We’ve all heard the story of the preacher’s musical son before: the Stetson Stratoliner-wearing, bearded dreamer who up and moved to Nashville with nothing more than a Martin and a prayer.
Caleb Elliott isn’t that. His story is something wilder. It comes from some place deeper.
It’s a story the lanky, long-haired Louisianan has begun to tell on his debut album Forever to Fade, a string-filled swamp-art-rock record that bridges the distance between the classically-trained sideman he was to the songwriting frontman he’s become; the 480 miles between his musical origin in Natchitoches and his artistic shelter in The Shoals of Alabama; and the shift between a gothic upbringing and finding mental liberation.
Caleb’s story starts in his Spanish moss-draped hometown hemmed in by squiggles of Cedar-studded swamps. In the late ’80s, while most locals were trying to catch a glimpse of Julia Roberts or Sally Field as they filmed Steel Magnolias in town, Caleb was a toddler watching his father preach to his congregation of fellow William Branham followers. The brand name of their religion: The Message. Kinder descriptions call Branham a Christian faith healer; perhaps more accurate ones, a cult leader. In fact, it was Branham’s 1961 Armageddon prophecy that inspired Jim Jones to create his doomed Jonestown settlement in Guyana.
Caleb’s mother and sister only wore dresses and didn’t cut their hair. There was no T.V. in the house. But, there was music.
When Caleb’s mother led the worship services in song, they often sang the works of his grandfather, who wrote and recorded four gospel albums. At home, he, his parents, and three older siblings would sing and play them too—his mother on piano, his dad strumming a guitar. One time his oldest brother was caught with a Metallica cassette tape, and there was hell to pay. “You know people who grew up listening to The Beatles and are like, ‘That’s what made me a musician.’? I sound the way I do because I didn’t,” says Caleb.
In third grade, Caleb’s mother took him to the symphony, an exercise she had repeated with her three older children in helping them pick a classical instrument to learn. Caleb chose the timpany so she bought him a cello. He practiced it through his parents sudden and messy separation. He practiced it while his mother and siblings struggled to make a new life outside The Message and his father died of cancer. He practiced it even as he found catharsis in writing his own songs and playing the guitar.
The cello helped him get away from the getaway town with an orchestra scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The gatherings of young people squeezing accordions and crooning in Cajun French on street corners and the seductive, raucous zydeco shows at the Blue Moon Saloon might make Lafayette seem like a musician’s paradise. But the town’s tradition worship presents a dichotomy.
Caleb puts it this way: “People who get the music bug in Lafayette, their gateway is wanting to be in Cajun jams. There’s no shortage of absolutely badass players, but wanting to be a songwriter is a rarity. The measure of a band there is how many people are dancing to it.”
It’s why he went out to Los Angeles for a month to tour his E.P. despite feeling like he had found his musical family in Lafayette. After he caught more interest in his work in a few weeks than he had in years of playing bars, house parties, and dollar margarita nights in Cajun Country, he sold most of what he owned and packed the rest into a red Honda Fit ready to make the move West permanently. Then he met Dylan LeBlanc.
Another native son of Louisiana, the singer-songwriter had moved to the fabled Florence-Muscle Shoals area of Northwest Alabama. Dylan made a tour stop in Lafayette and asked Caleb to sit in with him on his song “Emma Hartley.” “It went really fucking well, and, well, that’s how I ended up here,” Caleb recalls of his unplanned move to The Shoals.
Over a plate lunch the morning after the show, Dylan persuaded Caleb to go on tour with him instead. Just a few months after performing all over the country and internationally, he was in Florence recording Dylan’s album Cautionary Tale with Single Lock Records, the label and studio co-founded by Grammy-winning artist John Paul White (formerly of the Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (keyboardist for Alabama Shakes). The Single Lock crew, known for their own neo-Swampers stable of players, quickly adopted him and Kimi Samson as their string section.
While riding in the backseats of tour vans with Nicole Atkins, Dylan, and Travis Meadows, and backing other artists like Lera Lynn, John Paul, Donnie Fritts and Sean McConnell in the studio, Caleb never stopped writing his own material. Forever to Fade shows he’s ready to take the wheel.
“Caleb brings a really impressive arsenal of tools and talents, and his songs don't always follow the typical rules or structures of a lot of singer-songwriters,” says Ben, who produced Forever to Fade. “They usually surprise me in where they go melodically, harmonically, or structurally.”
Unlike Lafayette, The Shoals is a songwriter hive sustaining the legacy started in its landmark studios like FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound. Caleb quickly filled in the formative years he had missed out on in popular music. “I got my bachelor’s degree in taste from these people,” says Caleb about digging into artists from Neil Young and John Cale to Bill Withers and early Beck.
Caleb and Ben took those influences and layered them with that booming, dirty-sweet groove that gave name to the Muscle Shoals Sound. “We’re all dorkily obsessed with arrangement,” says Ben. “We wanted to really go for it in terms of arrangement and do all the weird and elaborate stuff maybe we feel like we normally can't get away with on other records.”
The opening track “Makes Me Wonder,” opens with a lush 70s-era symphonic soul string score and quickly gives way to an in-the-pocket beat overlayed with Diaphanous organ, electric sitar, and glockenspiel riffs. Caleb’s signature string arrangements lace up the album as they loop in and out like a velvet ribbon. Alabama Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell pulls numbers like “Forever to Fade” and “Don’t Go Losin’ Your Head” taut while Caleb lyrically explores the value of putting trust in other people or a higher power.
“A lot of these songs deal with witnessing dysfunction in interpersonal relationships. That might sound like a fancy way of saying this is a breakup record, but it’s not,” says Caleb. “It’s more me looking from the outside in at myself and other people and asking why don’t you make a change and do something for yourself. It’s tough.”
Caleb is no stranger to how tough it can be to move forward. But now, for the first time, he can say that he has faith in his own message.