It’s a Thursday night at Nashville’s Station Inn, the world’s most famous bluegrass club, and the little room is packed but weirdly quiet. Some of Nashville’s finest Americana musicians are playing tonight — four-time Grammy winner Sarah Jarosz; guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge and banjoist Noam Pikelny from the Punch Brothers; fiddler Brittany Haas from the newgrass supergroup Hawktail; and Paul Kowert, who supplies telepathic upright bass to both of those bands.
They’re not here to show off their chops; instead, they’re serving the calm, luminous songs of the least-known musician onstage, singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty. It’s the release party for Canty’s fourth album, Quiet Flame, and these players are both her friends (or in Pikelny’s case, her husband) and her backing band on the record.
Tall and striking with chestnut hair and a ginormous smile, Canty is wearing her lucky red shirt – the one she saves for really important gigs – and radiating unbridled joy. Eight years ago, when she was 33, Canty released an album called Reckless Skyline and was hailed by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the next great Americana star.” Five years after that, she was gaining serious momentum — there was a Vermont show where so many people showed up that Canty had to play an impromptu set in a nearby church for those who couldn’t get in — when Covid shut down touring. Then she and Pikelny had their first baby. Now she’s 41, making the finest music of her career but not sure whether that big break will ever happen. And having way too much fun to care.
Canty doesn’t have or want a record label, a manager, or a publicist. She sells her own music and merch, and packs clubs from Nashville to New Hampshire. She wants nothing more than to be where she is right now, onstage playing these new songs with her friends. Flanked by Haas, Kowert, and Jarosz, she fingerpicks a simple repeating lick on her big old sunburst acoustic guitar. Banjo, fiddle and bass fall in and a mellow, hypnotic groove takes hold. It’s Quiet Flame’s opening track, “Blue Sky Moon” — Canty’s response to those who think her life and career should be moving any faster than she chooses. In a voice that’s warm, clear and conversational, she sings about standing still in a wide river, letting the current rush by and not following. Jarosz adds a high harmony line. Their eyes are closed and they’re swaying in time, voices fused and softly gleaming. It’s the first time they have sung together in public.
When the song ends, it takes a moment for the spell to break. Then the hardcore Canty fans, the tourists with no idea who she is, and the East Nashville hipsters all start hooting for this unguarded artist who dares to be sincere and open-hearted — and somehow makes other people want to be those things too.
“I’m as new as I’ve ever been,” Canty tells me a few days later. “I stepped off the wheel for a while and now it’s test-the-waters time again. But I feel lucky: I’m owning the middle ground of being a middle-aged singer-songwriter, taking my time coming out with this record. It’s not trying too hard to grab your attention. If you feel like hearing it, it’s there for you. But I’m not trying to convince anyone to love me anymore.”
If it sounds as if she’s underselling herself, that’s Canty. “There’s something both humble and extra powerful about Caitlin,” says Critter Eldridge, who produced the new album. “Especially in this age of Instagram, when people are hungry to connect but spend so much time living on the surface. She goes deep. She has enormous craft but no artifice. She’s not interested in playing it cool. And she makes a roomful of strangers feel connected.”
Sarah Craig has been watching Canty forge those connections for a decade. As executive director of America’s oldest folk club, Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, Craig saw Canty mind-meld with a handful of listeners in a near-empty Lena in 2015, her first time at the club, and then do it again with a packed house three years later. “Each time, she had the same transformative effect on people — unlocking them, taking them to a place of serenity, allowing something inside them to re-emerge. That’s rare. She’s gentle and elegant and magical.”
Unlike her bandmates, who toured professionally as teens, Canty didn’t pick up the guitar until she was 17. A sixth-gen small-town Vermonter, she started writing nature-infused songs at Williams College but majored in biology because “I didn’t even know how music could be a job.”
In 2007, she was living in New York City, working as a sustainability consultant and posting her own music online, when she decided to figure that out. One night she cleaned off her whiteboard and listed what it would take to make music full-time. Near the top of the list: Find a musical community.
That started to happen when Canty met singer-songwriter Kristin Andreassen and her boyfriend (now husband) Eldridge. Andreassen invited her to a music camp where Canty had the chance to jam with fiddlers and banjo players for the first time. The experience galvanized her. She was offered a promotion at work but quit instead.
Over the next few years she toured hard and recorded — on her own, with the indie folk band Darlingside, and with the duo Down Like Silver. The attention Reckless Skyline brought her yielded a chance to record her next album, in 2018, with a producer who surrounded her with Nashville studio pros. But when Canty heard the result she decided not to release it. “No magic,” she says. “It was the first time I ever set fire to a big pile of money.”
She was living in Nashville, dating Pikelny, and decided to re-record the album with him producing. This time the magic was unmistakable. Canty’s then-publicist wanted to promote the record as a love story, but Canty wouldn’t trade on her boyfriend’s name. She and Pikelny were married quietly two weeks after Motel Bouquet came out.
The album was widely hailed and the title track scored millions of streams. Canty toured even harder, selling out the clubs and opening for bigger stars in theaters. “You started to feel the groundswell,” says Matt Smith, managing director of Club Passim, the venerable Cambridge folk venue. “She found her audience.” In the fall of 2019 she tried out a batch of new material at a Chattanooga show backed by Haas and Kowert; Eldridge sat in and agreed to produce her next album. Canty could feel the songs coming into focus. She told Eldridge, “This is the most prepared I’ve ever been for a record! There’s nothing that could go wrong!”
Nine days later, a tornado swept through East Nashville, just missing Canty’s house and flattening the park across the street. Two weeks after that, the pandemic canceled her studio dates. Meanwhile, she and Pikelny were expecting their first child. It would be almost two years before she got back into the studio.
When Canty and her friends finally did, her concept for the album had evolved. She, Pikelny and their baby boy had been listening to the lazy acoustic grooves of a 1993 album Jerry Garcia recorded with mandolinist David Grisman, Not for Kids Only. Pikelny called it “falling off a log music,” and she wanted that vibe for her record. “Strip away everything inessential,” she says. “No drummer. No electric instruments. Nothing too complicated.” Without a drummer, she needed another player to round out the band. Eldridge said, “What about Sarah Jarosz?” Canty replied, “That would be amazing but what are the chances?” Canty and Jarosz knew each other from porch hangs but had never played together. Jarosz, however, had been moved by a song Canty released in the teeth of the 2020 presidential election, “Where is the Heart of My Country?” A tour of our broken, magnificent land “from California’s burning forests to the New York island,” it summons an America older and deeper than our politics. “That was some serious songwriting at a time when people really needed it,” says Jarosz. She signed on immediately. “This is a record that could only be made by a fully realized woman who knows herself very well,” she says. “I wanted to be part of it.”
They rehearsed the songs in Brittany Haas’s living room, then cut the record live in four days — aching torch songs, meditations on perseverance and hard-won peace of mind, and a couple of swinging country rockers, “Pull the Moon” and “Odds of Getting Even.” Keeping things simple freed the players to create some of the most emotionally resonant music of their careers. Haas’s fiddle became the chief instrumental voice, Kowert bowed his upright bass for a string quartet vibe, and Canty’s percussive fingerpicking found a satisfying push-and-pull with Jarosz’ octave mandolin. Above it all, Canty explored the textures of her mature voice: creases, crannies and a subtle rasp that rescues it from being too pretty.
“I’m not interested in perfection,” she says. “I’m interested in belief.” Listening to playbacks in the studio, she’d point at the monitors and ask, “Do you believe what that girl is singing?”
Her friends did believe, and they’re certain a lot of other people soon will as well. Canty isn’t worrying about that. “Winning my game is not what I’m after,” she says. “If I was mapping out my life, I don’t know what I’d put on the whiteboard right now. I just want to keep it where I can write more and better songs, make more and better records, and play as many shows as I can. The older we get, the more direct we can become.”
Caitlin Canty appears at the The Fisher Center at Bard College on June 29 as part of the Bluegrass On Hudson series.