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On ‘Quiet Flame,’ Caitlin Canty Finds Truth and Hope in the Middle

Jun 27, 2023

On 'Quiet Flame,' Caitlin Canty Finds Truth and Hope in the Middle

Caitlin Canty is in the middle — in the middle of moving houses (behind her when we connected on Zoom this spring is a Jenga tower of bankers boxes) and in the middle of prepping an album release, which we’re in the middle of talking about when she isn’t in the middle of pushing a pair of overeager dogs from her lap (“These dogs!”), all of which is taking place in the middle of her toddler’s nap.

The moving, the music, and the motherhood are taking place in the middle of her life (Canty turned forty-one in January) and the middle of her career: Quiet Flame, her latest record, is her fourth.

Oceans of ink have been spilled on beginnings and endings, on best new artists, and lifetime achievements. We rarely think about the middle, write about it, or sing about it. But Caitlin Canty does.

Quiet Flame is a dispatch from — and a celebration of — the middle; it is a testament to the in-between, to the precious spaces between day and night, birth and death, here and home. It is also a rallying cry, a call not to run from middle moments, but to revel in them. “Breakneck boy goes speeding by / In a hell-bent race to some finish line,” Canty sings on the album’s opening track, “Blue Sky Moon.” “I ain’t going with him… Gonna take my time in the middle of the road.”

This is a new message for Canty, one that asks the listener not to “get up before the road pulls you under,” as Canty sang on 2015’s Reckless Skyline, but to accept the road as it is, accept that it may pull us under, and enjoy the ride. “If the pandemic and [2020 Nashville] tornado taught me anything,” Canty says, “It’s all the things I thought I could control are out of my control. The natural world is beautiful. It’s also terrifying,” she exclaims with a half laugh, “it can just crush you in a second.” (That tornado missed her house by thirty feet.)

This new vision, however, hasn’t diminished Canty’s optimism. With a heightened sense of all that is lost and lose-able, Canty offers not less hope, but more. “Let it roll, let it ride / Let your sweet heart open wide,” she sings on “Pull the Moon.”

“I let go of a lot of things I thought were my fault, or my responsibility, things I thought I could do everything about, or take care of, or succeed at,” she explains. “And what I found was an ability to be happy in devastating moments in time. Even when it gets dark and troubled, to find a way not to ignore that — to address it — but to stay buoyant.”

It is this clear-sighted courage — what amounts to Canty’s profound musical and lyrical authenticity — that not only sets Canty apart, but draws so many of the acoustic world’s greatest artists into her corner. “Caitlin just has such a magnificent view of the world,” Grammy Award-winning guitarist and Quiet Flame producer Chris Eldridge says. “It’s so strong and true and clear and honest. You just believe it.”

Among those drawn to Canty’s vision — to her clarity, honesty, believability — are some of the greatest artists in contemporary music, making the Quiet Flame band a bona-fide acoustic supergroup: on banjo, mandolin, and harmony vocals you have singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz (another Grammy winner); on bass, Paul Kowert of Punch Brothers and Hawktail (yet another Grammy winner); and on fiddle, Brittany Haas (also of Hawktail and the newest member of Punch Brothers), who is widely considered the greatest fiddler of her generation.

“Every artist has a vision,” Kowert says, “But I specifically would say I believe Caitlin. I believe her about what she’s seeing in the songs.”

“There’s such conviction,” Haas adds. “It’s so clearly from the heart.”

For Jarosz, Canty’s super-distinction is the totality of her authenticity and an unusual ability for Canty to “sound like herself” in every domain of her artistry. “Her ability to be herself within her songs has always been very obvious to me, before I even knew her,” Jarosz says. “My favorite singers sound like themselves when they’re talking — their singing voice is a genuine extension of them, their personality. Tim O’Brien has that, Gillian Welch has that, Caitlin has that. It’s almost like Caitlin’s voice is so true —it’s like it’s not an option for her to be anyone but herself. And the songs are also that way.”

The songs of Quiet Flame mark not only a musical achievement, but an achievement of spirit. “It takes a very self-assured, fully realized human being to be able to make a record that’s this exposed,” Jarosz continues. “The record takes its time. It takes a very mature musician — and person — to have the courage to let these songs unfold the way they do.”

It is no small feat that Canty manages to make this deliberately slow journey, this taking our time in the middle of the road, so arresting. Such is a testament, of course, to the music as music; to Canty’s voice (“Caitlin, in her way, is as good a singer as exists,” Eldridge says); to her effortless melodic sensibility; to what Haas calls the unusual “variety and diversity of what [her] songs are like, what they allow and make room for texturally.” It is also a testament to the production vision of Eldridge, who Canty calls the perfect “co-pilot,” and to his attention to the “big picture.”

Each member of Canty’s band offers a tour de force on their instruments. In Canty’s words, Kowert is a “Multi-instrumentalist on his instrument… essential, the strongest foundation… my favorite bass player I’ve ever played with”; Haas is a “Flamethrower! Her fiddle is an electric guitar! It’s grit and mournfulness — not sad, defiant; not sorrowful, defiant”; Jarosz is “Just insanely good — insanely good singer, insanely beautiful instrumentalist — the most solid partner; she held it down!”

In turn, the band is quick to praise the rare musical freedom Canty affords them. “She makes so much space for other musicians in her music,” Haas says. “She’s really good at being like, ‘I hired you to be you,’ instead of, ‘I want you to do this very specific thing that involves only playing these four notes.’”

The result? The band gets to see their true selves in the work — even their best selves. “‘Odds of Getting Even’ is one of my favorite performances I’ve ever played,” Kowert remarks. “My playing on that song is really exemplary of something that I am uniquely able to do, which is bowing the bass that way, driving the rhythm with the bow.” Multi-instrumentalist Noam Pikelny (still another Grammy winner), who is featured on “I Don’t Think of You,” says much the same: “[It’s] easily one of my favorite examples of my playing captured on record.”

Most of all, however, the success of Quiet Flame’s slow burn is owed to the trust Canty engenders in her audience. It is a trust natural to Canty, but made all the more affecting by her decision, for the first time in her career, to make an entirely acoustic record. “Intimacy is just kind of baked into the nature of acoustic music,” Eldridge explains. “You just intuitively understand that what you’re hearing is what can happen in somebody’s living room. So when you commit to doing a string band record, you’re committing to a certain kind of intimacy. It casts the artist, and the songs, in a different light—in a light that asks the listener to lean in a little bit more, asks the listener to be a part of a moment.”

It is with the listener leaning in close, grounded in the moment with Quiet Flame, that Canty offers a vision both audacious and convincing, that she shares the unmistakable and unshakeable sense that all will be well; that even in the face of so many black holes, we too will be okay; that we, like Canty, will arrive “by the highway home” – a lyric after Robert Frost.

“They all told me love could feel this way,” she sings. “I never thought I would see the day.”

It is the peculiar gift of Caitlin Canty that when she says love can feel “this way” – or even that “nothing’s gone, only changed” – one can’t help but think she’s right.


(See our full post on Caitlin Canty’s episode of Basic Folk here.) 

Photo Credit: David McClister

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On 'Quiet Flame,' Caitlin Canty Finds Truth and Hope in the Middle
On 'Quiet Flame,' Caitlin Canty Finds Truth and Hope in the Middle