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Caleb Caudle set to release Carolina Ghost

by John Adamian

Caleb Caudle got up and walked out. This was back when he was in community college, after high school. He knew he had something more important to attend to.

“I don’t think I’m doing this anymore,” he told the instructor as he left the classroom. He went home and wrote a song.

And that was that for school.

It was a good call. Caudle — whose solid and emotional new album, “Carolina Ghost,” comes out Feb. 26, and who plays an album release party at The Garage on Feb 25 — was living in Winston-Salem. He’d been playing in garage bands since he was 14. But at the time he hadn’t really committed himself to being a songwriter. And even after he got serious about writing and performing his sad and pretty country-flavored songs, that didn’t mean that certain things wouldn’t suck and he wouldn’t want to blow town and every thing that was familiar.

He eventually left Winston-Salem and moved to New Orleans after working at Mellow Mushroom for seven years, playing with his band the Bayonets on the weekends and finally releasing his first solo album in 2012.

There was a stretch a little over two years ago during his time in the Crescent City when Caudle had to take a bus down to the French Quarter and busk on the streets to pay his rent. And there were some days when he could only really afford to eat spaghetti. One tour — to promote his record “Paint Another Layer On My Heart” — started inauspiciously with Caudle basically running out of gas an hour south of Nashville, forced to call his dad to ask him to wire some cash for a fill up.

There was the added problem of booze.

Caudle was drinking too much, out at the bars every night. And he was miserable. He decided to try to dry out.

“I was just so sad and so bummed out and so broke — not even money-wise, just broken,” says Caudle. “I had zero direction. I was like ‘I’ve tried everything else. I might as well try quitting drinking.’ That was the lowest point of my life, ever. Just being broke and trying to get sober in a town that wasn’t home.”

That part of the story ends well. Caudle moved back to the area about a year and a half ago.

“I needed to feel that anchor of home,” says Caudle, who grew up in Germanton, north of Winston-Salem.

He also fell in love. (He and his fiancé are hoping to get married in the fall.) All that plays out in the songs on his new record, which he recorded at Mitch Easter’s Fidelitorium Studio in Kernersville. There are a lot of love songs, but they’re mostly of a “I’m-damaged-and-you-saved-me” variety. The album has plenty of local and

regional color, with — in addition to the “Carolina Ghost” of the title — Piedmont skies, dogwood blossoms, the smell of sweet tobacco, a Shenandoah sunset, and I-40 East all making appearances in the lyrics.

“When I came back home, I fell in love with the city for a whole different set of reasons,” says Caudle, citing the natural beauty of the area.

But the region still casts a kind of spectre over the album.

“There’s a lot of beautiful stuff across the South, and then, hung over it all is still a sadness,” says Caudle. “I’m really drawn to that aspect of it. There’s some sadness. And I think if you’re living here and you can’t admit that, then you’re wrong. There’s some sad stuff happening still to this day.”

“Always look on the bright side” isn’t a sentiment that Caudle necessarily embraces.

“I think a lot of times people get lost in the good things,” he says. “I’m trying to at least see both sides of it. There are some great things, but there are also some things that everyone should be ashamed of.”

“Carolina Ghost” is a country record though, evoking early ’80s Merle Haggard and John Anderson, with impressively slow tempos and a warm blend of B3 organ, Fender Rhodes, pedal steel and dobro in addition to the strummed acoustics and sturdy rhythm section work. Listeners might also hear a connection to bands like the Jayhawks and Dawes in Caudle’s music, with its bittersweet vibe and carefully layered vocal harmonies. A distant echo of the band America’s nature-soaked folkrock and the countrypolitan sound of Glen Campbell can be detected as well.

The real draw is Caudle’s voice, which is lovely and well rounded, with the suggestion of grain, but characterized most by a tender depth and strength. He cites fellow North Carolinian vocal wonder Randy Travis as another influence.

For a real taste of what Caudle can do, the mix of tear-jerking emotion and stiffjawed resolve, listen to “Uphill Battle,” which is beautiful, melodic, and arresting from the first line.

The record is relaxed, but there’s nothing sloppy or even accidental about it.

Caudle says he tinkered with the mixes, the levels and the reverb for a while before arriving at his goal.

“Everything’s planned out. There’s nothing about that record that I don’t have my hands on,” he says. “It’s very deliberate.”

When asked if he’s a control freak, he says this:

“I don’t know if I’m a control freak. But I think that the guys who work with me probably think I’m pretty obsessive.”

The music, the songwriting and the touring life have given Caudle a perspective on urgency and change, the transition from jittery punk to more wistful cowboyhat-wearing troubadour.

“Every kid who’s 14 or 15 wants to hear loud and fast music,” says Caudle. “You slow down when you get a little older. I had what probably was some sort of rebellious anger, and that kind of stuff, over time, I feel like kinda changes to sadness. You get less angry and more sad about certain things. But you grow even past that. There’s a hopefulness.” !

WANNA go?

Caleb Caudle plays The Garage at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25. It’s a release party for “Carolina Ghost,” his new record. 110 West 7th St., Winston- Salem, 336-777-1127, the-garage.ws

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