Writing a great song is not all that different from mixing a stiff drink, a symmetry that Casey Cavanagh understands well.
Cavanagh approaches music with a deep respect for tradition, but he isn’t afraid to stir things up. His latest project, Old Souls, distills formative memories of his twenties into four distinct tracks. It’s the work of a craftsman and a storyteller -- and a tribute to the people and places who’ve made him the man he is today.
He began writing songs in his teenage years, partially spurred by trips into Washington, D.C. to see bands at venues like 9:30 Club with an older family friend. “I remember her saying to me when I sent her the first demos I ever recorded, ‘It’s good, but you haven’t experienced anything to write about.’ I was sort-of hurt at the time, but I realize now what she meant.”
Raised in Maryland by way of New England, Cavanagh says that one constant in his life has been a connection to a tight-knit community of hard-working people, and that those values have seeped into his work as a songwriter.
“In Maine, a lot of people in our community were fishermen and lobstermen. When we moved to Middletown, we lived among farmers and blue-collar folks making an honest living by working the land. I lived in this in-between, which was this extended suburb of Washington, D.C. and Baltimore. I always thought of it as a small town and by eighteen years old, I had that classic, ‘I want to get the f--k out, I don’t belong here’ mentality..all of that high school angst as you leave for college.”
The Shenandoah Valley town of Harrisonburg, Va. would further develop Cavanagh as a musician. While attending James Madison University, he formed Casey Cavanagh Band and played gigs around campus and at bars downtown, opening for the likes of the Lumineers, Eric Hutchinson, Sequoyah Prep School and Cartel.
Cavanagh captures that sense of place -- and all of the people he’s met along the way -- on the song “Country.”
“When I moved to D.C. and lived in the city for the first three years of my post-grad life, I started to reflect on those places, especially my home, Harrisonburg and where my family is originally from. I was looking at it through my own lens, but also through everyone else’s that I know. It might not be the place where you are right now, or maybe ever again, but your home and your family will always be with you.”
While “Country” is tethered to a location, “Rambling Woman” is a character study, modeled off the storytelling of some of Cavanagh’s heroes like Townes van Zandt and John Prine.
“Rambling Woman” subverts a tired outlaw country trope. “So often in folk and country music, songwriters talk about ‘ramblin’ men’ and ‘mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.’ I think it’s time we flip the script write more songs about ramblin’ women.”
On “Fade Away,” Cavanagh explores impermanence, namely when the passing of time turns old friends into strangers.
“I don’t see fading away out of people’s memories as necessary a bad thing. It’s just a fact of life and I take a little bit of solace in that.”
And as he wrestles with changes (“Oh I'm not the man I used to know”), Cavanagh admits that writing and recording the song was therapeutic. “I was reckoning with the fact that I’d lost touch with people, that I’m not as involved in people’s lives as I used to be. I’ve also changed a lot as a person.”
Old Souls also features an ode to Cavanagh’s wife, Kristine, with “Be Mine.” Under the tutelage of Steve Earle at his summer songwriting intensive in the Catskills, Cavanagh was able to workshop the song, which represented a new direction in his writing.
“I never really wrote many love songs before. You could argue that I hadn’t met the muse to inspire that. The stars aligned in this moment because I was unplugged from everything, I was learning from a master, I was missing someone that I cared about, I was sitting in the middle of the woods in July and it was perfect.”
Cavanagh played the song for Kristine when he returned home from the workshop, but there’s one performance of “Be Mine” that will always hold extra weight for the couple: when Cavanagh played it to his bride on their wedding night.
Although he’s recorded and released music in the past, the self-produced Old Souls is a major step forward for Cavanagh, both in terms of production and personnel. While previous projects were recorded in basements and makeshift home studios, Old Souls was recorded at Blue Room Productions in Herndon, Va., with mixing by Devin Spear and mastering by Kelby Dover.
The record also features a number of sensational session players: drummer Caleb Gilbreath (Gloriana, Thomas Rhett, Brett Eldredge); bassist Dave Roe (Johnny Cash, Sturgill Simpson, Dan Auerbach); pedal steel guitarist Matt Kelly (City and Colour, Marlon Williams, You+Me).
Cavanagh admits that the four songs he recorded for Old Souls are just the beginning in terms of future creative output.
“I’m sitting on about 14 songs that could’ve made it on to a full-length album if I had the time and resources.”
While it’s far from the beginning of Cavanagh’s life as a songwriter, Old Souls marks a thrilling start to this next chapter of artistry.