Every couple of years or so, a singer-songwriter comes to Austin and sets the town’s music scene on its ear. The release of Caroline Herring’s debut, Twilight, in late 2001 kicked up a lot of dust and led to her being named Best New Artist in the year-end Austin American-Statesman critic’s poll.
“The day I won the best new artist in the critics poll in the Statesman,” she recalls, “it was like everything changed in an instant.…Since then the rooms that I’ve played have been packed. The reaction I’ve received is incredible.” The accolades continued in March, when she also took home Best New Artist honors at the Austin Chronicle-sponsored Austin Music Awards during the South By Southwest festival.
Herring is earning such acclaim by making old-fashioned folk music. Her songs are pure and simple, performed on acoustic instruments, filled with lyrics informed by the literary giants in her former hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Then there is her resonant voice; some say she recalls Kate Wolf, a natural match for the folk, bluegrass and old-time country she uses to convey her stories.
Herring grew up in Mississippi and attended Ole Miss. After graduation, she became part of an Oxford bluegrass band, the Sincere Ramblers, singing, playing guitar and mandolin. In the mid-’90s, the Ramblers started a radio show in a used bookstore. Once a week they hosted the Thackery Mountain Radio Show, part live music and part spoken word. It was during her time with the Ramblers that Herring met and got to play with the likes of Peter Rowan, Gillian Welch, Tony Furtado, Blue Mountain and the Bottle Rockets, among others. (Rowan later served as a guest player on Twilight.)
In the fall of 1999, Herring moved to Austin as doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Texas. When she got there, Rowan introduced her to Billy and Bryn Bright, who play with Rowan in the Texas Trio and their own Two High String Band. The Brights soon signed on as Herring’s backup band. They spent a year playing happy-hour shows at Stubb’s, which eventually led to a deal with the fledgling Houston label Blue Corn for the release of Twilight.
Herring is currently on her first major tour, which will take her to Philadelphia, New York and Chicago in May. “I just can’t get over it; I played at the Folk Alliance convention, and because of that, I got a gig at the Newport Folk Festival,” she marvels. “In June, though, I’m taking a couple of weeks off to get married.”
With such success, some skepticism is inevitable. “The minutes are ticking,” she says with a laugh. “I was supposed to be on CNN during South By Southwest, and I missed it. So I wondered if my 15 minutes were over. But it’s either the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning.”