Most varieties of begonias thrive in the shade, hardy stock that will persevere well enough with little assistance but which will bloom most spectacularly when someone takes a vested interest in them. Begonias is certainly a fitting title, then, for a duet album from Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, two singer-songwriters working on the fringes of the country mainstream. Country music, after all, has a storied history with duet albums, such that collaborations between George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn have attained canonical status within the genre. Though Begonias may not earn Cary and Cockrell comparable chart stats, the album holds its own in their company—stylistically, moreso of the Parsons-Harris pairings than of “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” or any of the cornpone Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton duets—and rates as the best work to date from either performer.
Cary, formerly of alt-country band Whiskeytown and the artist behind the two well-received solo albums While You Weren’t Looking and I’m Staying Out, and Cockrell, whose excellent Warmth & Beauty was sadly slept-on even in alt-country circles, were neighbors in North Carolina, where they held many weekend songwriting sessions that eventually led to a long-term plan to record an album. That Cary and Cockrell are old friends inscribes Begonias with a laidback, informal vibe, and there’s an unmistakable warmth—the two artists’ mutual admiration made tangible—in their interplay over the course of the album’s 11 tracks. While this chemistry works well on their lovely, stripped-down cover of Percy Sledge’s “Warm And Tender Love” and the ambling “Conversations About A Friend (Who’s In Love With Katie),” it ultimately does a disservice to otherwise potent break-up and love-gone-wrong songs like “Whatever You Want” and the clever charge-and-answer of opener “Two Different Things.”
Still, it’s difficult to fault Cary and Cockrell for enjoying each other’s company, particularly when their songwriting is so uniformly solid and their vocal harmonies are so intricately arranged. Cockrell’s thoughtful delivery recalls a sincere, less affected version of Cary’s former bandmate, Ryan Adams, and Cary, for her part, continues her emergence as one of alt-country’s finest interpretive singers. The production from Cary, Cockrell, and executive producer Brad Jones highlights the exceptional contributions of the first-rate studio band assembled for the project, and if not in any way innovative, this gives Begonias an appropriately organic sound likely to appeal both to stone country purists and to a roots-rock audience familiar with Jones’s recent work with Josh Rouse and Butterfly Boucher. Begonias succeeds on Cary and Cockrell’s modest terms as a pleasant, casually self-sustaining project, but it’s also an album that rewards more focused, attentive care.