Raised on an eclectic blend of classic country, bluegrass gospel and oldies tunes, Cassidy Dickens first fell in love with narrative songwriting at age four while driving through her hometown in southern West Virginia in her Dad’s Chevy Lumina. From that day on, she’s chased her passion for singing and songwriting all over the U.S., performing throughout Appalachia, the southeast and the west coast for more than a decade.
Who are your favorite artists from your home state of West Virginia?
West Virginia is ridiculously full of talented musicians — some who’ve found fame, and many of whom are just regular people who happen to be extraordinarily talented. As far as household names go, Hazel Dickens and Kathy Mattea are probably at the top of my list. I love their strength, uniqueness, and creativity.
Would you consider those artists as the ones who most influence your own writing style?
Growing up in West Virginia and being surrounded by classic country and bluegrass music obviously had a huge impact on the way I write and the way I sing; that includes West Virginian women like Hazel Dickens and Kathy Mattea, but I’ve also been profoundly influenced by the music of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who were of course from other corners of Appalachia. Vulnerable story songs and emotional vocals like theirs are what caused me to fall in love with music in the first place.
I’ve also been pretty significantly influenced by a lot of female singer-songwriters of the 1970s and 1990s — Jewel, Alanis Morissette, Stevie Nicks, Patty Griffin, and Emmylou Harris are just a few artists who I’ve been enamored with and inspired by for most of my life.
How hard is it to address mental health issues in lyrics?
Talking openly about mental health issues in any capacity is something I’ve only started doing in the last couple of years. Writing lyrics about mental health issues is tough for me, and singing about those feelings in front of friends, family, and strangers can be absolutely gut-wrenching at times. But I feel in my bones that it’s necessary. The thing about mental illness is that it can leave you feeling super isolated, alone, like no one else on earth could possibly understand what you’re dealing with. We all have unique experiences, but I want people who listen to my music to know they aren’t alone. If someone hears some of my lyrics and says, “Wow, she just said exactly what I’m feeling,” then I’ve done my job.
What topic have you never written about but hope to one day?
Lately, I’ve been dabbling in condensing family stories, folk tales, and historical events into lyrics. You can hear a little bit of that in my song “Heloise,” but there are so many other amazing stories that I want to turn into songs. It’s tough though because unlike writing a novel or even a short story, you have to get all the juicy details into just a few minutes, make it fit a particular structure, find a melody that supports the story you’re trying to tell… Songs like that take me a lot longer, so I’ve had a bad habit of starting them but not finishing them. Now that Anxious Love is wrapped up, I want to return to some of those ideas and start fleshing them out.
How did the concept for the Anxious Love album start?
It’s a cheesy thing to say, but the whole concept for Anxious Love actually came together really organically. When Ben Justus and I started working on the record, we started with just a few songs, without really knowing for sure where the project was going to go. It didn’t take long for us to start noticing threads of big-picture themes: love, nostalgia, and vulnerability, to name a few. I knew from the get-go that I wanted to create something that was at once honest, relatable, and intimate, and I think that really resonated with Ben, so we kept those words at front of mind and built the album a little at a time.
How difficult was it to choose which songs to put on it?
Some were tougher than others. There was a lot of give and take between wanting to choose the strongest songs possible, but also wanting to choose songs that made sense in context with each other. A lot of people in the modern music industry would probably disagree with me, but I’m a big believer in the art of the album. There’s something magical about experiencing an intentional collection of songs from start to finish, so I put a lot of effort into choosing songs that complimented each other and putting them together in such a way that the listener and I get to take a little journey together.
Can you share the backstories to the songs on the album?
I can definitely share a few! I’m pretty open about the fact that a lot of my writing is autobiographical, at least to some extent. One of the funnier stories is probably around the song “Denver”. At its core, it’s a song about having to be on the road, away from someone you love. Something I don’t always tell people though is that I actually wrote it about missing my dog — he’s named Denver after John Denver. I wrote it shortly after I’d adopted him, when I had to leave him with a friend while I was traveling for some shows. I didn’t grow up with dogs in our home, so I was totally unprepared for how much I was going to miss him while I was away. People who aren’t “dog people” probably think that’s a little silly, but he really has been my rock and my best friend through a lot of tough times. He was all I had when I first moved to Nashville, so being away from him for any amount of time always makes my heart ache a little.
I actually do a lot of my writing on the road — “Denver”, “Heaven On My Mind”, “Braxton County” all fit that bill. I was almost late for a show once over writing the song “Braxton County”. Someone who meant the world to me had recently been killed in an accident, and I had to drive past our old hometown to get to the gig. Part of me wanted to take the exit and drive around a bit just to enjoy the memories, but I had this weird feeling of panic at the thought of being there….so I just kept driving. But I cried for the next 30 miles or so, then pulled off at a gas station and wrote this song on a napkin. It makes for a good story now, but that was a particularly rough evening to get through.
Not all the stories are mine, of course. “Heloise” was inspired by the true 12th-century love story of a brilliant scholar/nun named Héloïse d’Argenteuil and a philosopher named Peter Abélard. Theirs is an insanely complicated story and a lot of the details are disputed today, but it’s definitely worth some research if you’re into history and controversial, tragic love affairs. I wrote the song because I was inspired by Heloise herself — she loved fiercely, freely, and purely during a time when women weren’t exactly encouraged to express those kinds of feelings openly.
10/19 — SUTTON, WV — Hometown Release Party at Cafe Cimino Country Inn
I first started performing professionally at the age of 12 in Sutton, WV and spent many, many evenings during my high school years singing at the beautiful Cafe Cimino Country Inn. Now, I’m elated to be returning to Cafe Cimino on October 19 to celebrate the release of my new record, Anxious Love, with my hometown friends and fans! Join us for an afternoon of lunch and live music on the back patio! Please contact Cafe Cimino @ (304) 765–2913.
You posted on Instagram feeling inspired by fellow panelists at the Country Music Hall of Fame. What else leaves you super inspired?
Aside from listening to music, time spent in nature is probably the thing that leaves me feeling most inspired. Anytime I’m dealing with writer’s block or feeling heavy or restless, I try to go for a hike or spend some time working in my garden. Sunlight and fresh air get my creative juices flowing like nothing else. I also love visiting art museums and reading books when I need a jolt of inspiration.
Thirteen years of performing. So a teenager of performances … what would you tell your younger self about the journey you were about to embark on?
Yeah, I started singing on the radio with my grandma when I was about five and got my first paid gig at 12. There have been a lot of ups and downs over the years. I think if I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be, “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.” Growing up, I often felt bogged down by this need to look like I had everything figured out, or to pretend like I could handle anything life threw at me. Even when I was very young, I wanted to look like a professional — I wanted people to think of me as strong, intelligent, and capable, so I had a hard time letting people in when I felt confused, hurt, uncertain, or overwhelmed. Both in life and in music, I wish I’d have allowed myself to be a little more vulnerable and admit it when I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I think I missed a lot of opportunities to learn and connect with people on a deeper level because I was afraid of looking silly or weak.
What’s been your favorite writers round to date?
It’s hard to pick just one, but off-hand, I had the opportunity to be involved in an event called Rounds for the Row last year. Basically, it was a weekly writer’s round to raise awareness over developers wanting to destroy some wonderful, historical buildings on Music Row, including the famous Bobby’s Idle Hour. The rounds were held at Bobby’s and featured some truly incredible artists and writers across a variety of genres. Getting to play on that stage and voice my support for the preservation of Music Row was a really special experience.
Favorite song to cover? Why?
I’m almost tempted to make up a fake answer because this is going to sound super cliche, but honestly, my favorite song to cover is Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. I know it’s been kind of overdone in recent years, but the marriage of pain and beauty that Cohen captures in those lyrics speak to me like almost nothing else does. I’ve struggled a lot in my life with religious doubt and trying to find peace amongst the brokenness. Cohen’s bittersweet lament gets me every single time. There’s something truly cathartic about singing that song.
What are your go to places in Nashville when family and friends come to visit?
McKay! I’m a total bookworm, so I love taking fellow booklover friends to check out McKay Books. We usually skip Broadway in favor of Radnor Lake or Shelby Bottoms Greenway, though I do like taking folks for an afternoon walk across the Pedestrian Bridge and along the riverfront. For coffee and food, Fido, M.L. Rose, and Smiling Elephant are my go-tos. Other favorites include the Belcourt Theater, Belcourt Taps, Cannery Ballroom, the Nashville Farmers’ Market . . . Nashville is so full of amazing spots, it’s hard to pick just a few.
How’s Mr. Denver doing?
Denver’s great! He’s been having a little too much fun barking at the squirrels and bunnies that try to get into our garden. I don’t think he could possibly care less that he got a song written about him, but he is fond of napping beside me on the couch while I’m writing or practicing.
You started your own garden recently, similar to the one you tended at your grandparents. Any fall crops going in?
Yeah, the garden is going strong! Since it’s been quite warm, we’re still enjoying a lot of our summer crops — we’ve still got lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, okra, and lima beans. For fall, we’ve added chard, brussels sprouts, carrots, and broccoli. We tried to grow pumpkins and butternut squash but the aforementioned squirrels and bunnies had other plans for those unfortunately. It’s been great to learn more about composting and growing our own food over the past year, and my grandparents have been a wonderful resource. I’ve always been very close with them, but I don’t get to see them half as often as I wish I could. Working in the garden helps me feel more connected to them even when we’re apart.
What’s ahead in 2020?
Heading into 2020, I’m focused on sharing Anxious Love with as many people as possible. The colder months are typically when I do my best writing, so in the early part of the year, I’m going to have to strike a balance between promoting the album and prioritizing writing time. As far as later months go though, I’m working on booking a solid lineup of spring shows and summer festivals, which I’ll start announcing soon!