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music: Musical Retrospection 

Folk musician Caroline Herring puts her Southern folklore studies to music.

Now recording her second CD in Austin, Herring looks back with measured pleasure and heads into the future with a clear eye.

"I'm a late bloomer … I was lucky," Herring says, as she describes her breakthrough on the Austin music scene some three years ago. During a call from her home in Washington, D.C., prior to this week's performance at Ashland Coffee and Tea, Herring recalls that she arrived in Texas in August 1999 from her native Mississippi with modest expectations. She had a few tunes but no plans to take the town by storm.

"Maybe a little bitty … I hoped I'd make a splash," she says with a smile in her voice.

But playing songs such as the heartbreaking "Devil Made a Mess" and the searching "Delta Highway" from her soon-to-be first CD, Herring made her mark quickly with local musicians and club owners. Best New Artist 2002 kudos at the Austin Music Awards followed and further boosted her career.

Herring and her husband recently relocated to Washington, D.C., but apparently the move did not hinder her career. In some ways, she says, it was a boon. "One nice thing about moving, it gets you out of your comfort zone."

But it appears Herring jumped from one comfort zone to the next. She notes gratefully that D.C clubs and musicians support her smart acoustic-folk style, and her Austin music friends help spread the word when they play the area. Networking, whether in Austin or inside the Beltway, is key to cracking the music-scene nut.

Sheer talent plays no small part in Herring's fledgling career, but so does her earlier choice to attend Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., in the mid-'90s. A Southern folklore-studies graduate student, Herring found herself drawn to traditional rural music. Caroline had never taken a musical direction seriously before, but she and some friends soon started a bluegrass and country blues band. The group also founded a literary and musical radio show in Oxford and became the house band. Word of the show spread, and roots players such as Peter Rowan and Gillian Welch booked on as guests. Though she still had sights set on an academic future, Herring suddenly found new musical inspiration.

"That planted a seed, meeting musicians of that caliber; I threw myself into it. I sure did."

A few short years later, Herring and academics have parted. Now she looks toward the mid-2003 release of her new CD — "this one's not so much about [my] Mississippi childhood" — and future tours that include festivals, clubs and house parties. Is she ready for the next step?

"Oh, yeah. Definitely. I'm still ready to go even more … You only live once. You got to keep goin'." S



Caroline Herring plays Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Thurs., Jan. 23, 8 p.m. Advance general admission tickets are $10 and are available at the shop, through www.ashlandcoffeeandtea.com or 1-800-594-TIXX. Tickets $15 at the door.

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