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Out of the Shadow

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wouldn’t be surprising if singer-songwriter Caitlin Cary were to say she’s sick of talking about Ryan Adams. Her former partner in the acclaimed alt-country band Whiskeytown has garnered so much attention and praise as a solo artist that discussions of Cary’s own debut album, “While You Weren’t Looking,” have inevitably been tangled up with him.

But the North Carolina resident shrugs off the potential irritation.

“My plan was in the next interview to say, ‘I don’t mind talking about Ryan, as long as the next time you talk to him, you ask him about me,’” Cary says, laughing mischievously.

That good-natured self-deprecation was a trademark of the fiddle player’s persona throughout the often-chaotic life of Whiskeytown. Formed in 1994, the band broke up in 2000 despite widespread acclaim and a major-label deal, after numerous personnel changes and bureaucratic hassles torpedoed its momentum.

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She may still have her waitress gig in Raleigh, and another day job, too. But nowadays Cary, 33, is herself garnering attention from some prestigious quarters, including winning the cover of this month’s No Depression, the alt-country magazine of record.

Cary may have stood in Adams’ shadow in Whiskeytown, but the group’s sound was defined by the pair’s striking vocal harmonies. Yet the more grounded Cary often found herself at odds with Adams’ wilder attitudes about performing and songwriting, not to mention his unpredictable behavior in and out of the spotlight.

Likewise, Cary’s own music is more sedate than Whiskeytown’s freewheeling country-rock or Adams’ classic-rock-flavored 2001 collection, “Gold.” Most of the songs on the recently released “While You Weren’t Looking” are folk-pop tales, often about people who aren’t paying attention to a situation or a relationship that needs to be addressed.

Not that it’s all willowy and wan, however.

“I’ve surprised myself and accidentally written a couple rock songs,” says Cary, who performed Tom Petty’s “Refugee” years ago during her first post-college solo singing turn and remains inspired by his work.

Indeed, Petty’s influence is strong on the gently rollicking “Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart,” one of two tracks co-written with Adams and former Whiskeytown guitarist Mike Daly. (Cary and Adams also duet on their composition “The Battle,” which appears on a four-song mini-disc included with the album’s first 8,000 copies.)

As the album’s title slyly acknowledges, Whiskeytown was still together when Cary began writing her own songs, often with Daly, whose name appears on eight of the album’s 11 compositions. Also playing on the collection are former Whiskeytown bassist Mike Santoro and drummer Eric “Skillet” Gilmore, who is Cary’s husband, and a cornucopia of North Carolina musicians.

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Although all helped boost her confidence, Cary reserves the highest praise for the record’s producer, former dB’s member Chris Stamey, who also produced her 2000 EP, “Waltzie.”

When she called to ask him about working together, she says, “I had five or six songs done, a bunch of other ideas, and a strong will to try. And I kind of had to be coddled through the whole thing.” Stamey shepherded her paradigm shift from backup to leader in ways she can’t begin to count.

“Where I am now and where I was [before] are so radically different,” she says of her songwriting. “He was very patient at dealing with someone like me,” especially because she was only just learning to play guitar and often had to describe her musical ideas more in words than sounds.

Maybe that perceived kindness was just Cary’s own patience with Adams coming back to her. Even now, her experiences as a solo artist have made her more understanding of him. She enjoys the attention but feels burdened by having to make all the decisions. “It makes me look back on Ryan’s role and have a lot more sympathy than I did than when he was [complaining] about having to do interviews or whatever.”

You have to marvel at her seemingly forgiving nature and wonder if she never wanted to kick Adams’ posterior but good. She laughs. “I kicked [it] a few times. And I’m not the most forgiving person.”

OK, so why did she put up with him? “It was such a great non-romantic romance in the beginning,” she says. “We’d drive around the North Carolina countryside drinking Night Train [wine] and writing songs.” That phase didn’t last long, she admits, but the connection remained powerful.

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“I’ve never had the experience, before or since, of being able to follow somebody when they just wrote a song,” she says. “Which he did all the time. [He’d say], ‘I wrote this song at sound check, and let’s play it tonight.’ And I could sing it with him. It was always worth putting up with a lot because that magic happened sometimes. Even when things were crazy, it was worth holding on to. Although I certainly felt crazy for sticking with it sometimes.”

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