News has come that a phenomenal voice is gone. Singer-songwriter Caroline Peyton, who’d lived in the Nashville area since the early 1990s, died Aug. 11 at age 69.
Even if you don’t know Peyton’s solo material, you’ve almost certainly heard her in a Disney film. She lent her incredible vocal range to several of the studio’s blockbuster animated features in the ’90s, including Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas. Peyton spent much of the decade before that performing in theatrical productions on Broadway and elsewhere.
The two solo records she made in the 1970s showcased an astonishingly original style grounded in folk and roots traditions, but equally inspired by the raw power of rock and the inventive possibilities of jazz. Those two LPs, 1972’s Mock Up and 1977’s Intuition, were reissued via much-loved Chicago archival label Numero Group in 2009. A song from Mock Up also appeared on Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon, a 2006 Numero comp of women folksingers of the 1970s.
Peyton briefly broke her studio hiatus in 1998 with Celtic Christmas Spirit — for some artists, a Christmas album is something of a stopgap, but the record meant a great deal to Peyton. Several years later, she embarked on her next album of originals, 2014’s self-released Homeseeker’s Paradise. A heartfelt collection of songs inspired by events in Peyton’s life — from mourning her parents to raising her children and beyond — Homeseeker’s Paradise was recorded with a slew of phenomenal Nashville musicians at Mark Nevers’ Beech House Recording.
Family confirmed Peyton’s death to Scene contributor Edd Hurt, who was a close friend. He kindly offered this remembrance.
I met Caroline Peyton in early 2006, when I was writing a piece for this paper about a compilation the Chicago label Numero Group was releasing. The record I was assigned to write about, Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies From the Canyon, contains tracks from mostly obscure female singer-songwriters who were under the sway of more lauded singers from the 1970s, including Joni Mitchell. I was impressed by the quality of the writing and singing on Ladies From the Canyon, but one track stood out. It was Caroline’s 1972 recording of “Engram,” a song written by her onetime musical partner Mark Bingham. On a compilation that featured a lot of inspired amateurism, Caroline’s superb vocal — obviously influenced by Mitchell, but with a quality all its own, and technically impeccable — sounded like the work of someone who was no amateur.
After I interviewed her at her home in Brentwood, where she lived until her death, I was even more impressed. Caroline knew the work of jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and she also loved the music of ’60s and ’70s figures like Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane. As I talked to her, I found out that she’d appeared on Broadway, and had done extensive work in the theater. She was also beautiful, with an aristocratic air and a melodious voice that didn’t attempt to disguise her roots in Mississippi, where her mother’s side of the family still lived.
Numero Group called me in summer 2008 to write liner notes for their reissues of two albums she had recorded more than 30 years earlier, 1972’s Mock Up and 1977’s Intuition. I returned to do more interviews, which took a while, since Caroline had a trove of stories about her career. I think she was slightly uncomfortable talking about her days in Bloomington, Ind., where she had cut the two albums. In that highly charged era, when the ’60s turned into the ’70s, Caroline had lived in a sort of commune, Needmore. I don’t think she completely took to that lifestyle, which included the usual post-hippie drug use, slovenly attitudes and general air of anti-societal outrage.
Caroline had been the biggest star of the ’70s Bloomington rock scene, which included Bingham and singer and guitarist Bob Lucas (the father of current Americana singer Austin Lucas). Another member of the scene was Mark Gray, a brilliant pianist whose playing is an integral part of Mock Up. On that album, tracks like “Between-Two” and “The Hook” combined singer-songwriterdom with jazzy polytonality. Caroline could have been a first-rate interpreter of the avant-garde, like, say, Meredith Monk.
Caroline was tough, and one of the many things I remember fondly is her method of driving, which was pure big-city. Give her the chance to merge into traffic, and she’d burn rubber right up to the front of the line in the open lane, merge and go on her merry way. At the same time, she had a huge heart. She loved animals — when we were together, I had a cat, Sonny, that she adored, and I learned to love her dachshund, Mozart. She was also a great cook who could whip up old-school dishes from her Mississippi family, like a delicious creation called Country Captain. The recipe called for chicken, currants and slivered almonds, with a little curry, and she served it over rice.
She always said that her best work was 1998’s Celtic Christmas Spirit, which is a marvelous album. That record may be the truest account of her soul. Still, the bracing music of Mock Up holds up well today. For Caroline, music was a massive totality that included Coltrane, her beloved Aretha Franklin, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Charles Ives.
After Mock Up and Intuition were reissued in 2009, Caroline played a few shows where she performed her old material, including a memorable May 2009 appearance in Bloomington that reunited her with Bingham, Lucas and many other figures from the ’70s. She commanded the stage, just as she had done three decades earlier.
My favorite track by Caroline is a demo she cut in 1979. It’s a simple affair, with just acoustic guitar and her rich, supremely confident voice. “Try to Be True” puts me in a haze of nostalgia — and now, I must say, melancholy — when I hear it, because it’s a song by someone who knows how ephemeral happiness is.
It’s a pop tune worthy of the best singer-songwriters of the ’70s, or indeed, of any era. Listening to it is like returning to a cool, shaded house that sits just up the street from the beach, where you’ve spent the day with someone you love. It’s high summer, and the sky is as blue as it can be. You shake the sand out of your shoes, and you pour a second glass of wine.