by Tracy Davis
photographs by Tim Lytvinenko
If there is a modern, downtown version of a Renaissance couple, Skillet Gilmore and Caitlin Cary may be it. They’re both musicians. They’re both artists. They’re both mover-shaker types in the city’s arts community, and you can ask their friends: They’re both real good people.
In one way or another, artistically speaking, you may have met them. Gilmore’s show posters with strong graphics and clean but interesting lines beckon from nightclub windows, prompting you to make plans to hear that band and maybe buy that poster, too. If there’s a haunting sort of melody stuck in your head, carried by violin and vocals, you may have Cary to thank. And if you’ve been near the epicenter of any arts-based good works, Gilmore and Cary were probably close by. They have a lot to say and a lot to share.
Their paths first linked through music. An accomplished violinist, Cary, 44, moved to Raleigh from Texas in 1993 to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing at N.C. State. She also played a little fiddle on the side, and when she heard about a fledgling band that was looking for a fiddler, she went to a practice to check it out.
That practice was at Gilmore’s house, on Park Avenue, just behind the YMCA and a short walk from Sadlack’s, which Gilmore then owned. A Raleigh native, Gilmore had played around on drums as a kid, and at Sadlack’s he’d crossed paths with a brash, charismatic singer-songwriter then making a name for himself around town – one Ryan Adams. “Ryan said he wanted to start a band and wanted to know if I could play drums,” says Gilmore, now 41. “I said I could.” When Cary showed up at practice, everything clicked. Turns out, Cary could sing, too. From that first band practice came the band Whiskeytown.
It was the wave
There are, really truly, people in this world who know the name of this city for exactly one reason: Raleigh’s where Whiskeytown came from. Depending on one’s level of fandom, it could be hard to say whether Whiskeytown rode the alt-country wave of the mid-1990s, or whether it was, in fact, the wave. The band crossed the country and the pond Atlantic, touring hard, making its name through music and musicianship that shone all the brighter against the foil of Adams’ larger-than-life personality.
Suffice to say, Whiskeytown had chemistry aplenty. Gilmore and Cary had some, too. They married in October 2000 and settled into Hertford Village, an eclectic neighborhood in South Raleigh. They’re still there today, in the same house, tucked under oaks tall enough to dwarf most of downtown’s buildings.
By 2001, Adams had gone his solo way, and Whiskeytown wound down. Cary also was ready for something new. She put out solo records – three in four years – earning accolades from critics and fans able to see past Adams’ long shadow.
She also started working up her own T-shirts and show posters, because as any musician will tell you, it’s the merchandise that makes the money. These initial efforts, she says with a grin, were decidedly “not great.” Gilmore, who was playing drums in local bands and building houses with a Chatham County builder, also was exploring visual arts. He stepped up to help with posters, Cary says, when he “got tired of watching me flail.” It was immediately clear that Gilmore had an innate gift for design – especially ink on paper. Soon, Gilmore was designing posters for all the bands he and Cary played in, and it wasn’t long before the outside requests started coming.
A good gig poster has a job to do. It should catch your attention, intrigue you, and convince you that there’s someplace you need to be. “I want people to be able to read them from across the street,” Gilmore says. “You should be able to tell the who, what, where and when in just a few seconds, when you pass by the poster in a window.” Gilmore’s posters do that, and then some.
“There’s a reason Skillet’s posters are so coveted and collectible,” says Beth Khalifa, owner and creative director at Gamil Design, headquartered in Raleigh’s Warehouse District. “His work is the perfect blend of type-nerd graphic design and hand-crafted artistry. He always captures the fun or offbeat or even loud nature of the music his posters promote, and he does it with a raw simplicity and sense of style that is both perfect for the show and obviously Skillet-created.”
These designs come to life around the edges of his day job as production design supervisor at INDY Week. His basement workshop, the aptly named Crawlspace Press, is “dirty, cramped, and either too hot or too cold.” Still, he says, “I do love to be down there early in the morning with coffee or at night with a beer and some music.”
The workshop is home to quiet headspace and the tools of his trade: jars of ink, sheaves of thick paper, and tall stacks of wood-framed insect specimen trays from the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, salvaged through Durham’s The Scrap Exchange and repurposed to serve as screen-printing trays.
Gilmore finds that most times, a final design is something wholly different from his starting point, and that’s a flexible thing, too – he’s “shooting for a mood,” he says, something that will evoke a feeling or emotion that fits with the band. Gilmore cites as influences Hatch Show Prints (one of the country’s oldest working letterpress print shops, still going strong in Nashville, Tenn., after almost 100 years) and other, more eclectic sources: Blue Note Record covers, old propaganda/WPA posters, and Polish and Russian matchbook covers from the ’50s and ’60s.
Commissions for gig posters and album design come from friends-of-friends and industry word of mouth, and while he does work for talented locals, his work jumps language and geographic boundaries. His farthest-flung project, he thinks, was for an Italian band, Sacri Couri.
Still, Gilmore keeps it local where it matters. He’s the drummer in four bands: the Vibekillers, Tres Chicas, Small Ponds, and Mommie. The count goes to five if you include sporadic reunions of Patty Hurst Shifter, which he’s played in since Whiskeytown days. Or, OK, to six, if the members of Buck Jones get together, which happens only when rock legend Alejandro Escovedo is in town. “Enough to scratch the itch,” he says.
Weaving harmony, stitching fabric
Meanwhile, Cary’s days are anchored in music. Like Gilmore’s designs, Cary’s musical style is uniquely her own, featuring melodic choices and other intangible sounds that are far better heard than described; an ability to wind her voice or violin through and around the bare bones of a song, fleshing lyric and tune into what, it seems, the song is meant to be.
“There’s nothing that sounds sadder than a fiddle in a minor key,” says David Menconi, music critic and arts reporter for The News & Observer, and Cary’s genius lies in conveying that haunting sense of melancholy. “She does it with fiddle and with voice,” he says, “and it’s just perfect.” Locally, she performs with Tres Chicas, Small Ponds, and as a duo with Thad Cockerell. She’s also in demand to play on other musicians’ records, and the internet steps up to makes it easy for Cary to add violin and vocals to a distant artist’s existing tracks.
It’s through collaborating, she says, that we get truly “great music, the kind that’s made deliciously complicated by more than one opinion, more than one aesthetic.”
Cary also is a visual artist. She works with fabric; most recently, fabric on paper. She suspects that her love for fabric took root during those long highway hours in a tour bus, when needlepoint and knitting helped pass the time and also persuaded her to make a pact with herself. Although she’s a harsh critic of her music, she promised to take a different approach to her visual art. “I made a decision long ago to love whatever I made,” she explains. “If I make it, it goes on the wall, at least for a time.”
Cary runs with a theme or focus for as long as it captures her imagination. At the moment, she’s working on large-scale, architectural needle prints – fabric remnants stitched on paper to depict Raleigh’s old-bones buildings and landmarks.
Community impact – it all comes together
Cary and Gilmore still make music together, but they don’t collaborate on their visual art. “Ah, no,” they both say, with mutual, negative shakes of the head. They have a better reason to work together. It’s called community.
The two of them have lived in Raleigh for a long time. They’ve seen it up close, and from the distance that rock ’n’ roll’s airy pinnacle provided. It’s given them a keen sense of how to use their place in the arts community to lift the art/music boat for others, and for a greater good. That includes organizing concerts to raise money for hurricane or tornado relief and establishing platforms for other artists to share their work with new audiences. Cary founded Insplosure, an indoor craft and art market that takes place during downtown’s Artsplosure. There’s also her Shopscotch, a market of artists offering wares of many kinds, and Gilmore’s Posterscotch, showcasing multiple artists’ Hopscotch posters. Both are well-attended offshoots of Raleigh’s Hopscotch music festival.
Giving back is the motivator, they say. “It’s important,” Gilmore says. “No matter what your talents are, or what your job is. Spend some part of your time and effort trying to help in whatever way you can.” Recently, Cary co-founded the NC Music Love Army, a collective of North Carolina musicians who feel compelled to speak (or, more accurately, sing) their minds in response to North Carolina’s changing political climate. Gilmore, of course, provided the images. The fit is a natural one. The history of protest songs and printed bills posted up at local watering holes is, after all, a time-honored institution in the American political process, almost as all-American as rock ’n’ roll itself.
“Like so many musicians I know,” Cary explains, “I feel as though the universe has offered me a gift that I must pay forward. That sounds so corny, I know, but it’s in me deep.” The arts in a collective sense are, she says, “simultaneously always political, and also always beyond and above politics.” Music and art draw attention, and with attention comes the opportunity to spark discussion. To shine a light. And when that happens? Use it, Cary says. “Use that position to work for a better world.”