Review: Ex-Whiskeytown Co-founder Caitlin Cary’s Debut Solo Album Remains Fresh And Vibrant 20 Years Later

Caitlin Cary
While You Weren’t Looking-20th Anniversary
(Yep Roc)
4 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

While most of us weren’t looking, singer/songwriter Caitlin Cary’s 2002 full-length debut turned 20 years old. While it wasn’t a huge seller, the singer/songwriter and ex-founding member of Whiskeytown’s solo stab was, and remains, a superb example of Cary’s talents; not just as a songsmith (she co-wrote all 14 tunes), but as a distinctive, formidable vocalist, gifted lyricist, and talented violinist.

To celebrate this anniversary and perhaps bring some overdue attention to its charms, Yep Roc is releasing a vinyl edition for the first time (limited, they note), adding three bonus tracks recorded at the sessions.

Cary has since shifted her focus to visual arts and as recently as 2021 opened a gallery near her hometown of Raleigh, NC. But for a while she had an active, if perhaps not thriving, post-Whiskeytown music career with two albums under her own name, a duet disc with Thad Cockrell (another lost gem), some EPs, and membership in the  “super girl group” (the publicity’s words) Tres Chicas.   

Cary began her solo career with the Chris Stamey-produced While You Weren’t Looking, which appeared just a year after the final Whiskeytown release Pneumonia. Mike Daly, another alumnus from that band, co-wrote most of the songs and played on many of its tracks. But without Ryan Adams aboard (he gets partial writing credit for two tunes), this is pretty far from Whiskeytown’s indie twang territory.

Rather it’s a showcase for Cary’s sublime vocals, a mix of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie and Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny. She swings from the soulful country of “Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart” to the bluegrass strains that partially dominate “Hold On to Me” and the Brit-based folk ballad “Trickle of Whiskey” that might reference her previous band but is eerily reminiscent of some of Denny’s work. She’s in full folkie mode for the warm “Fireworks,” a bittersweet remembrance of a romance that feels personal and touching. The latter also displays Cary’s violin skills as she injects just the right amount to bring a touching note to the already intimate tune.

The disc’s centerpiece is “The Fair,” a waltz-time entry that appears in both acoustic and electric (band) versions. A closing extra has The Backsliders’ Chip Robinson’s grizzled voice narrating “Keys to the Fair,” a song seemingly referencing the same concept. The sweeping, melodic opening “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water” with its singalong chorus, pedal steel guitar (two of ‘em are credited), subtle cello and ringing guitars could easily have been a single.

If any album from twenty years ago deserves a second shot at a larger market, and maybe a new lease on life, it’s this one. Whether on CD or now on vinyl, it’s a keeper that even at two decades old, feels fresh and inspired.      

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