She's best known as co-founder of the legendary alternative country band, Whiskeytown, alongside Ryan Adams. After that popular group broke up in 1999, she released two critically acclaimed solo albums as well as last year's "Begonias," a gorgeous record of original country duets with fellow North Carolinian Thad Cockrell.
While her duo with Cockrell has been heating up, getting airplay on Country Music Television, Cary still finds time to pursue another group that she considers more than just a side project.
It's called Tres Chicas, but don't expect Latino music.
This trio of veteran female singer-songwriters from Raleigh makes sweet and eloquent country soul, as evidenced on their recently released sophomore album, "Bloom, Red & The Ordinary Girl" on Yep Roc Records.
Called an "Americana super-group" by The Washington Post, the band features Cary alongside friends-in-harmony Lynn Blakey (of Glory Fountain and formerly of Let's Activate) and Tonya Lamm (ex-Hazeldine member).
The women originally decided to join forces during a bathroom powwow at a Backsliders concert simply because the ingredients felt right. (Or, as an Italian-language newspaper put it more bluntly, "They formed on the toilet.") It was a local club owner who coined the name before they were about to play once, and it stuck.
"The biggest secret for the Chicas is that less is more," Cary says from her home in Raleigh. "You think you're hearing more harmonies than you are. There's a lot of laying out, and we tend to keep it two-part and let whatever voice makes the most sense on a line take over."
The latest album was recorded quickly in London and features world-class production by Neil Brockbank (Bryan Ferry) and Robert Trehern (Van Morrison). The veteran producers make the most of wonderful session players, forming a core band that features Trehern on drums and Geraint Watkins (Paul McCartney, Mark Knopfler) illuminating songs with understated piano and rippling Hammond organ.
"Geraint is utterly confident but never, ever in the way," Cary says. "He just gets the song down to its soul immediately."
While the session guys won't be performing at the upcoming gig in Ashland, concert-goers can still expect top-notch players from the highly respected Raleigh scene.
"You wouldn't think it because we're in the Bible Belt, but it's pretty progressive," she says. "There are always benefits for good political causes, and enough recording labels [Merge, Yep Rock, Sugar Hill] that people can play on each other's records. and it's not utterly hopeless that bands get records out.
"We all know each other, and many of us have slept together," Cary adds, with a crackling laugh. Her husband, Skillet Gilmore, plays drums in the rock band Patty Hurst Shifter.
Looking ahead, Cary says she wouldn't mind achieving crossover country success à la the Dixie Chicks. "But it's gotta be a word-of-mouth thing, because we're on an indie label and nobody is going to be doing the payola," she says.
After the upcoming minitour with the Chicas (short partially because one member has a 5-year-old daughter), Cary embarks on a European tour with Cockrell. She hopes both bands will continue gaining momentum, adding that the Chicas need to make a connection with Dolly Parton so they can borrow one of her tour buses.
Failing that, Cary has another idea for how they might hit it big with a soundtrack: "We'd be great for the lesbian cowgirl movie." S
Tres Chicas play Ashland Coffee and Tea Thursday, March 30, at 8 p.m. Tickets, $12, are available at www.ashlandcoffee andtea.com and must be purchased in advance.
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