Caleb Caudle’s Forsythia is elemental, captivating with a rich greenness textured at intervals by bluebirds, flowering gold, and even a darkness that somehow feels necessary rather than foreboding, the shadow from his heels in the morning sun.
Returning to Cash Cabin, the warm scene of 2020’s fatefully timed Betty Hurry Up, Caudle’s sound takes a turn for the mountain, unplugging the amps, eschewing the organ and groove for lacing fiddles, serpentine dobro, and Carolina bluegrass. If that reads like a step back, I assure you that it’s not, and for fans of smooth, organic harmony and instrumentation, Forsythia strikes boxes and chords.
Highlights include the Guy Clark-ish cuts “I Don’t Fit In” and “Texas Tea”, both wrapped up tight in dobro courtesy of Jerry Douglas while the low rolling backbeats of “The Gates” and “Crazy Wayne” retain the Tulsa Groove’d toe-tapping of Caudle’s previous effort.
The title track, an absolute standout with its sugar cane days, hardware store, hard candy, and harmonicas in the key of C finds Caleb on memory lane with a buckeye in his pocket. Like the majority of the album, “Forsythia” is replete with granite-hewn imagery that’s almost touchable or even fragrant, each word the sound of the North Carolinian’s boots through the soft earth of the forest at just the right time of day.
Caudle spends a great deal of Forsythia looking inward and back, a dangerous byproduct for any artist forced to ground during the pandemic. Where some may have stumbled creatively, Caleb seems to have kept or at least regained his footing, finding grace and renewed purpose in “Through My Hands”, possibly earning forgiveness from himself in the claim, “I wasn’t put here just to worry.”
My favorite tale on the album comes in the form of “Whirligig”, a narrative that follows a spry octogenarian who crafts yard spinners and birdhouses, likes bluegrass and cowboy shows, and holds his memories gratefully by the hand. Instinctively considering a fallen love, Caleb sings, “He still gets two ice cream cones / Ordering only one for himself / It just don’t feel right,” and I’m floored. It’s the kind of deceptively simple line that nevertheless finds a way around the corner of the song to create both possibility and nostalgia.
Forsythia was produced by John Carter Cash at his father’s private studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee, and features appearances from Sam Bush, Carlene Carter, Elizabeth Cook, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Fred Eltringham, and Sarah Peasall McGuffey. Certainly, the album is a departure but whether a change in trajectory or merely a segue will take time to determine. Either way, Caleb Caudle flexes soundly as a songwriter and deliver’s another side of himself that’s sure to resonate with admirers old and new.