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Once a Cactus Café regular, Herring returns with a new CD, ‘Camilla'

Brian T. Atkinson
Musician Caroline Herring, a former Austin resident, frequently plays the Cactus Café.

Caroline Herring's "Camilla" bests captivating interpretations ("Black Mountain Lullaby") with elegant ("Summer Song") and energetic originals ("Joy Never Ends"). The former Cactus Café fixture returns Friday to support her seamless new collection.

"The type of music I do is the type people have always done at the Cactus," the current Decatur, Ga., resident says. "A club that recognizes us is important. Just to have a place like the Cactus behind me makes all the difference in the world."

American-Statesman: Explain how the new album took shape.

Caroline Herring: I worked with (producer) Erick Jaskowiak in Nashville, and I took him lots of songs. Some of them are based on events during the civil rights movement.

Did working with the Cecil Sharp Project influence the material? (Herring was one of eight musicians chosen for the project, in which musicians created music based on the life of folk legend Cecil Sharp.)

That really informed this album in my writing and desire to do traditional things. I've been more interested in Appalachia than I used to be, sort of the upper tier of the South that doesn't always get a lot of attention, but sure seems important musically.

Tell the story behind "Joy Never Ends."

The first part of that song is a few years old. It was when I was flying (to Austin) to sing at my cousin's wedding. I realized since that it's a "missing Texas" song for me. As I got off that flight and rode into Austin, I realized that through time, I know less and less people. As much as I love Texas, it's been 10 years now and that's the way it goes.

You worked at the Cactus during graduate school, right?

I moved to Texas in 1999 and started going to UT for a doctorate in American studies. I had heard a lot about the Cactus. I got a job and told (former Cactus manager) Griff (Luneburg) that I'd be willing to work for free if I could just go to the shows (laughs). He laughed. I'm sure there are many people like me. So, my first gig was working the door.

How was working with Griff?

He was very kind. He was proud of the place and he was generous and wanted students to appreciate it. As a performer, he wasn't hugely gregarious, but he was— in his way — absolutely supportive. It wasn't like I packed the house. He felt like my work was important and he kept me coming.

Describe your early impressions of the Cactus itself.

You knew there was a lot of history and heft with the pictures entering the place. Walking into there, I knew I was walking into an important spot. I was really nervous (to play there). One should be a little nervous, I think (laughs).

"Joy Never Ends" describes you singing Townes (Van Zandt)'s "If I Needed You" at your cousin's wedding. How'd it go?

Easy. I mean, it was just as natural as breathing. It was lovely, a great love song to sing anywhere, but certainly in the Hill Country. It's the most fun thing to do.

Do you find Townes' presence at the Cactus inspiring or intimidating?

I'm no Townes scholar, but he's a kind-eyed, gentle creature, at least from the listener's point of view. Not intimidating. Looking at that (Van Zandt) poster (beside the stage), that's the way I look at the Austin music scene. It's not a cutthroat place. Everyone is encouraged. I never got the sense that he was trying to be an imposing figure. That's the great thing about Texas music. Ultimately, I just felt like I was invited in.

Caroline Herring CD release show