If you’ve never heard a rural-Mississippi-born woman joke about her distinctive Southern drawl, you’re missing out.
When describing her 4-year-old’s response to her music, singer/songwriter and Decatur resident Caroline Herring laughs. “My daughter would say, ‘Mama, play “Fair and Tender L-a-a-adies” and I thought, ‘Oh no, I’ve given the word “lady” three syllables!’”
But Southern she is, and boldly so; Herring is an artist not only possessed of an undeniable below-the-Mason-Dixon-line identity, but she’s also studied the region’s folklore, first at Ole Miss and then in a prestigious doctoral program at the University of Texas in Austin.
The vicissitudes of life, however, are what sent Herring careening along a path of rich experience that informs three CDs of soulful and literate folk: from faith-challenging missionary work in China, to starting Mississippi Public Radio’s Thacker Mountain Radio Hour, to reconciling career ambitions with the challenges of family life. Her newest offering, Lantana, is a tour de force that follows a five-year hiatus from the singer/songwriter’s life, during which time she married, became the mother of two, and relocated from Austin to Decatur.
Lantana—named for a butterfly-attracting plant indigenous to the South—is garnering a lot of attention, in part because of “Paper Gown,” an audacious true-to-life Southern Gothic murder ballad. In it, Herring takes on the harrowing voice of South Carolinian Susan Smith—the woman who drowned her two sons in order to accommodate her lover, then claimed a black man had abducted them.
“I get really tired of singing it, to be honest with you,” she says, sighing. “Critics have really loved it, but the radio has not, which isn’t a surprise. It’s as far as you can get from a ‘feel-good song.’ It’s such a taboo subject. That was one of the reasons I wrote it. It’s my responsibility as a Southern woman and a traditional writer, and there it was, waiting for me. So I did it.”
Herring’s personal—and ultimately redemptive—struggles are represented in Lantana’s “Stone Cold World.” Her unique Mother Maybelle-meets-Joan Baez alto transports the listener to Newfoundland’s barren and beautiful terrain, which serves as a metaphor for the unknown and rocky territory she and her new husband found in their first year of marriage. Coming to terms with what she calls “the essentiality of sacrifice,” she says, “When you’re trying to work it out with someone on a day-to-day basis for the rest of your life, there’s give and take, and when you get married, that’s in your face.”
Continuing in the pioneer spirit, the decision to start a family followed. Five years on, Herring has found ways to dovetail duties as a partner, mother and artist. The sonic quality of this juggling act can be heard on her haunting, jazzy rendition of “All The Pretty Horses,” which Herring, like countless mothers before her, sang to her daughter. “My husband said, ‘You’ve gotta put that on your record,’” she relates, “and as I was preparing it from a Smithsonian book of lullabies, I learned the singer and writer is a slave woman taking care of the white woman’s babies while her baby is crying back in the slave quarters.”
Alongside her fascination with women in challenging circumstances is Herring’s faith, most obviously demonstrated on her stately gospel chestnut “Lay My Burden Down.” Until Lantana, she had not gone out of her way to reveal her life-changing missionary past in China. “That’s the skeleton that came out of the closet for this project,” she admits, wary of being cast as one of the clichéd “Methodist Home Missionary Society Ladies” sent by Southern church groups to “convert” the Chinese.
“It takes a lot of arrogance to make that move,” she says, “but I didn’t think of it as that. I was simply trying to go all the way, full court press as it were, and very humbly so, to see what the experience would be like. I’m not ashamed of it. It was one of the best experiences of my life. If I were to go today, however, I wouldn’t go with absolute knowledge of much. I still would call myself a Christian-at-large, but I don’t understand as much as I used to.”
The devotional energy that has imbued so much of Herring’s life now is in full flower as she hits her stride as a singer/songwriter. One unexpected plus of having the disparate strands of her life come together in what she calls “the town within the big city” of Decatur is her proximity to Eddie’s Attic. “It’s an amazing club,” she enthuses. “I live just a few blocks from there. They are the most supportive, wonderful people.”
Seeing how audiences both local and far-flung are moved by her work, she possesses more conviction than ever.
“My job is to be heartfelt and honest and to put myself out there when I get onstage,” she says. “It definitely affects people, and we need it. When I get the chance to do what I want to do, have confidence in it and work hard at it, I’m easier to be around. I’m a nicer person. I have more energy to be a good partner and a good mother. Even as I have more ‘real’ time constraints at home, I’m really enjoying my career. I’m at the point where there’s no looking back.”