It’s a Thursday night at Nashville’s Station Inn, the world’s most famous bluegrass club, and the small room is crowded but oddly quiet. Some of Nashville’s best Americana musicians are playing tonight — four-time Grammy winner Sarah Jarosz; guitarist Chris “Critter” Eldridge and banjoist Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers; violinist Brittany Haas of the newgrass supergroup Hawktail; and Paul Kowert, who provides telepathic double bass to both bands.
They’re not here to show off their chops; instead, they serve up the calm, radiant songs of the stage’s least-known musician, singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty. It’s the release party for Canty’s fourth album, silent 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 auburn hair and a giant smile, Canty wears her lucky red shirt – the one she saves for really important appearances – and exudes unbridled joy. Eight years ago, when she was 33, Canty released an album called Reckless skyline and was praised by the San Francisco Chronicle as “the next big Americana star.” She really took off five years later — there was a show in Vermont where so many people showed up that Canty had to play an impromptu set at a nearby church for those who couldn’t get in — when Covid stopped touring. Then she and Pikelny had their first baby. Now she’s 41 and making the best music of her career, but she’s not sure if that big break will ever come. And having way too much fun to care.
Canty doesn’t have or want a record label, manager or publicist. She sells her own music and merchandise, and has clubs from Nashville to New Hampshire. She wants nothing more than to be where she is now, on stage playing these new songs with her friends. Flanked by Haas, Kowert and Jarosz, she strums a simple repetitive lick on her big old sunburst acoustic guitar. Banjo, violin and bass fall in and a soft, hypnotic groove takes over. Are Silent Flames opening track, “Blue Sky Moon” – Canty’s response to those who think her life and career should move faster than she wants. In a voice that is warm, clear and jovial, 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 sway in time, voices fused and softly shimmering. It is the first time they sing together in public.
When the song ends, it takes a while for the spell to break. Then the hard-core Canty fans, the tourists who have no idea who she is, and the East Nashville hipsters all start cheering for this unguarded performer who dares to be honest and forthright – and somehow gets other people to those things want to be.
“I’m as new as I’ve ever been,” Canty tells me a few days later. “I got off the wheel for a bit and now it’s time to test the water again. But I’m lucky: I own the middle ground as a middle-aged singer-songwriter and take the time to come out with this record. It’s not trying too hard to get your attention. If you feel like hearing it, it’s here for you. But I’m not trying to convince anyone to love me anymore.”
If it sounds like she’s underestimating herself, that’s Canty. “There’s something about Caitlin that’s both humble and powerful,” says Critter Eldridge, who produced the new album. “Especially in this Instagram era where people are hungry to connect but spend so much time on the surface. She goes deep. She has tremendous craft, but no artifice. She’s not interested in playing it cool. And she makes a room full of strangers feel connected.
Sarah Craig has watched Canty forge those connections for a decade. As the executive director of America’s oldest folk club, Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, 2015 saw Craig Canty, her first time at the club, merge with a handful of listeners in a nearly empty Lena, then do it again with a three years later full house. “Each time, she had the same transformative effect on people – unlocking them, taking them to a place of serenity, reawakening something in them. That’s rare. She’s gentle and elegant and magical.”
Unlike her bandmates, who toured professionally as a teenager, Canty did not take up the guitar until she was 17. I don’t even know how music can 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 check it out. One night she cleaned up her whiteboard and listed what it took to make music full-time. Near the top of the list: Find a musical community.
That started when Canty met singer-songwriter Kristin Andreassen and her boyfriend (now husband) Eldridge. Andreassen invited her to a music camp where Canty had the first chance to jam with violinists and banjo players. The experience excited her. She was offered a promotion at work, but quit instead.
In the years that followed, she toured and recorded hard – on her own, with the indie folk band Darlingside, and with the duo Down Like Silver. The attention Reckless skyline brought her the chance to record her next album, in 2018, with a producer who surrounded her with studio professionals from Nashville. 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 lived in Nashville, dated Pikelny, and decided to re-record the album while he produced. This time the magic was undeniable. Canty’s publicist at the time wanted to promote the record as a love story, but Canty would not act on her boyfriend’s name. She and Pikelny were quietly married two weeks later Motel Bouquet came out.
The album was critically acclaimed 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 tidal wave,” says Matt Smith, general manager of Club Passim, the venerable folk venue in Cambridge. “She has found her audience.” In the fall of 2019, she tried out a batch of new material at a show in Chattanooga backed by Haas and Kowert; Eldridge sat down and agreed to produce her next album. Canty felt the songs coming into focus. She told Eldridge, “This is the most prepared I’ve ever been for a record!” Nothing can go wrong!”
Nine days later, a tornado swept through East Nashville, narrowly missing Canty’s home 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 went back into the studio.
When Canty and her friends finally did, her concept for the album had evolved. She, Pkelny, and their young son had been listening to the lazy acoustic grooves of a 1993 album Jerry Garcia had recorded with mandolin player David Grisman. Not just for kids. Pikelny called it “falling off a block of music”, and she wanted that vibe for her record. “Strip away anything nonessential,” she says. “No drummer. No electrical instruments. Nothing too complicated.” Without a drummer, she needed another player to complete the band. Eldridge said, “What about Sarah Jarosz?” Canty replied, “That would be great, but what are the odds?” Canty and Jarosz knew each other from porches, but had never played together. However, Jarosz was 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 country “from the burning forests of California to the island of New York,” it evokes an America older and more profound than our politics. “That was what serious songwriting at a time when people really needed it,” says Jarosz. She logged in immediately. “This is a record that can only be made by a fully realized woman who knows herself very well,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it.”
They rehearsed the songs in Brittany Haas’s living room and then recorded the record live over four days – painful torch songs, meditations on perseverance and hard-won peace of mind, and some swinging country rockers, “Pull the Moon” and “Odds of Revenge.” Keeping it simple allowed the players to create the most emotionally resonant music of their careers.Haas’ fiddle became the main instrumental voice, Kowert bent his upright bass for a string quartet vibe, and Canty’s percussive fingerpicking found a satisfying push-and-pull with Jarosz’s octave mandolin Above all, Canty explored the textures of her mature voice: folds, holes and a subtle rasp that keeps it from getting too pretty.
“I’m not interested in perfection,” she says. “I’m interested in faith.” While listening to playbacks in the studio, she pointed to the monitors and asked, “Do you believe what that girl is singing?”
Her friends did believe, and they’re sure many other people will soon too. Canty isn’t worried about that. “Winning my game isn’t what I’m looking for,” she says. “If I were to map out my life, I don’t know what I would write 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 possible. 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.