After finishing soundcheck before his gig at High Rock Outfitters in downtown Lexington — the inaugural date on a 5-week tour — singer-songwriter Caleb Caudle makes some time for a local journalist.
Deeming the green room too cramped and chaotic, he leads the way through a throng of early-evening drinkers on the sidewalk to a little pocket park in the town center. Caudle’s standard mode of dress — brown suede boots, a flat-brimmed hat and trimmed beard — vaguely suggests something between a 19th Century bohemian minstrel and a Civil War reenactor. The park is bereft of benches. Apprising the Confederate monument that dominates the space, he realizes the only available seating is at its base.
“Wonderful,” Caudle remarks drily, taking a perch on the granite ledge.
The politically fraught symbolism of the monument is a little too on the nose for a guy who once led a band called the Bayonets, a name steeped in reliquary militarism if there ever was one. It’s not that he’s looking to make a political pronouncement; rather, he’s shoving the glaring politics back to make space for the matters of real importance in his music — mortality, loneliness, longing, loyalty.
“Death and hope are the two big ones that I keep coming back to,” he says of the themes that drive Crushed Coins, his eighth album, released in February. “No one’s really prepared for it when you lose someone. You don’t get over that. There’s a void. You don’t fill it. You just appreciate the person and the time you had with them. And hold on to hope because it’s a tough road without it.”
He said he lost two close friends, as well as his grandfather and his wife’s grandfather, all within a short period of time. Both of his friends were musicians and former tour mates, and one died in a car accident while on tour. “It shook me pretty hard,” Caudle recalls. “We traveled together so much; I could imagine myself there with him.”
He’s quick to acknowledge the flipside of the equation that keeps mortality from curdling into morbidity. “If they were here,” Caudle says, “they would be calling out to me to be doing what I’m doing now — throwing everything into the music.”
Crushed Coins marks a watershed for Caudle, who prides himself on never having made the same record twice, that is both exciting and scary. As a kid haunting Winston-Salem’s threadbare punk scene, Caudle loved the Velvet Underground and the Clash, and then hardly out of his teens he underwent a conversion to country and folk. Over the course of seven albums, his oeuvre gradually migrated through Steve Earle and Gram Parsons before finally arriving at George Strait — that is, classic, straightforward 1990s mainstream country — in 2016’s Carolina Ghost. Recorded at Mixtown USA, a studio in Los Angeles’ Skid Row district, Crushed Coins is Caudle’s first album that altogether defies genre parameters.
It wasn’t a calculated decision.
“There’s more to life than country music,” Caudle says with a chuckle. “I have so many influences I felt like I wasn’t getting to show. I went through a big jazz phase. Listening to ’Trane and Miles I realized: You can make whatever you want. You think people want something particular from you. But what people really want is for you to be yourself.”
Taking the stage at High Rock Outfitters, a former kayak store, Caudle starts out on familiar territory for the crowd — committed music fans, albeit largely seated and with tastes firmly in the country, Americana and folk camp. The first two songs come from Carolina Ghost, including the title track, a relaxed and spacious canvas that provides a foil for Caudle’s gutsy singing, followed by “White Dove’s Wing,” a more propulsive country number that showcases Drew Taylor’s twangy lead guitar.
The easy rocking “NYC In the Rain” from the new album sounds almost of a piece with the two previous songs, with the satisfying snapback rhythm of Caudle’s tested rhythm section — Lee Hinshaw on drums and Josh Coe on bass — but the hooky transition points to a different direction, hinting at an early ’90s Brit-shoegaze guitar pop confection.
The next three songs, all from Crushed Coins, sketch out the new territory. Sonically, they’re all somewhat tethered to the country idiom without feeling constrained. The playful “Love That’s Wild” explodes out of a drum fill with a delicious garnish of tremolo lead guitar. “Empty Arms,” with its galloping rhythm and shimmery guitar, might be the first song Caudle has recorded since his days with the Bayonets that would sound at home in a sweaty rock club. In “Lost Without You,” the formalism of Carolina Ghost gives way to spacy psychedelia. Caudle’s meditative vocals sound like a drifter’s letter narrated over a creepy Western score.
“‘Lost Without You’ and ‘Empty Arms’ — I don’t know what music that is,” Caudle has said about his newfound freedom. “It just felt good.”
The rest of the set mixes and matches cuts from the new album with Caudle’s deep repertoire, underscoring the fact that his songwriting has always been more varied than his homages to Earle, Parsons and Strait might suggest. There’s the metronomic percussion and melismatic wail of “Uphill Battle” from Carolina Ghost, and scratching-strings-quiet-to-tour-de-force-crescendo of “Six Feet From the Flowers” from the new album. On a new song, as yet unrecorded, Caudle sings, “Oh, the time is running out, so you better hurry up.”
Near the end of the show, he addresses the crowd with a succinct showbiz sign-off.
“We gotta few more songs for you,” Caudle says. “Then we’re gonna take off for these United States. And I do mean united.”
The set gathers steam for the finale. “Stack of Tomorrows” from the new album suddenly stops on a dime, and transitions to the only cover of the set — Dwight Yoakam’s “Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” Then it all wraps up with Caudle’s raucous ode to sobriety, “Borrowed Smiles.”
“Now, it’s midnight and this place has got me feeling like a ghost,” Caudle sings. “And I’m long gone before the party ever comes to a close.”