Caleb Caudle on the South, Merle Haggard and More

Music Features Caleb Caudle
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Caleb Caudle on the South, Merle Haggard and More

If there’s any good that comes from the death of an iconic artist, it’s that the resulting posthumous attention can often usher in a new generation of fans. For those who are already fans, it only fuels an existing appreciation. This passion is especially poignant when it comes to up-and-coming artists, whose admiration helps create something. In the case of Americana crooner Caleb Caudle and his fandom of country music legend Merle Haggard, Haggard’s influence on him is obvious, yet as a musician, Caudle—to paraphrase the Hag—“wears his own kind of hat.”

Along with his previous album, Caudle’s latest, Carolina Ghost, has earned him comparisons to Jason Isbell. As lyrical as Isbell but less esoteric, Caudle prioritizes the tangible as a songwriter. “I feel like giving songs a setting is really important,” he says. “All my favorite songs have a setting. When George [Jones] and Tammy [Wynette] sing ‘Golden Ring,’ you’re there in that pawn shop in Chicago. For this album, I wanted to use Southern imagery because you know where the songs are geographically. It makes it easier to access, easier to get the meaning. My goal as a songwriter is to connect with people. After shows, when folks say ‘this line meant so much to me,’ that’s the best thing in the world.”

While Southern imagery is rich and wildly evocative, to Caudle, a native Southerner, it also represents home. “The record is a country record, and it’s all about home,” he says earnestly. “I lived in NOLA for a while and moved back home. It means finding stability, working through things to get to that stable place. Writing it was very therapeutic. All that stuff.” He laughs. “Being ok with who you are so you can be loved. Getting sober was the first step for me in a long line of things. I got sober, I found clarity, realized some things needed to change, changing those things, making the change to be able to love yourself, and then finding love and being able to accept it.”

Caudle’s music is powerful alternative to “both kinds” of modern country music: mainstream pop country and the growing outlaw contingent. “When I was writing Carolina Ghost, I listened to a lot of Keith Whitley and Randy Travis. There was also a period where all I listened to was Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms. I was like, ‘I don’t know anyone doing this anymore. What happened? Where did we get derailed?’ It’s either outlaw country or whatever’s on the radio,” he laments. “I just wish there was space on the radio for what I do. I feel like so many people just do it for money, and when you do that, you’re just bastardizing it. I just want people to tell stories. We’re all human; we’re all connected on this very basic level. You can bet that at any time, there are 100 people listening to it, finding their own meaning in it and relating to it in their own way. It’s a connection. It lasts forever. It’s all so connected. I love outlaw country, but it’s not me. If I did it, it would be fake, it wouldn’t be from the heart, and people wouldn’t relate to it.”

While appreciative of Haggard’s outlaw songs, he particularly loves his work from the 1980s. “I think it’s one of those deals where I grew up hearing a lot of Branded Man, Mama Tried, Sing Me Back Home. I’d heard it all a bunch and liked it. But when I was at this point in my life when I heard Misery and Gin and I could really relate to it. That’s when I really fell in love with him. He turned a corner musically,” Caudle says. “It got very personal and he became more brave, for lack of a better word. There was no filter; he was just being himself. That’s the toughest point to get to as a singer, but especially someone like that that has so many fans and critics judging. It was completely honest and vulnerable. And he did a great job. Those love songs hit me the most—they’re so personal. It’s so easy to make love songs cheesy, but from Merle they never feel anything but real. My favorite stuff he does is love songs.”

While reflecting on his own music and Haggard’s decades of success, it’s hard not to think of the future. “Well, I have 17 new songs written,” says Caudle. “After this tour wraps, I’ll demo it. It’s a different thing…it deals a lot with mortality. My fiance lost her grandfather, and then about a month later, I lost mine. We were both very close with our grandfathers. Just grappling with that love and loss.”

“I have no answers,” Caudle offers, “but I try to write my way to them.”