Boston singer-songwriter Ry Cavanaugh is known for the collaborative nature of his musical endeavors; for the past 17 years, he’s been at the heart of the ever-shifting collective that performs and records as Session Americana, and he’s seemed more than content to focus his efforts within that horizon. But for the first time since 1998, Cavanaugh has released something that has his name on the cover. And yet, “Time For This” isn’t simply a solo record. It is also a different kind of collaboration, an album of songs written by his father.
The album came out at the beginning of April; Cavanaugh had dates in support of it scheduled locally and in the United Kingdom, but the pandemic put a stop to that. Speaking by phone, he says that he’s been doing what he can to promote the record, and recently he posted an “album release show” on YouTube. He’s biding his time until he can play live again, while at the same time wondering what form that will take and how comfortable he’ll be doing it. More immediately, he observes, “Time For This” is “the kind of record I would want to release in a time like this because I think it’s very understated and chilled out.”
Music was a steady and central part of the home life that Cavanaugh experienced growing up. “I feel like my parents were really trailblazers,” he notes. “They were trying things out, they were innovating, they were becoming.” Part of that was a regular, chaotic cacophony of musical visitors and activity in their home, of musicians hanging out and working things out. The family moved around New England a lot, but they were always putting at least one musician up, wherever they were. (Another mark of the importance that music played in his parents’ lives; they named their son after Ry Cooder.)
George Cavanaugh’s own musical efforts leaned in the direction of the singer-songwriter fare of the era. He wrote songs, and he played out intermittently, at least until he changed things up to become a country singer for a few years in the early 1980s, adopting the honky-tonk alter ego “Bobby Pedd” and playing regular dates at New York City’s Lone Star Café and other clubs.
The musical influence he had on his son was more indirect than direct, according to Ry. “I heard my dad writing, but he didn't really share that with me very much,” he recalls. “And when the musicians were around, they were really there for each other and working on something to perform.”
It was the energy and community of what surrounded him that left the biggest mark. “This sort of big pile of pot-smoking, dobro-playing, singing, crazy people coming in and out with all their broken cars, baseball mitts, and whatever, that energy, whenever that happens to me in my life, it feels like home.”
The impetus for “Time For This” originated about 10 years ago, when Cavanaugh quit his day job and moved to Ireland for a year with his wife, singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, and their son. That marked the effective beginning of a full-time vocation as a musician, and once that happened, “I could sort of see that there were some things that were almost inevitable. And one of the most important ones was doing a record of my dad’s songs.”
He “hemmed and hawed” about the project for several years, until he finally set himself a target that took its mark from his father. In 2019, he would turn 48, the same age his dad was when he died in 1993; he would have the project done by then.
“The best way I could figure out how to do it was to keep it very intimate,” Cavanaugh notes. “I rewrote a few things, but I picked songs that I thought I could really sing in my voice, that I didn’t have to change that much.”
He draws mainly upon his father’s earlier, acoustic folk material for the nine songs on the album. And although he was very young when he heard his dad playing those songs, he was surprised at how familiar they seemed when he went back to them. “He’s been gone for so long that it was surprising to me that when I just picked up his notebooks and flipped through, I knew all the songs,” he says. “Not well enough to play them, but I didn’t have to work too hard to pick out what the melodies were. It all just came quickly back.”
To record the songs, he paired with Duke Levine, both playing acoustic guitar; Kimball added some marvelous, shadowing harmonies to a few of them. What resulted has the intimacy Cavanaugh intended, and a sparse beauty that delivers the varied sentiments of the songs he chose. “Cold Wind” seems to hint at the weariness of a struggling showman’s life. “Sink or Swim” articulates the navigational outlook of someone who is willing to do exactly that, while “Help Me Doctor” somehow manages to be both wryly humorous and desolate. At the center of the collection is the title track, which Ry’s father wrote about his son as he sat by his cradle, and to which Ry contributes the son’s perspective by adding a final verse.
Cavanaugh doesn’t view “Time For This” as simply a tribute, although he wouldn’t be unhappy if that is how it is received. It seems that for him, the project was more complicated than that. He wanted to recover and document at least some of the songs his father had written, but he also wanted to be on what he calls an “equal footing.”
“This record is about me, too. I needed to remind myself of that all the time. I still do,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a relationship.”
The project turned out to be an act of recovery in regard to his relationship with his father as well. George Cavanaugh had struggled with chronic depression and an addiction to prescription opiates in the years before he died. “The last few years of his life were really hard, hard for me and hard for him, and we really didn’t have much there,” says Cavanaugh, who was 22 at the time of his father’s death.
But he’s found that making the record has changed that “for the better, all the way, in every way,” and now that he’s sharing his father’s music and other people are hearing it, he’s been experiencing an elation that he did not expect.
“It loops right back around,” he says. “It’s that classic thing: Everything you thought you’re running away from, you ran right back in a big circle to. It’s remarkable that my journey leads back here to this place.”
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.