If you’re sitting next to Caroline Herring on an airplane, you should probably keep your mouth shut. It might be difficult. Disarmingly pretty, with the kind of blue-green eyes that are as inviting as a secret swimming hole in summer, Herring looks like a person you should just start sharing your secrets with. She’d smile and nod knowingly at all the important moments, offer sympathy when appropriate. She might even have a bit of down-home advice, something as earthy as her hometown of Canton, Miss.
But underneath all that empathy, Herring would be taking notes. Gathering up bits of the story, fitting it into her own world, finding a way to make it work in one of her gentle folk songs or quiet hunks of front porch country. Ultimately, those details could end up in a track like “MGM Grand,” a stream-of-conscious story that recounts her last trip to Las Vegas. There’s the annoyed flight attendant. The guy who just has to have tea before takeoff. And next to Herring, an older couple who showed her that life can be a wonderful thing.
“That was a bona-fide plane trip,” Herring confirms. “I met this nice couple on the plane. I had just spent Thanksgiving in Death Valley. I had an awful time, and was going home just sad. But there are just some people that touch you, and they really touched me. I started realizing that I really had it pretty good.”
Things have been going surprisingly well for Herring. In just a few years she’s gone for a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas to one of Austin’s most acclaimed new songwriters, taking home the Best New Artist award at last year’s Austin Music Awards, and amassing an ever expanding cult of diehard fans. She’s released two records, 2001’s Twilight and this year’s Wellspring (both on Blue Corn Music), that critics have melted over. And, despite being a few busted trucks away from mainstream Nashville twang, Country Music Television hyped her as Austin’s next great gift to the world.
It’s all been a bit of a shock to Herring. She was supposed to be an academic. Music was just a hobby, even when she was playing in the Sincere Ramblers, an Oxford, Miss., bluegrass band that hosted a local radio show. The group played mostly covers and chatted it up with Americana idols like Gillian Welch and Peter Rowan. The few songs Herring had written she kept private, only deciding to finally record a demo just before heading to Texas.
Once in Austin, though, she spread the tape around, hoping to get something to keep her active while she went to school. Herring ended up with a two-year stint at the legendary Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, playing every Thursday night.
“It was kind of perfect,” she says. “I was in school for the first year, but I was always looking for a distraction, so that gave me plenty time to write songs. Eventually, I realized that school had just become this really expensive hobby, so I got a job and started really working on writing interesting songs.”
It paid off. Herring’s songs are like slow drives down magnolia-covered dirty roads, steeped in Southern mystique and history. Guitars and fiddles blow by like a hushed breeze. Hooks are thick with the heat and passion. And as rocks pop under the tires, Herring’s natural twang gives up details about people who were born and died here: powerful women, cocksure party girls, lonesome ladies desperate for something.
Some tales aren’t pretty, like the hushed folk of “Mistress,” which details the ultimately tragic relationship between plantation owner Columbus Patton and his slave and lover Rachel. Others revel in the realization of potential: “There are times I need you to hold onto/This time I’ve got to hold onto myself,” she sings on the bluegrass-dipped “Colorado Woman.” But no matter the subject, there’s always a hint that Herring’s songs live on the pride and conviction of the South.
“I grew up in the South, living with all its troubles, all its heat and humidity, the people, the pace and the lifestyle,” Herring says. “Now it just comes out. I can’t really help it. I’m a Southerner. For some strange reason a lot of the writing and culture that has been pumped out of here is really distinct. I guess I just fit in with that.”
Yet despite Herring’s strictly Southern style, she says she really has no desire to leave behind her comfortable folk niche for the ultimate prize of the South: Nashville. While there’s enough country in her songs to sneak her into the same category as Kelly Willis or Lucinda Williams, Herring says that’s as far as she wants to go.
“I’m not Shania Twain,” she says. “I wouldn’t even know how to do that sort of thing. I could never pull off a driving rock band. I’ve never even had an electric guitar. Besides, my writing is just too quirky for mainstream country. And really, I’m fine with that.”