By SILAS HOUSE
Every great piece of art is both a mystery and a love story. True art causes us to ask questions while also supplying us with answers. True artists like Caroline Herring never fail to make us feel something, whether profound sadness or overwhelming hope.
This is surely the case with Herring’s latest and best album, CAMILLA.
Herring’s songs are always perfect little mysteries and powerful, hopeful love stories, but they are never simple thrilling romances. They are complex, modern, tradition-influenced compositions about love and hate and everything in between. On CAMILLA, her sixth full-length release, Herring has created her most profound album yet, a collection of ten deeply moving songs.
Since her debut in 2001, Herring has gained a devoted following, has been embraced by tastemakers like NPR and Oxford American, has become the only American representative for the prestigious Cecil Sharp Project, a group of musicians who are commissioned to research and create new music based on the life and collecting of the famed songcatcher, and has emerged as one of our best and most consistent singer-songwriters. Herring has established herself as a lyrical and inventive songwriter and a singer whose vocals never fail to move the listener with her high trills and rich vibrato. The Mississippi native, now based in Atlanta, has been compared to Lucinda Williams, Joan Baez, and even Mozart. Although the comparisons are nice (and hold water) the truth is that she has her own signature sound that comes to full manifestation on CAMILLA, a career-defining record.
“I feel braver on this album, and I feel it represents me wholly,” she says. While Herring describes her songs as “simple” they are anything but—they are complex, mysterious, and very intelligent.
The Herring Sound is one that is both achingly ancient and decidedly modern, one wherein the internet can be mentioned within seconds of a lyric like “I want to stay with you/my place of belonging”. Herring’s specialty is studying the South and the way race still haunts its people and places but her music transcends that—the race-haunted South becomes a microcosm for the nation, and even the world entire. Like the best writers, Herring manages to make the specific something very universal. When she sings of a “little girl in your nightgown/chasing after fireflies” while a mansion goes up in flames (“that’s tradition burning down”), she’s not only creating a mesmerizing image; she’s also reminding us that “they’ve got you where they want you/they’ve got the lid screwed down.” She explains: “The little girl may chase fireflies, she may gain solace knowing they, God-willing, will always be there to catch, but she must also know that in the big scheme of things she is a mere firefly to most people, to the system, and she must see the world for what it is and never pretend differently.” In Herring’s world, we are all the victims of the injustice and discrimination, whether we know it or not.
Injustice is the main theme that holds all of Herring’s work together, but she never fails to inject light so that hope is the victor in all of her music. We hear this wonderful mix of reality and optimism on every song on CAMILLA. The album is filled with stories of people traveling long hard journeys who are ultimately rewarded by self-worth, resolution, or the promise of kindness. On CAMILLA we come to know a tired woman who is helped along the way by folks who “tie my traveling shoes”; a narrator singing of “a hard summer in the mountains” but comforted by the goodness of nature; a mother who finds that taking her daughter to Obama’s inaugurationis not easy but well worth the trip; another song shares the true story of a woman who survived the horrific fire-bombing of a Freedom Riders bus, witnessing the horror of burning bodies and the beauty of a twelve year-old white girl who brought her water despite the protests of the townspeople. In “Black Mountain Lullabye” and “Camilla” we hear from mothers who have lost their children but keep their dignity—and hope—intact.
CAMILLA is a thought-provoking album that will illicit tears but ends up filling the listener with a profound optimism. “Until You Go,” certainly the best grief song since George Jones sang "He Stopped Loving Her Today” and far more nuanced and elegant than the excellent “If I Die Young” (The Band Perry), is—without a doubt—one of her best songs, and one of the most beautiful compositions and productions of the year. The album ends with two more songs that cause the light (hope) on the album to increase as steadily and warmly as a summer sunrise in the Delta: “Flee As A Bird” is a mesmerizing 1840 hymn and “Joy Never Ends (Auld Lang Syne) wraps everything up with its treatise on friendship and endurance. “I believe it’s true that joy never, ever ends,” Herring says, of the closing song. “Everything else might. But joy will always be in our grasp.”
Herring introduces us to a whole cast of characters, all of them as perfectly crafted as those populating a novel. We miss them all once the record is finished, so much that the first instinct is to click play again so we can visit the Deep South that is Everywhere, the characters that are All of Us at our best and worst, in our deepest sorrows and proudest joys.
“To me, CAMILLA is about grief and injustice. Deep love and hope. Perseverance. Heroes,” Herring says.
Besides it’s profundity, CAMILLA is also wonderfully produced by Erick Jaskowiak, best known as an engineer for folks like Alison Krauss, Crooked Still, The Chieftains, and many others. The band has quite a pedigree as well: Fats Kaplin (pedal steel, fiddle, banjo) and Bryn Davies (upright bass) both play with Jack White’s band (and on his latest album, Blunderbuss); Steven Sheehan (acoustic guitar), Bryan Owings (drums, chains) make for a full, rich sound. Additionally, there are terrific vocal harmonies from Mary Chapin-Carpenter, Aoife O’Donavan, Claire Holley, Kathryn Roberts and Jackie Oates, and as guests, some killer licks on the electric guitar by Sean Lakeman a driving banjo by Leonard Podolak. and emotive violin and viola playing by Andrea Zonn.
All these pickers join forces to create one of the best albums of the year and the record that is sure to give Herring even more acclaim and widely broaden her fan-base. The title of the record is from Herring's song named for a sleepy Georgia town. “That’s where, in 1962, a woman named Marion King was beat unconscious by a deputy sheriff when all she did was take a casserole to her friend’s daughter in jail,” Herring explains. “Beauty and horror. All in one word. And camilla is such a beautiful word.”