Born and raised in a strict religious home in Louisiana, Caleb Elliott was discouraged from listening to secular music at home, but that doesn’t mean that music wasn’t an important part of his life. His mother filled their home with spiritual music – and Caleb and his three siblings all played classical instruments in elementary school. His background in sacred music eventually collided with rock and roll once he reached college, and somehow that meeting resulted in a unique sound that defies traditional categorization.
After years of supporting artists like Dylan LeBlanc, John Paul White, Donnie Fritts, and Lera Lynn, Elliott has stepped into the spotlight with his album Forever to Fade. Produced by Single Lock Records’ Ben Tanner, the record has elements of Muscle Shoals soul music and Neil Young-style 70s rock. Tanner told Ditty TV, “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. They usually surprise me in where they go melodically, harmonically, or structurally.” We spoke to Caleb about his record, his influences, and what he sees for the future.
Your parents belonged to a strict evangelical religious group where secular music was frowned upon. How did you find music that spoke to you?
Yes, my dad was a pastor and we did not grow up with a lot of exposure to popular music, but nonetheless music was still a very big part of my childhood. My mom is an incredible singer and piano player and she encouraged each of us four kids to pursue a classical instrument, beginning around third grade or so. I have fond memories of being a very small child around the piano with my mom and older siblings, learning to harmonize on old hymns like In The Garden, Blessed Assurance, and It Is Well. I’d be lying if I said those songs and the Bach Cello Suites I practiced adonasium throughout my youth did not speak to me.
You began playing cello early on. Why the cello?
Because I am the youngest of four and the violin, trumpet, and harp were all taken!
Given your unique journey toward playing music, who were your earliest influences?
Hymns and classical music were the earliest influences, but I have been on a long winding path of influences. In high school I went through a pretty predictable Contemporary Christian phase, with bands like Switchfoot, Jars of Clay, and Audio Adrenaline leading the way. In college there were lots of little phases, including a brief reggae phase spurred by seeing Steel Pulse perform at Jazz Fest in New Orleans one year. At some point in college, I started playing covers gigs around town. Once I discovered I could make money to learn a bunch of Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Fleetwood Mac songs, I was on it like a hobo on a ham sandwich and that basically became my college job. Those years of 4-6 nights a week playing 2-3 hour covers sets absolutely had an influence on me. It sort of countered my younger years without popular music exposure, as well as helping me get my chops up.
Your music utilizes strings within the realm of rock and roll. How would you describe the sound? Do you have a name for what you do?
I do not have a name for what I do. It has been described as “swamp art rock” by folks, and I’ll take it! Two things that I really wanted to feature with this record were string arrangements and groove. In particular, the groove of my good friend and drummer, Jeremy Gibson. In my opinion, Gib (as we call him) could be the principal at a Levon Helm school of grooviness.
You have spent a great deal of time working as a side man or supporting artist. What was it like to transition from the background to the spotlight?
There have been growing pains for sure, but it’s a journey I am very thankful for. When I first came to the Shoals, I had an opportunity to play cello and back up other artists on tour and in the studio. I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt like a door had finally opened for me, and I was happy to walk right through and wear the side man hat. Before then I didn’t even know anyone that had a booking agent or a record label or a team with management, publicist, film/TV licensing, etc. I learned a lot about the music biz at that time.
I would not blame anyone for deciding that the innate stresses of leading a project are simply not worth it, especially a project that bears your name. It’s basically like volunteering to have a giant target placed on your back. Some people will respect you for it, but many others will use it as an opportunity to be critical. It has been said, and I agree, that you may have to be a little nuts to think it’s a good idea. In my opinion, the best side men are often people who also have experience fronting/leading their own project. They tend to have a better understanding of what the person they are backing is going through, and therefore they tend to be less critical. My hope is that my experience as a side man has prepared me to better handle fronting a project.
Your record was released under the Single Lock Records label. What made you decide to work with them?
Well, it happened very organically. In 2014, I met Ben Tanner and John Paul White while playing cello on Dylan LeBlanc’s Cautionary Tale record. The session went really well and they told me I should consider moving to Florence. I took the bait and they started using me any time they needed cello on a record. A few years later I decided to start recording an album of my own tunes and asked Ben if he would be interested in working together. We started tracking in June of 2016, and at some point the following year, Reed Watson asked Ben what all he had been working on lately. Ben played him a few of the rough tracks and they decided to call me in for a meeting. Single Lock has believed in me from the start. I am thrilled to be a part of what they are doing.
What do you see in your future? What goals are you most searching to fulfill?
Right now I am concentrating on getting a new batch of songs together. The first album Forever To Fade taught me a lot, and so much has changed for me the last few years, both personally and otherwise. It is starting to feel like the right time to make another record, and I am psyched!
Shop Caleb Elliott’s debut record here.