On his last release, Better Hurry Up, Caudle found himself feeling like time was moving too fast. For nearly a decade, he was consistently writing, recording and releasing new material then touring it around the world while working on the next project. The hustle of being a musician left little time to pause and think ahead further than the next album cycle. In 2019, he and his wife left their home state of North Carolina to move to Nashville. He jumped in and began working with bucket-list collaborators at his dream studio, the Cash Cabin, shortly after their arrival. By early 2020, with a new home base in a community of musicians, a few years of sobriety under his belt and the release of his best album yet imminent, Caudle was prepared for the next phase of his career. But a few days before Better Hurry Up came out, a devastating tornado ripped through Nashville; a week later, just before he was set to depart for a lengthy tour, the world went into lockdown.
"At the time I had no idea just how much work would get taken away," explains Caudle. "It took awhile to come to terms with but I knew I needed to turn my focus to the things that made me feel normal. Hiking and writing became a daily routine as I learned the importance of living in the present."
For the first time in a long time, he had nothing but time. The couple moved back to the mountains of North Carolina for the duration of the pandemic, where he spent most of his time in the woods– hiking, observing, thinking. He considered many things he hadn't before, like where he wanted to eventually be in life and at the end of his career. His attunement to nature opened him to channel the muse, penning his simplest desires into song. On these hikes, and in his songwriting, oak trees represented memories of pocket knives and toy slingshots bought from the general store on the rural road he grew up on; and blooming, bright yellow forsythia bushes became omens, much like their use as a symbol for "anticipation" in literature and folklore.
"The natural world has always shown up in my lyrics but with these songs I felt that get magnified," says Caudle. "The beauty and force of it all became sacred to me. I felt unplugged from the hustle and free to pay close attention to the details and it completely changed my approach to life."
As uncertainty for how to earn a living as a musician in a world with no live music loomed, Caudle decided to make what he thought could be his last album. He took John Carter Cash up on his offer, made over a fishing trip, to produce his next record. John Carter Cash recruited Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush to play on the sessions alongside Dennis Crouch and Fred Eltringham. Caudle asked previous collaborators Carlene Carter and Elizabeth Cook to sing alongside him. The carefully selected group gathered within the holy walls of Cash Cabin, surrounded by instruments, photos and artifacts from the family. The perfect alchemy of self-reflection, powerful songs and support from a room full of Nashville's top musicians gave Caudle the confidence to record an album he would be happy with, even if he never had a chance to make one again. He's an artist who has always done things his own way. While he draws influence from the legendary lineage of country musicians whose presence can be felt in the Cash Cabin, he's never set out to write recreations of Carter Family or Johnny Cash songs– or replicate sounds from country music's past. On this record, outsider influences come into play nearly as much as his foundational knowledge of traditional Appalachian folk and other music history. Simplistic arrangements– in which Caudle was the only guitarist– built a framework for space that is filled intentionally so that the songs themselves can be heard and appreciated without an overcrowding of instrumentation.
"I knew I had to bring the best 10 songs I could possibly write," Caudle says. "I had been singing into my phone for a year and a half, not playing music with anyone. The first time I played with other musicians again was with Jerry, Sam, Dennis and Fred. I wish I could bottle that feeling up and sell it. It was pure magic and exactly what I needed."
Forsythia is a collection of 10 songs that form a manifesto of Caudle's life philosophy. It's calming, reconnecting and soothing and moves at a natural, unhurried pace. "I Don't Fit In" and "Red Bank Road" provide biographical context, while songs like "Crazy Wayne" and "Tears of Savannah" step into the shoes of off-kilter characters. "The Gates," co-written with John Carter Cash, is a foreboding folk ballad exemplary of Caudle's ability to evoke the past with a modern touch of polish. "Shattered Glass" and "Through My Hands" emotionally process bad circumstances, dark tendencies and negative habits. The album's title track does what all the best country songs do– describes a specific moment vividly, accessibly and with the slightest touch of melancholy. "Bright as a forsythia bush in bloom / when the light's right / early April / late afternoon," Caudle sings. The album finds beauty in simpler times and, though it explores a lifetime of lessons, maintains a childlike sense of hope and contentment with life as it is.