Caleb Caudle poses outdoors
Joseph Cash

Nature, Pandemic Isolation and a Return Home Fuel Caleb Caudle’s ‘Forsythia’

For a brief period of time country crooner Caleb Caudle thought his forthcoming album Forsythia (out Oct. 7 via Soundly Music) would be his last. Digging himself out of a deep rut of pandemic-fueled anxiety and depression, Caudle used it as motivation to create easily his most bold collection of songs yet, and definitely not his last.

"I've built my career around touring and shaking people's hands, so when the pandemic came around and took that away it left me questioning if that way of life would ever be possible again," Caudle tells Wide Open Country. "Without touring it's hard to justify spending the money to record it when your best way to recoup those funds is gone. It left me in this weird place where I thought the loss of one would lead to the loss of the other, but ultimately it helped me to step up my writing game and bring my best to the table in a way that I'd never been able to before."

Teaming up with producer John Carter Cash to record at the legendary Cash Cabin, Forsythia tackles everything from pandemic-related angst to not fitting in, observations about nature, life on the road and Hank Williams-esque vignettes. Further amplifying and bringing the songs to life are an all-star cast of performers including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Carlene Carter, Elizabeth Cook, Dennis Crouch, Fred Eltringham and Sarah Peasall McGuffey.

Easily Caudle's most autobiographical album to date, Forsythia also delves into the artist's journey from Nashville at the start of the pandemic back to his old stomping grounds of Germanton, North Carolina and how the time away has helped him to rediscover the love for the place he calls home. This connection is most directly correlated on "Shattered Glass," a somber ballad likening the helpless feeling of his ongoing battle with anxiety and depression to the feeling of he and his wife while being stuck in their Nashville home when a tornado hit in early 2020. He says he was inspired to make that connection by the poetry of Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver that seamlessly ties natural phenomenons together with their own human experiences.

"I feel like there's always a song or two on every album of mine dealing with my anxiety and depression," says Caudle. "The chorus of the song was actually inspired by the tornado that ripped through East Nashville in early 2020 just before the pandemic. We were living there at the time and I remember huddling with my wife in the hallway thinking how this helpless feeling of being caught in a natural disaster was eerily similar to my own struggles within."

Other areas of the album, like the seasonal imagery within title track "Forsythia," feature more subtle nods to home, but they're there nonetheless. Another is "Whirligigs," a story about his uncle living down the street from him who lives a simple, unassuming life on his own as a widowed man. 

A hard working man always plugging away at building birdhouses and whirligigs in his garage, the song is equal parts happy and somber as it also deals with finding peace and purpose after losing your partner, something documented as Caudle sings "He still gets two ice cream cones / ordering one for himself / it just don't feel right / he can't help but thinking of Luella / and how she would've had a really good time tonight."

However, the musical memoir's closing track "Red Bank Road" is perhaps the most direct reference to Caudle rediscovering his love for home after a stint in Nashville. He churns through memories of old that he once discounted about home but now holds dear as time has yielded a new appreciation for the place he now calls home yet again. 

Coming from rural Carolina to Nashville the lifestyle differences could not be more defined, something Caudle acknowledges quickly on the tune, singing "It's easy to forget where you come from / when the smoke and lights start to leave you numb / in longing for that old oak tree shade / when the noise becomes and endless parade."

"Being back home now I see things in a different light," says Caudle. "I love Nashville, but it's so easy to get caught up in the hustle of everything there. For me, this record was anti-hustle and slowed down from a songwriting perspective, which is a pace I'm much more comfortable with anyway. Being back home to write most of these songs played a huge role in that."

Even though many songs document that journey back home, others document the journey of a working man's musician toughing it out on the road in pursuit of stardom. Caudle covers this perspective on "Texas Tea," a song about life on the road inspired by a snowy night in Amarillo, Texas that proves that no matter how long you're doing something you've never seen everything.

"Life on the road is tough," says Caudle. "In January I'll have been at it full-time for 10 years now. Things get blurry after a while in terms of where you've been, where you haven't, who you've met and what comes from that. The song gets into some of that along with the sacrifice of being away from loved ones for months at a time only to return and feel like a stranger in your own home."

Despite Forsythia's strong autobiographical nature, vignettes from other characters are present on the project as well. The most notable of these comes on "Crazy Wayne," a tale about a larger than life former mechanic for Caudle that was inspired by a conversation he had with songwriter Brian Wright. 

According to Caudle, the rock number was the last track recorded for the album and was done in one take, surprising for a song featuring a Hank Williams-like turnaround in the lyrics as Caudle goes from singing about how the mechanic repaired cars with a broken heart, illustrating how many of society's most helpful people often don't have the time to properly help themselves.

"[Hank] always changed the turnarounds at the end of each line," says Caudle. "If you go try to learn one of his songs it's so painful because you have to memorize five different turnarounds. The song in itself is a mix of humor and the power of vulnerability. Some of my favorite songs are able to do that so I wanted to bring it to my music as well. It's the best artists, like Hank and John Prine, who are able to make you laugh and cry in the span of just a few minutes."

Whether he's singing of his own experiences or those of others, Forsythia peels back the layers of Caudle's life, showing the strength found in vulnerability the a bewilderment with the world around him that we could all use more of in our day-to-day lives.

"My favorite records are ones that create worlds for the songs to live in, which is exactly what I aimed to do with Forsythia," says Caudle. "I want this record to provide the same escape for listeners that writing the songs did for me in the heat of the pandemic when so many doubts were creeping into my head about if I'd ever be able to do this again. I'm so thankful that no longer looks like it'll be the case."

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