a deadline over my head."
Like its predecessors, one of I'm Staying Out's greatest strengths is Cary's ability to reconcile complex characters and stories within the lyrical constraints of pop songs, from the straightforward, classic country of "Please Break My Heart" to the rollicking "Cello Girl." Just don't assume they're all autobiographical if they were, she'd be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. "That's such a tricky thing for songwriters to negotiate," admits Cary, who studied creative writing in graduate school at North Carolina State. "As opposed to fiction writers, for some reason, if you sing something, people think it's about you."
Maybe it's because she does such a convincing job. Thanks to the continued involvement of producer Chris Stamey (of dB's fame), Cary's ability to inhabit her characters when she steps up to the microphone has grown more captivating. "I've never worked with anybody who's better at helping me get great vocals. Chris is a poet. He'll say, 'I want you to think about being in a phone booth in a rain storm with one quarter left, trying to call someone who's going to come get you in their car and save your life.'"
Because she stuck to what she knew worked well musically, Cary continued collaborating on several songs with fellow Whiskeytown vet Mike Daly ("the first person to ever say, 'You've got to get out from under this Ryan kid and do your own thing'"). Daly penned one of the disc's many highlights just for her, too: the sultry "Sleepin' in on Sunday." "I love singing really simple, baby-I-love-you, romance songs, but I have a hard time writing them, so I was glad to get one written for me."
Over the next couple of months, Cary will be walking away again . . . this time temporarily from her husband (original Whiskeytown drummer Eric "Skillet" Gilmore) and two dogs to make some outdoor festival appearances. While she's trying to accept fewer late-night gigs in smoky clubs, don't expect to see her at Lollapalooza, either. "I've done a number of those kind of things, where some hot band of shirtless, angry rocker dudes are playing after me, so the front three rows are composed of girls in tank tops looking at me like they wish I was dead."
Good luck. Recognizing when to stand your ground is just as important as knowing when to quit, and if Caitlin Cary could put up with Adams' shenanigans all those years, she isn't about to let a few hormonal youngsters stare her down. "I just steel myself and sing to the few people that are there to see me. And there are always someevery time." Hopefully, I'm Staying Out will reach enough ears to make those numbers keep swelling.