When a contemporary songwriter sings about doing something, or feeling something, a contemporary listener is used to taking that as autobiographical storytelling. But it’s best not to make those kinds of assumptions when it comes to Caroline Herring’s work.
More often than not, it isn’t the Mississippi native’s own stories that she’s telling. Instead, it’s the stories of Southern women who’ve suffered greatly, often at the hands of racial and economic injustice. As you might imagine, that sort of subject matter doesn’t exactly lend itself to feel-good pop ditties, but it does stick with you.
Camilla is Herring’s third album since she moved to Atlanta and became a mom. She released two others before that while she was in the thick of Austin’s singer-songwriter scene. By this point in her life and career, she’s realized she thrives on doing many things at once: simultaneously challenging and entertaining her audience, or conducting an interview while shopping for groceries. And wait until you hear everything else Herring had on her plate when she first got into songwriting.
CMT Edge: Grad school is a high-stress environment. How did the creativity flow so freely when you had those kinds of demands on your time and mental energy?
Herring: You know, really, I found it to be just the opposite. In fact, I kinda want to go back to graduate school again so I’ll have that part of my brain distracted, and maybe I can write more love songs. I loved writing while I was in grad school, actually.
How far did you go in the Ph.D. program before music became the thing?
A couple of years. But that whole time, I was also working full-time. (chuckles) I was working at Texas Folklife Resources, which was really awesome, because one of my jobs was to take master-level traditional Texas musicians to small towns all over Texas to try to keep music styles alive, like Conjunto accordion or Texas swing fiddling. The more I do, the more I do. I actually loved it. So I need to take on school and a full-time job now, and then I’ll really be going.
You’ve grounded so much of your songwriting in actual events and people, some historical and some from recent memory. How did that become a consistent feature of your songwriting?
That’s a good question. It’s simply because I have really enjoyed writing that way. … I seem to do it better than any other type of writing that I do. So I keep pushing myself to do it because I enjoy it, and for whatever reason, I feel like I’m able to tell people’s stories. At this point, I try to hold myself back. I wanted to do a whole album of Civil Rights-era figures, just people, tell their stories. … My husband said, “Please don’t.” It’s like, “Who would listen to that?” I don’t know. It’s [such] a super-niche audience that I don’t even know what that audience is.
How do you find the historical bits that become songs? Do you seek them out?
Sometimes it’s reading and then sometimes it’s just something that catches my eye, that I have a fascination with, for 20 years, or two years. There’s a lot to draw on. I wrote a song about Jeremy Davidson, who was killed in a mountaintop removal accident. I read Silas House’s op-ed in The New York Times and he’s an Appalachian writer. He didn’t mention the boy’s name because the Mountaintop Removal Project was concerned about exploiting this boy. But he mentioned enough that I wanted to see what happened. And as I dug into that story, I realized it was such a terrible tragedy — the way that the family settled with the coal company under the condition they could never speak publicly again. Those stories are everywhere. There are too many to write.
The song you’re talking about, “Black Mountain Lullaby,” is one that stands out on the new album for the tragedy of the story it tells. The title track is another. When and how did Marion King’s story first grab you? [King was beaten and suffered a miscarriage when she went to visit a friend’s daughter in jail in Camilla, Ga., and asked for her release. She later became a lawyer.]
I grew up in Mississippi and Civil Rights issues have always been sort of the center of my world. I read [a book that talked about Marion King] in my early 20s, and I was re-reading it a couple of years ago. Mothers really catch my ear. I try to find touch points of reference and I have one there.
Anyway, I read about her in that book and then I did some more research. They had footage of her in her hospital bed that was on the news right after she was beaten. Then there were other accounts of her. I decided to drive down to Camilla and see the jail and the scene. The neat thing is that her family has found out about the song. I’m so glad. And I have talked with eight different family members: her sister, her son in Denver, who was there that day — he came out to one of my shows — grandchildren, nieces. And they’re pleased.
I would love to hit the top of the music charts. (laughs) Even writing these crazy songs, sometimes it is still a dream. But I guess to know that the family is honored and feels like I got something right and appreciates it — at the end of the day, I can live with that. That is a validation that is awesome. I was pleased that they liked it.
Traditional ballads often told a story in third-person, from a distance. You often write and sing from the point of view of someone in the story. Is that an approach you’ve cultivated, or is that just how it went for you from the start?
That’s how it’s gone for me from the start. It’s just sort of the way I’ve done it. I wrote “Mistress” that way, way back when I was in Texas, about the slave and her lover. And then the Susan Smith song, I was trying to write a song about that story, but I couldn’t. I really needed to write it from her perspective, which is very creepy. That seems to be the only way that I can do it effectively. … Empathizing with them to that level is what seems to work best for me.
Your song about Susan Smith, “Paper Gown,” is a great example. If you can put yourself in that story, you can put yourself in almost any story. [Smith was a mother who suffered postpartum depression and drowned her children in 1994.]
Well, it’s the truth. And I don’t particularly enjoy singing that very much anymore. I remember when that album came out I was really into it and had sung it so many times I wasn’t thinking as much about what I was singing. And I sang it for the audience and just was expecting huge applause. I didn’t get it. They were shocked. Radio stations said, “I’ll never play this song again.” I totally understand that.
But at the same time, I think it’s still important to tell those stories, and this just seems to be, for whatever reason, the way that I do it. But other people have really loved it simply because it’s a murder ballad. In English murder ballads, there are tons of songs about infanticide. That’s not exciting to write about, but it’s not unusual. And there are a million songs in country music about men killing women with a roving eye. It’s still in the tradition, kind of.
You mentioned that motherhood is a theme that surfaces a lot in your writing, sometimes drawing on your own experience. At what point in your career did you become a mother yourself?
The day we signed our house in Atlanta, which was a year after I left Austin, was when I found out I was pregnant. Right after I left Austin, I moved into that different world. So I kind of have a pre-children career and post-having-children career.
How have you experienced the two being different?
Well, for one thing, I didn’t put out an album for five years. (chuckles) I think that’s probably it. I just got older. And when I was playing in Texas, I was playing heartbreak songs, and I was playing with almost a Western swing band wherever I went. You know, it was more lighthearted.
I read that your song “Traveling Shoes” was inspired by Eudora Welty.
I was asked to be part of this Eudora Welty centennial concert. That was maybe four years ago. There were three other singer-songwriters involved: Kate Campbell, Claire Holly and Mary Chapin Carpenter. … We were supposed to play at the Savannah book festival. That’s when this huge snowstorm hit in Washington, D.C., and at the last second, [Carpenter] had to pull out. So I thought, “Oh, I need something extra to bring to this show.” So I wrote “Traveling Shoes” on the way down to that show. There’s nothing like a deadline to get me going.