Q&A: Americana Artist Caleb Keith Says Farewell to Athens

When Caleb Keith isn’t moonlighting as a country singer and songwriter, he’s a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education and the senior coordinator for assessment and research in the Department of Student Affairs, Assessment and Staff Development. A full-fledged Dawg who pursues his musical passions on the side, his life encompasses two different takes newcomers and outsiders have on the promises and opportunities of this tight-knit college town.

Keith will be chasing a different dream soon, once he relocates to Arkansas and begins a new career at the University of the Ozarks. In anticipation of his farewell show this Saturday at Flicker, Keith talked to Flagpole about his overall Athens experience.

Flagpole: You came back to Athens after earning your Master’s at UGA to pursue another degree. Were you strategically wanting to be here for the music scene, in addition to academic opportunities? 

Caleb Keith: Athens gets in your blood a little bit. A lot of people talk of being drawn back here when they leave. When I wanted to start a PhD, I’d begun playing music again. I’d sort of stopped for a couple of years. I started playing again and writing songs. When I looked at the program here, I thought there was no better place to put a band together and play around town and maybe do some recordings.

FP: Did you find it was relatively easy to find capable players locally for your backing band, the Calaveras?

CK: I think it was relatively easy. Athens is not the only town that has a glut of players, but there’s a lot of players in town. At first I thought it might be a little difficult. It worked out that almost everyone I play with I found on Craigslist. I only met one band member by going to local shows, which is Chris Riser, who plays bass for me.

Athens gets in your blood a little bit.

FP: With Between Late and Lonesome, did you know there was a chance you’d get a job someplace else so soon after its release? Was there any internal pressure to get it out before the end of last year, or did you not know that the Arkansas thing might open up?

CK: I did not know about the Arkansas thing. I found out about it at the beginning of September. Like I said, I’d been in some college bands and I had a few recordings that I’d never really released. I kind of wanted to record something I could really stand behind and be proud of. My songwriting had shifted toward Americana and country influences. I wanted to get something out that represented that shift and captured the band as it existed at that point in time. 

FP: Americana is right on the outskirts of the mainstream. What led you to writing and performing that type of music?

CK: Growing up, my grandparents and my dad and my stepdad were all country fans. I heard a ton of George Strait growing up in the ’90s. After I started playing again, I began exploring country music and Americana. I also took a dive into the blues—not so much playing as listening. American music traditions were really calling to me. It was more about coming back home than discovering something new.

FP: You’ll be back in Athens a few times to handle dissertation business. Do you want to keep the band together for when you’re around, or are you already plotting your Craigslist posting for musicians in Arkansas? 

CK: I might do some of both. I really like playing with these guys here, and I’ll be in town a couple of times a year. I probably will try to get something going in Arkansas, even if it’s playing solo for a while. I don’t see myself not playing or writing or recording. I just don’t know what form that’ll take. Arkansas is near the Red Dirt thing that’s going on in Texas and Oklahoma, so in some ways it may be a more fertile ground for Americana.

Caleb Keith plays Flicker Theatre & Bar on Saturday, Jan. 7.