In Review: Baltimore Folk Singer-Songwriter Caleb Stine’s ‘The Life And Times Of A Handyman’

I knew I was a fan of Caleb Stine when I saw he got down to brass tacks in the comments of a Tim Newby Instagram post about the Top Ten Townes Van Zandt songs.

And when I subsequently found out Stine had just put out an album called, The Life And Times of a Handyman, the deal was sealed. Count me in.

Stine is known for his performance, songwriting, and visual art, and has released a dozen albums, opened shows for Jason Isbell and Sam Bush, acted Off-Broadway, and has even drawn story-boards for John Waters. (I would love to see them) 

He emerged from the historic Baltimore roots music scene, and like traveling minstrels of yesteryear, has taken his thought-provoking, earnest music to an audience around the country. Stine tells it like it is, painting vivid everyday scenes into his lyrics, as his music features blue-collar, down-home characters that inhabit the hills and plains of small town America.

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Recorded in September of 2020 in Catawba, Virginia, The Life and Times of a Handyman exhibits all of the endearing qualities and traits listed above. (please don’t make me repeat them) The setting was perfect for Stine who says, “I like wood and acoustic sounds – music that could be made in any century.” The album features members of Baltimore’s roots-music collective and includes longtime collaborator Nick Sjostrom (bass, keys, vocals), the Honeydew Drop’s Kagey Parish (guitar, mandolin, vocals) Laura Wortman (banjo, guitar, vocals), and Audrey Hamilton (upright bass, fiddle, vocals).

Kicking off the album is the tender, “Looking For Someone to Love.”

The acoustic instrumentation and vocal delivery offer a more somber and melancholy feel, and the lyrics somewhat reflect that, but with descriptions of everyday people doing everyday things. It’s not necessarily a sad specific story about finding someone to love. It’s an interesting choice to open the record with, but from the jump, his heartfelt songwriting is evident and quickly draws you in.

Then it’s “Just One Mistake,” which flips the script on the somberness of the opening tune. This immediately hits as a beautifully breezy country tune that conjures images of southern comfort, whatever that means to you. The combination of fiddle, mandolin, and background harmonies throughout make the tune pop.

Without mistakes where would I be? / Just a scruffy guy watching TV and drinkin’ beer / With no one here… / All my mistakes they turned out fine / I love my children and my wife / Maybe mistakes have what it takes / To help create our lives,” he sings. In a very self-forgiving fashion, Stine shifts the perspective on “mistakes,” seeing them more as inevitable circumstances and learning experiences that shaped the course of his life, and he’s fine with it.

The orchestral and beautiful ode that is the third track, “Handyman,” the central subject of the record, lulls the listener with its twinkling instrumentation and comforting ambiance, as Stine uses the “handyman” as a metaphor for the things in our lives that need to be fixed and repaired. “Sometimes the part is new / Sometimes you gotta make due / It might take nails / It might take glue / But you can solve any problem if you think that you can / That’s the life and the time of a handyman,” Stine sings throughout the resonating ballad.

“Starlight Fountain” brings the fast-paced chug-a-lug bluegrass train of sound coupled with the imagery-laden storytelling of Stine. The harmony-rich chorus is not unlike a Dead song, making me think of an “I Know You Rider” and “Cumberland Blues” amalgamation, even though he interestingly sings of “fire on the mountain.” Again Hamilton’s fiddle shows up prominently, acting like the sparks shooting off the train track.

Halfway through comes “I Know You’re Sorry,” which hits with the force of a feather. It’s an uber soft and gentle piano ballad, while “Canary” continues the theme of the more somber instrumentation and delivery, again with gentle heartstring-tugging lyrics. Stine delivers a lot of emotion in each song this far along the way, and there’s no reason to think it’ll dissipate.

“Colorado” then sneaks up with the smooth strums of acoustic guitar and overlapping fiddle, very Van Zandt-esque, even offering an ode to the songwriter’s adopted state. “In Boulder they got the hippies / In Denver they got the squares / And everybody up in the mountain / Is livin’ like they got no cares,” he sings. “She’s gone to Colorado where she belongs.” As someone who’s been fortunate enough to experience the beauty of Colorado, this song is as crisp, clear, and serene as the air on a Rocky Mountain walkabout.

The following track, “Energy,” offers just that from the get go. The track is a deeply resounding instrumental with a sticky acoustic riff that grows and evolves throughout the song along with a host of complimentary instruments like banjo and bass. It’s fluid, effective, and sounds like something you might hear at a Bela Fleck show.

Track number nine, “Whiskey,” starts with “yips” and “ows”, as presumably Stine and a woman discuss the track in the studio prior to it kicking in. This heavily vocal-focused tune is a fun and sincere thank you song to many walks of life, including those who love us and hate us. “Thank you all / Who love and accept us / And we must thank those / Who seem to reject us / For we know that grace and humor will protect us / When we share whiskey for breakfast,” he sings.

The final chapter on this sonic folk saga is “Floating,” which seems exactly what the graceful and lullaby-like acoustic instrumental does. It brings a sense of peace, closure, and acceptance. It conjures gentle images of nature at dusk or at dawn. An awakening or perhaps a slumber.

After listening to the ten-track album, it’s clear my intuition did not lead me astray. The whole record rings with unique perspectives, heartfelt inflections, and shines a light of positivity both in lyric and instrumentation. It is a stellar notch in the belt that is 21st Century Americana music. Stine is a perfect example that the old-timey country-folk music of the past so many love can be renewed, restored, and reborn, and this is most evident on The Life and Times of a Handyman.

Stine and company will be performing in Baltimore Saturday November 20th at 2:00 PM. “Singin’ Rice will be the theme as Laura Wortman, Letitia Van Zandt, Kagey Parish, and Caleb Stine sing their original songs and the songs of the Late Great Tony Rice. Expect another episode in the Round The Mountain cabin-style hoe-down. This event will be in person AND Live Streamed, so you can tune in from your cabin in Madagascar.”

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