Cary Hudson ascribes to two important tenants of the Guy Clark school of songwriting. First, write about what you know. Second, the more specific your personal experience, the more universal the message.
Take, for example, "Snow in Mississippi," the opening track on "Bittersweet Blues," Hudson's third solo album since disbanding the pioneering alt.-country outfit Blue Mountain.
"I remember one winter I was 10, when the big snow fell like it would never end," Hudson sings. "Weatherman said there'll be no school today, so we dressed up warm and went out to play."
A day-long recess gifted by inclement weather is something everyone can relate to, even in the South where snow is so rare. There's an intangible beauty in such fleeting joy, and Hudson captures it as he deepens the song's meaning: "All the best things never last too long, they go by to fast like a rock and roll song/Like snow in Mississippi…Time is a circle, that's what I've found/Everything that happens is gonna come back around."
"I live in Mississippi, and it really did snow when I was 10 years old," the 43-year-old explains by phone from his home near Hattiesburg. "Snow's a very rare phenomenon here – it'll catch you about once every three years. It struck me as a good metaphor for things that are really cool but don't seem to last very long."
That could be applied to his former band. Though his name might not be as recognizable as Jay Farrar's or Jeff Tweedy's, Hudson's impact with Blue Mountain was as forceful as Uncle Tupelo's in the 1990s alt.-country upheaval.
After a strong run that lasted more than a decade and birthed indelible fan favorites such as "Blue Canoe," the band split in 2002, just before releasing the live effort "Tonight It's Now or Never."
Hudson sees his solo career, which started with 2001's "The Phoenix" and continued with the critically-lauded "Cool Breeze" in 2003, as a delicate balance of positive and negative.
"I definitely miss (the band dynamic with Blue Mountain)," he says. "We were together for about 12 years. I still play with bands, but it's a situation now where I hire the band, which is very different. When everybody's committed to the band and it's full-time it's a very special thing. I didn't realize how special it was until it was over. A band's either guys who grew up together like the Rolling Stones or guys who come from the same neighborhood like Springsteen or it's brothers and sisters like The Kinks or Carpenters or people who are involved in a relationship – it's people who have a shared identity, a community."
"On the other hand, being a solo artist is very freeing – plus, the money splits up nice," he continues, laughing. "It's freedom as opposed to community. I'm really enjoying the solo, acoustic thing – it feels very natural to me right now."
That idea is important to Hudson. He writes songs only if they feel right, never sugar-coating lyrics or forcing themes to make them more commercially viable. Most crucially, he focuses on his own world and allows the listener to apply that to the world at large. His take on Hurricane Katrina highlights the point. Instead of railing against the government's slow response or pointing fingers at local politicians, Hudson simply offers his two cents on the hurricane's destruction as it affected him.
"Days are growing longer I'm getting stronger again/It's good to know who is and is not my friend," he sings in "Sleeping Under the Stars." "I lost it all in a hurricane, nothing's ever gonna be the same again/But I don't miss the fancy car and drinking in a crowded bar/When I'm sleeping under the stars."
"After Blue Mountain broke up, I took a little time off from music and was buying properties with my baby's mom," Hudson says. "One of those houses got totally smashed, and right after the hurricane, she and I broke up. So, I was living in an area that was affected by (Katrina). I was personally affected by it, so I approached it that way instead of from an outsider's perspective.
"As opposed to people in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, I had a safety net at the same time. I have a place in the country where I was basically camping out, but I did have a place to go. Obviously, the government did a really crappy job responding to it because they were distracted by this war in Iraq, but that just wasn't where I was coming from in the songs.
Hudson admits that living in the deep south might be the biggest influence on his songwriting. In fact, even on the folky ("Epitaph," "Pray For Peace"), the groovy ("Shoefly Blue") and the countrified ("Two Is Greater Than One"), it's plain that this is a delta blues album at heart. "When I was growing up, my influences were singing in the Baptist church, classic rock like the Stones, Beatles and Neil Young," Hudson says. "Neil Young and Bob Dylan really affected me when I was coming up.
"Then, later on I ended up getting into older blues and country stuff from the 1920s and '30s. When I lived in Oxford, Miss., I went out to Junior Kimbrough's juke joint a lot and listened to the older blues guys like R.L. Burnside. I ended up becoming friends with R.L. Burnside and went out on three different tours with him. Learning guitar and a different approach to life from him that I didn't get in my white, middle-class upbringing were huge influences on me."