The sub-genre of alt-country has always seemed a fitful and inadequate label for the music it contains. Although part of this tension stems from corralling very different bands and artists, some of this friction appears to come from within these bands themselves. Two of the most influential alt-country bands, Uncle Tupelo and Whiskeytown, not only defined (and defied) the sub-genre during their relatively brief tenures, but also balanced, however tenuously, the wills of two strong voices and artistic visions. With Uncle Tupelo’s collapse, Jeff Tweedy began the ever expanding, genre-confounding project of Wilco, while Jay Farrar refined his take on Americana with Son Volt. Upon Whiskeytown’s dissolution, Ryan Adams’ voracious creative appetite launched a lucrative solo career almost as prolific as it is inconsistent, while Caitlin Cary’s willingness to continue forging fruitful collaborations has yielded a handful of solo albums and side-projects that have enriched the state of modern independent country music. Cary’s 2005 album with Thad Cockrell, Begonias, serves as an excellent example of her post-Whiskeytown work by delivering a timeless set of songs about the rougher, sadder side of love.
Cary and Cockrell’s success on this album derives from how beautifully their partnership cuts through the drama and mixed messages that often accompany alt-country music. In many ways, this album is an unapologetically old fashioned country record featuring great musicians ruminating on heartache and heartbreak and having a good time while doing so. In Thad Cockrell, Cary finds a highly compatible voice, a like-minded songwriting partner, and a skilled performer adept at the kind of role-playing these songs encourage. The album breaks out confidently with a trio of great songs that each address the central theme: the inevitable imbalance that occurs when love doesn’t play out the way you were hoping. A nearly mathematical logic presides over these three songs and establishes the album’s focus on those who come out on the losing side of love’s equations. Following an enticing acoustic guitar flourish, “Two Different Things” eases into a medium tempo as Cockrell gently opens the narrative of a lover slowly coming to accept that his relationship no longer matches his desires. After joining Cockrell for the chorus, Cary takes the next verse and assures us that neither lover in this union feels any satisfaction. As both characters open up about their love failing to meet their expectations, the bitter-sweet tone folds into a wordless chorus showing off how beautifully these two can sing together. “Something Less Than Something More” features Cary in the lead role and introduces a tone of melancholy directly into the album by way of a distant, plaintive pedal steel guitar performance and Cockrell’s haunting backup vocal. Cary’s speaker engages in a similar kind of introspection as the previous song, but this time her loneliness echoes as she alone wonders whether she’s fooling herself. Rounding out the trio of openers, “Second Option” teases through a brief intro of a loping drum beat accented by a meandering organ part before kicking into gear as the album’s most rocking number. The song’s energy and drive fit nicely with the speaker’s defiance toward an indecisive lover. Cockrell takes the lead here and gives the song a strong sense of independence and hard-earned self-worth. Saving the best nearly for last, “Conversations About A Friend (Who’s in Love with Katie)” runs nearly twice as long as the other songs, but uses this time wisely to tell the story of one lover leaving another for new opportunities. Highlighting Cary and Cockrell’s considerable chemistry as both singers and storytellers as well as the remarkable talents of their band, “Conversations About A Friend” breathes life into both the beleaguered genre of country and the contentious sub-genre of alt-country.
For all of the stories about losing in love contained in this collection, Begonias is anything but a downer. Modern perspectives on love, relationships, and human psychology shape these updated takes on the archetypal country song about a broken heart. Yes, these songs focus on loneliness, loss, rejection, and longing, but a strong sense of hope and survival holds the album together. The unwillingness to give up showcased in these songs resonates nicely with Cary’s career after Whiskeytown. After forming a critically acclaimed, ground-breaking band that broke up just as they were beginning to hit it big, Cary has survived creatively by establishing rewarding partnerships like this one and her group with Lynn Blakey and Tonya Lamm, Tres Chicas. Cary’s solo career stands apart from her former band-mate’s as well as those of her peers from Uncle Tupelo because she has returned to the origins of country music instead of viewing it as just a launching point. Begonias pulls off the nifty feat of enlivening the essential virtues of country music while at same time demonstrating that there is life (and love) after alt-country.