I didn’t know it at the time, but the first male/female country duets I ever heard were destined to be among the very best of a long, distinguished, and oftentimes incredibly schlock-filled genre. I hated country music for most of my young life, and only started to come around when I was introduced to country music via The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which, in turn, led to albums by The Flying Burrito Brothers and the solo Gram Parsons. Gram Parsons, of course, is the common denominator in that list, and his duets with a very young Emmylou Harris on GP and Grievous Angel still sound uncommonly beautiful. Gram was the secret ingredient. Nothing against Emmylou; she’s a wonderful singer. But Gram’s voice, like few others, conveyed heartbreak and pain and world-weary resignation, cracking in all the wrong places that turned out to be exactly the right places. And when Gram and Emmylou latched on to a Dylan-influenced lyric and soared off together in those otherworldly harmonies, I had found my musical holy grail. “Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down/And they all led me straight back home to you,” they sang. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was prophetic. I wanted to find more, a lot more, of what I was hearing. Believe me, I’ve looked, and I still don’t know if I’ve ever heard better music. And so I keep coming back to Gram and Emmylou.
Gram died in 1973 at the age of 26, a brilliant career cut short stupidly and tragically by a drug overdose. And I’ve been in search of the perfect country duet ever since. I’ve come mighty close. The music George Jones and Tammy Wynette made together in the late ‘60s is musically perfect, possibly even better than that made by Gram and Emmylou. But the lyrics are serviceable at best, and at worst guilty of the kind of clichéd hokum that has always marred country music. “We’re not the jet set/We’re the old Chevrolette set/Our steak and martinis/Is draft beer and weenies” sounded great until you actually started paying attention. The same was true for Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Johnny and June Carter Cash. The great singing was offset by the embarrassingly banal songwriting.
Sometimes the search has derailed because of the sound. Buddy and Julie Miller, for instance, have recorded a couple dozen great country duets in the past ten years, but they sound nothing like Gram and Emmylou. I love them dearly, but Buddy has too much grit to pass for Gram, and Julie has too much little-girl breathiness to pass for Emmylou. Close, but still no Grievous Angel.
So along come Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell. The search just may be over. Their new album Begonias, just released on Yep Rock Records, is the new holy grail, as close to country duet perfection as I’ve heard in many years. I’ve been familiar with Caitlin Cary for a long time, first as a member of Ryan Adams’ old band Whiskeytown, later as a fine solo artist. But nothing prepared me for Thad Cockrell, because Thad Cockrell has the sound for which I’ve been searching for thirty years – soulful, world-weary, the voice cracking in all the right places. He sounds for all the world like a resurrected Gram Parsons.
Together they make nearly miraculous music, spinning out well-written original country weepers that sound like instant classics, covering Percy Sledge’s “Warm and Tender Love” and at least equaling the great original, and revisiting the loping Bakersfield honky-tonk of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on “Party Time,” as lonesome and desperate a tune as ever belied by its happy title. This is the real deal, truckstop jukebox anthems made for men in John Deere caps who want to drown their sorrows, so if you have no desire to get in touch with your inner Bubba, by all means steer clear. But the singing is unbelievably great. Cary's voice sounds not so much like Emmylou's as Patsy Cline's, and Cockrell’s wounded tenor wraps around it perfectly. The grievous angel has returned. The wings are suitably clipped, but he still soars. For this Bubba, I can’t imagine that there will be a finer album released this year.