One of the Triangle’s sharpest young songwriters, Kate Rhudy writes pensive tunes that are packed with sensory details and vivid scenes of sighing melancholy. Despite her deeply personal writing, she notes that plenty project their own thoughts and experiences onto her songs, trying—and failing—to identify the subjects of her most scornful odes. As a listener, Rhudy seems to resonate more with the feelings evoked by the moment—the singer’s emotional delivery, a heart-wrenching lyric, or a perfectly unfolding arrangement.
While unpacking bags of clothes on a sunny Sunday afternoon after her recent move across downtown Raleigh, Rhudy mentions that her mom just discovered the John Hartford classic “In Tall Buildings” while they painted her new bedroom. “I would love to still be discovering genius songs when I’m her age,” Rhudy enthused, noting her own recent revelation of “Simple Man” from Graham Nash’s 1971 debut.
“It’s crazy—these songs that have just been out there without you knowing,” she added, marveling at the sheer amount of music there is to hear while confessing that she tends to listen to singles over albums, often listening to a new find obsessively. As she discusses tracks both familiar and unknown, Rhudy reveals how both her own songwriting and her discovery of new music have evolved.
KATE RHUDY: I’m not a literate Tom Petty fan. I could tell you this is Tom Petty, but I don’t know the song.
INDY: Do you just know his bigger hits?
Probably, yeah. I don’t even think I knew the names of most of them. What’s that song – “Crawling Back To You”? I think I first listened to the lyrics when Libby [Rodenbough] played it at the Pinhook show—the tribute [in February 2018]—and that blew me away. The line about “most things I worry about never happen anyway,” that just—I worry so much, and it’s all not real.
I wrote a song based off of that line pretty much immediately. I had already written some of it, but the chorus came along [because of that] and the idea of how will you know when you’re happy or successful or that things will work out? The line in the song says that things probably won’t go wrong, but they could. They probably won’t, you’re probably fine, but how will you know? It just sucks, you can’t solve it.
Does that happen often where you hear a song and that influences something you write?
Yeah, totally. I can think of quite a few songs I wrote that were based off the way a certain line in another song made me feel.
The first band I was in was an Americana trio called Andy Ferrell and Oncoming Train. I just played fiddle and would sing harmonies, but they let me sing two songs, which were “Jolene” and “You Ain’t Woman Enough” by Loretta Lynn. That’s the band that I wrote “The Only Pretty Thing In Texas” about.
We were all really young in that band, so we weren’t relying on it for money. I was doing it for fun. It kinda taught me how I wanted to lead a band. I’m really conscious about if I ask a band to do something, that they know how much they’re getting paid. At this point, these musicians that I’m playing with are working. It wasn’t a huge deal at the time, of course, to not get paid or not knowing how much I would get paid for a gig, but after a certain amount of time, I definitely realized that I would like to know.
I was in that band when I was nineteen, and I was just getting drunk on LITs and playing the fiddle every Friday and Saturday night in Boone. It was fun, but when I started playing my own stuff, I [thought] “I can’t get hammered before my shows and I don’t really want to. I probably shouldn’t be under twenty-one and drinking at venues if I want to form some trusting relationships.”
Content-wise, he had a lot of songs where he would take on a character. To each their own—it’s a fine way to write songs—but I remember one [where he sang] “I ain’t nothin’ but a poor man’s son” and I was like, “No you’re not.” I thought it was a fun character to do and a different persona for sure, but it taught me that I couldn’t write that way. I can’t make up stuff. Mine are pretty much all from personal experience. Maybe that’s me not being creative, but I can’t write like that. It just feels weird.
As someone who doesn’t write songs, I’ve wondered which is harder—writing from personal experience and putting it all out there or trying to embody a character other than yourself.
I think the latter is harder. I don’t really think it’s that hard to put out personal stuff because it’s not like anyone is really thinking “Oh my god, I can’t believe Kate did that.” They’re not really even thinking about me at all, they’re thinking about themselves and their own stuff. No one really knows what you’re talking about. [My song] “I Don’t Like You or Your Band”—I’ve gotten so many questions about that, people asking “Is it about this band?” No, it’s absolutely not about Mipso. [laughs] It’s just funny what people think when they hear songs. Once you put it out there, it’s not necessarily about you, so it doesn’t really matter.
Reese McHenry was recently telling me that with her song “May Baby,” people that she hasn’t even met will come up to her and be convinced that it’s about them because they were born in May.
I make sure that people know [when] it’s about them. I put in very personal details so that they know. Why would you make someone wonder, you know what I mean? Like “Boy From Charlevoix”—I put in the specific city because I don’t want anyone to be confused. [laughs]
Well, I feel like “I Don’t Like You or Your Band” would be specific enough so that whoever it’s about would know.
He definitely knows. There’s no way that guy could hear it and be like “Nah, that could be about someone else.” We talked about it. Well, I didn’t get a direct reaction, but he told me the first time he heard that song, his whole band was like, “Why would she do this to us?” and it’s really not about them. It’s at the point [now] where we were able to laugh about it, but maybe not when he first heard it. We’ve joked about his band covering it.
This is the soundtrack of my childhood. This is one of the first songs I tried to learn on the mandolin. I think all the songs I’ve tried to learn on the mandolin were by Chris Thile. I started on fiddle when I was five and got my mandolin when I was nine. I wanted to play like this and I already knew violin, so I was like, “It’s just the same thing—it’s the same fingerings—so I’ll be good at it.” I didn’t really get too much into it. I’m not very good at it, but I can play it. This is the kind of stuff that I would play along to as a kid and that’s how I practiced, learning by ear, and I used that as a tool. I used to sit down and learn things or practice them more than I do now.
Were you already pretty familiar with instrumentals since you grew up around old-time and bluegrass?
Yeah. Instrumental music is so powerful. This makes me feel so joyful.
Have you done much instrumental writing?
No, not really. I’ve done like half of one instrumental tune on the guitar but I haven’t finished it. I think my brain definitely works more in lyrical settings than instrumental. I prefer to listen to instrumentals more than I do to write them.
Great tune. I love fiddle tunes.
What’s your favorite fiddle tune?
There’s a lot of good ones “Red Prairie Dawn,” “Midnight on the Water.” I grew up on the classical violin and then did fiddler’s conventions. I didn’t really enjoy jamming as a kid. I didn’t really want to sit around. It was fun and I could get really into it, but I got bored of playing the same song for fifteen minutes. So I started doing folk song competitions and I got kind taken by the moments of songs. There’s definitely certain moments of fiddle tunes where you’re like, “Holy shit!” but I can point out the parts of a fiddle tune that will pull at my heart strings and that’s something that lyrics can just do a little bit easier. There’s been songs [I’ve written] before where I just have one line that I really like and then I just kinda finish the song, but that’s the moment, that’s the lyric.
Is that still a common approach to how you write songs?
Really less so. Every lyric has to mean something now. Sometimes I’ll have a placeholder lyric and I’ll wind up keeping it because that’s just the song, you know. Just trying to be less precious with your writing. But it takes me a really long time to finish songs nowadays.
Oh, I know this! Wait, no I don’t.
Well, it definitely has that typical bluegrass sound.
It’s a very feel good tune. I’m not a very literate bluegrass fan, but it makes me feel happy. Bluegrass music in general reminds me of driving with family to the mountains of West Virginia. It reminds me of college, too, because I was more into folk stuff than I am now. It brings me to a certain place but I’m not sure it fulfills me going forward.
Have you been able to see much at the IBMA events since the festival has moved to Raleigh?
I went to a couple things in the hotel this year, which was interesting. I was there for Tatiana Hargreaves and Laurie Lewis, which was great. I saw Hawktail in one of those rooms and whatever they did just transcended the space. I feel like this meaningful music being played in a bunch of hotel rooms is just an interesting concept. In one way, I think it’s really cool, but it’s a harsh vibe that’s hard to overcome. I don’t think that I could ever do it.
I haven’t listened to this, but I know his first [album]. I should really listen to more music. I feel like I don’t discover music anymore, I discover reactions to music. I’ll just be reading on the internet and see a bunch of tweets about something.
I didn’t know what “Thank U, Next” was for weeks. I was like, “What are people talking about?” because people were posting memes with the “one taught me…” thing and I didn’t know what it was from. It was driving me crazy. Then I listened to it to see what everyone was talking about and I was like, “Oh this is genius.” Most of my discovery is from somebody else showing it to me. If I find a song I like, honestly, I can go a lot of places with Spotify Radio.
I discover a lot of songs just from background music, if I catch what’s playing and something stands out, I really want to know the song. That happened to me with a Tracy Chapman song “At This Point In My Life.” I didn’t listen to any other Tracy Chapman, it was just this one song on repeat because it just struck a chord so deep when I first heard it—“Holy shit, I want to feel like this all the time.” Then I listened to the rest of the album, and I didn’t have the same reaction, but I’m glad I listened to the whole thing eventually, even if it took me two months. But that song—the sentiment really resonated with me at the time, the way she sings it and emotes it, how the instrumentation builds—it’s the perfect soup.
That’s happened with a lot of different people. I would say that I love Richard Thompson, but I would only say that because I discovered a song called “Persuasion” that he and his son did in his later stuff and I was obsessed with it for weeks. There’s a song called “Jim Cain” by Bill Callahan and I think it’s the perfect song in every way, but I’m not really a Bill Callahan fan. I listened to the whole album eventually because I listened to that song 150 times and thought “All right, let’s see what’s surrounding it.”
Would you generally say you’re a bigger fan of specific songs than artists?
I would hate to say that, but maybe. In my head, I know how important albums are, especially to artists. Even personally, I think the whole thing is important. But thinking of each song as its own soup or its own room is just as important. I think singles are pretty cool just to give each song a world of its own. To me, listening to a full album has to be intentional, but listening to the same song over and over again is compulsive.
I don’t know if there is a band I listened to more than the Dixie Chicks. Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, and the Dixie Chicks all were in heavy rotation growing up and were very important. If this describes at all what kind of music fan I am, once in high school, I passed up seeing Bob Dylan with my dad to go to North Hills beach music and get drunk and dance with my friends. I was expressing my disappointment in myself to my dad and he said it wasn’t that good of a show and I didn’t really miss much. But my sister took me to a Dixie Chicks concert at Walnut Creek two years ago and that was amazing.
What about the Dixie Chicks resonated with you so much?
It’s just touching and very badass. They were a very cool and like a female supergroup—they all sang, they all played. They were very outspoken. The stuff they sing about, too, was very independent and very validating. They were very anthem-like tunes. For a kid who’s really dramatic, this is the perfect music for looking out the car window and imagining you’re deeply in love.
Kate Rhudy plays at The Pour House in Raleigh on Friday, December 28. The show starts at 9 p.m., and Libby Rodenbough opens. Advance tickets are $10, $12 day of.