In 2012, Caroline Keys, a singer and songwriter, holed up in the Bel Aire Motel for a short songwriting retreat. The native Southerner wanted to mark the 10th anniversary of her move to Missoula by writing 10 songs. She ended up with one, called "Mean to Stay," a slowly shifting country-folk ballad, in which she wonders about travel, intention and the passing of time, in her crisp, high voice:
"What did you give up,
Or did you just give up,
Was it something you believed,
Or did you forget to leave,
What does it mean to stay,
When you didn't to mean to stay?"
Five years later, the song has re-emerged as the title track of Keys' first proper solo album, recorded with a band of regular collaborators they've named the LaneSplitters.
She said themes of motion and stillness run through the songs, all written by Keys except for a tune penned with guitarist Nate Biehl.
In another tune, "Nothing Better," you can find a narrator who's come to "luxuriate" in self-pity, Keys said. It's a three-minute tune, with a vintage, tear-jerker melody you'd expect to hear emanating from a dusty dive-bar jukebox that hasn't changed out its selections in some time.
"I got nothing better to do
Than to lay around,
Thinking about you,
You got somewhere,
Better to be,
Than to lay around,
Thinking about me"
"Mean to Stay" is not all so serious and lovelorn. In "Fort Benton," the mayor of a small town goes to drink in a neighboring one. In the final track, "A Grainy Taste," a paean to friendship, the album cycles through to a variation on the theme: what's gained by staying, "all those stories that have a chance to exist," she said. Even by the last verse of that title song, the question has changed: "What does it mean to stay, when you can't help but stay?"
"Mean to Stay" is the first solo album by the 41-year-old Keys, but it doesn't have the feel of a debut. Instead, it caps a few decades of living and writing in Montana.
Keys first moved here in 1998 to work in Glacier National Park during the summer. It stuck. While she had studied English literature and creative writing and has an MFA in creative nonfiction, she pursued music in as many avenues as she could find. Since 2002, she's played in an ever-lengthening list of bands around the Missoula area: bluegrass group Broken Valley Roadshow; the chamber-folk combo Stellarondo, who recorded an album complementing short stories by writer Rick Bass; she and collaborators Biehl and Jeff Turman are regulars around Missoula and drive long distances for the fun of playing small bars in small-town Montana.
Despite having enough songs for a record of her own, the notion of a "solo" album is "not the most comfortable space" for her until recently.
"It kind of felt like it was time," she said.
Keys saved money from live gigs to pay for the recording a year in advance, and then invited the individual band members on board.
"None of that would be what it is without the wisdom and smarts and heart of everybody involved," she said.
She's worked with many for them for a long time. Biehl (electric guitar, keys, and vocals) and her go back 15 years to Broken Valley and more recently, an indie-leaning Americana group, Scrapyard Lullaby. Turman (upright bass, fiddle and vocals) is a member of that band, too. Pedal steel player Gibson Hartwell, an all-around secret weapon who makes any band better, played with Keys in Stellarondo. For years, Keys sang back-up with country-rock group Best Westerns, and recruited their drummer/trombone player Matt Tipton. Keys, meanwhile, plays guitar and banjo on the album.
After a winter of rehearsing, preparing and saving, they drove to Portland, Oregon, in the summer of 2016 to record at Type Foundry, an independent studio run by Adam Selzer. He was behind the boards for Stellarondo's two albums, and has worked with the Decemberists, M. Ward, She & Him, Tara Jane O'Neill and Jolie Holland, to name a few.
"I love the sounds that he captures, I love working with him in the moment," Keys said. "There's just a level of trust that is there in all respects."
They recorded the 11 songs in three days flat, live with minimal overdubs save for backup vocal harmonies and the like, and took full advantage of the studio's warm, spacious sound, one of the attractions for Keys.
"The room is definitely a character in all the recordings — it plays a role," she said.
Biehl said the freedom from distractions was important, allowing them "the ability to just go to a destination and be completely immersed in the process of getting stuff down on tape."
The songs have an unhurried pace, and breathe like you'd expect from musicians who are deeply comfortable with each other.
"Space is something that's hard to force," Biehl said. It came only with the time spent getting comfortable with each other and the sounds. "You can't really go in thinking that's what's going to happen and be guaranteed that it will."
Some, such as "Dance Wax" and "A Grainy Taste" have spare picking and vocals bathed in atmospheric flourishes: bowed bass, rounded guitar swells and other effects. Biehl said the latter tune was one that they tracked with the least amount of preparation.
The material varies in age: That sunlit country tune called "Fort Benton," is 10 years old, written after Broken Valley played at the agricultural center in Fort Benton. The band was hanging out at a saloon when they met the mayor of a neighboring town, who said he had to come drink there, inspiring lyrics about stasis and minor acts of escapism.
"Sympathetic String" has the slow-burning feel of a 1950s country ballad, complete with a horn section courtesy of trombone overdubs by Tipton, a high school music teacher.
Some have quirkier origins. Keys teaches music at Sussex School and works as a poet-in-residence at Arlee School. Teaching can draw much of her creative attention, so for the past five years she's applied for artist residencies at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, providing weeks of free time to write.
"Golden Zipper," originated from a song prompt to begin with a color, find an object with that color, and write from there. She saw a golden zipper on a pair of pants and ended up with a tune about a frustrated relationship, whose verses are studded with pants-related wordplay — Keys' fully embraces the humor that country can accommodate. Similarly, "Two-Story House" has the levity and bounce of a rock 'n' roll country song, which grew out of a songwriting workshop with musician Jenn Adams. (She assigned participants to write a song with the name "Two-Story House.")
The songs work, in part, because many have been tested and refined on stage for so long.
Biehl said Keys wanted to take material she knew had "spoken to people in a live situation, and to flesh them out and to realize them in a way that is more complete."
There's an aspect of closure to the record, too, he said. Part of its purpose was to take her catalog and preserve it as a means of moving forward, "so that she's forced to rebuild her catalog once it's done."