Over the last few years I’ve expanded my musical listening repertoire to include a growing array of Roots, folk, and bluegrass offerings. I admit to generally preferring female artists in these genres on the whole, so when I recently stumbled across Caroline Herring‘s new album Lantana while browsing my local indie music store I was immediately intrigued. As an impulse purchase, this one was right on the money.
Although Herring’s underlying Christian faith figures prominently in certain songs (such as the gospel tune “Lay my Burden Down”), the album does not come across as preachy which was a relief to the very firmly agnostic Lady Sparks. Herring, originally from Mississippi, digs deep into her Southern roots and creates an atmosphere throughout the album that is at times nostalgic and bittersweet, at others refreshingly insightful and contemplative.
The real gem on this album, however, is the haunting murder ballad “Paper Gown.” Few people in America, and most specifically those from the South, can forget the horrifying real-life case of Susan Smith–the white South Carolina woman who drowned her two young children in her car and then tried to blame a black man for the crime. “Paper Gown” has an eerie Southern Gothic edge (think shades of Flannery O’Connor) as it recounts this tragic tale and examines the political dimensions of gender and race that circulated around the Smith case. What makes it more disturbing, in many respects, is the fact that it’s told from Smith’s perspective. Herring provides a provocative interrogation of gendered heteronormative ideals, specifically the feminine domestication of women, and the tragic misguided lengths to which a woman might go to escape such circumstances. The refrain which repeats throughout the song, speaks to this in a very powerful and disturbing way: “Long ago I used to be/ a little girl on my daddy’s knee/ dreams lie like diamond rings/ babies and pretty things.” At the same time, Herring subtly confronts the politics of white womanhood in the South and a long history of racist fear and antagonism toward black men.
Although the song is in some ways sympathetic to Smith, casting her in a tragically naive light, it certainly doesn’t attempt to excuse her of the crime. Rather, it provides a disturbing perspective into the motivations and fantasies that seemingly led her to commit such a horrifying murder.
This song will haunt you long after one listen. The album as a whole is fantastic and I definitely encourage any Roots and folk music fans to buy it.
I’m going to see Caroline Herring perform this Saturday as she lives here in Atlanta in the suburb of Decatur and will be playing at Eddie’s Attic. I can’t wait!