Tenn-Tom & The Tenderheart Sessions
by Bob Carskadon

Referred to by most as, simply, the Tenn-Tom, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a manmade waterway that runs through northeast Mississippi, connecting the Tennessee River to the Tombigbee River. The 234-mile “river” was constructed for commercial use and to prevent flooding in the fertile Mississippi farmland, sure, but to those who grew up near its waters, its meanings speak much more to the heart and soul than to the economy and agriculture.

To Caroline Melby, a native of Starkville, Mississippi, the muddy banks, slow-moving water and shade-giving foliage of the Tenn-Tom help make up a place she calls home. Even if she doesn’t actually live in the small boat her family takes out on the river, it still feels like home, at least.

That’s why her first solo project – if such a collaborative effort can even be given that kind of a label – isn’t just named for the waterway she’s been visiting since her age was counted in months rather than years. Tenn-Tom and the Tenderheart Sessions is an album inspired by the water, it’s music weaving a path and coursing steadily and slowly through miles of people, places and even times.

An album that features sounds ranging from the mandolin of bluegrass and steel guitar of country to the rhythm of rock-and-roll and the deep soul of the delta blues, the Tenderheart Sessions is a modern nod to great artists and producers of the past, as well as an advanced lesson in the art of nostalgia presented in today’s musical styles. Through a series of reimagined ‘60s and ‘70s covers, mixed in with musical preludes, postludes and interludes written by Melby herself, listeners are taken deep into the roots from which Melby’s 16-year professional touring career grew, left to let their imaginations wander with the music as their guide.

Back in Starkville for a quick weekend visiting family and friends before she announces her new project, Melby is gushing as she starts to explain the motives behind Tenn-Tom and the Tenderheart Sessions.

“This album is so dear to me,” she earnestly begins. “I’ve been a touring musician for over 16 years, hit a wall where I just didn’t love what I was doing and realized I had never created something that was solely my concept, my creation and my direction. To be honest, I really wasn’t sure if I had always relied on others’ talent or if I could actually create something great. And that was the only goal in mind while creating this album – just make it great. No other motives.”

It’s natural, of course, for Melby to be back in Starkville, back in Mississippi so near to the water where she was raised. It was in this small college town, after all, that her career began. It only took until she was six for her interest in music to blossom into studies as she began to learn classical piano, becoming a competitive pianist by the time she hit middle school. By 11 years old, Melby had discovered the mandolin and joined a traveling bluegrass band with her fiddle-playing older sister Hannah.

Soon after, that band – The Goat Ropers – became a popular touring band named Nash Street, which eventually moved from Starkville to Nashville, Tennessee. As often happens, a difference in taste and goals eventually led to the successful group’s agreement to disband, which was followed by the creation of HanaLena, a country-bluegrass duo featuring Caroline and Hannah Melby. The two sisters, having done so much together their entire lives, went on to tour, record and even write, as they eventually published a book.

The career of the youngest Melby sister had certainly been successful, and quite long for someone still on the right side of 30, but finally, just over one year ago, Caroline’s longing to create something of her own became a tangible project when she began work on the then-unnamed album she is releasing this fall. Through the counsel and advice of friends, her album was conceived, and thanks to the work of a great many talented musicians, Tenn-Tom and the Tenderheart Sessions is now born.

While the album is a solo project by technicality, it is very much a collaborative effort in nature, part of the reason Melby refrained from making her own name a part of the title. While she has often found herself singing lead, Melby’s preferred style is to guide the show from the wings. For that reason, Melby brought together producers, writers and musicians she had come to know over her career and created a work that, rather than highlight her own considerable skill, showcased the abilities of some of the best she knows.

“They are so talented and unknown, which is a lot of what the album ended up being – all these semi-unknown people that were just way more talented than anything else that’s out there, that’s already famous,” she says. “I don’t like to call it a solo project, even though I guess that’s what it is. I was at the forefront of leading the charge, but it was a collaboration. It was just me saying, ‘Hey, y’all, let’s come together and do this.’”

If the album is a river, Melby is just the current that carries it along.

Her hand in the direction, creation and sound of the album, however, is obvious, despite her efforts to avoid the spotlight. Melby’s composition of self-written preludes and postludes perfectly complements a track list of creative covers that offers praise to artists like few albums today have the courage to do.

In Melby’s word, her purely-instrumental interludes allow the listener to engage their imagination and paint their own pictures in the same manner of a great book that leaves room for a creative mind the way a movie never can.

In the Tenderheart Sessions’ final track, the only vocal track written by Melby, her lyrics offer a window into the mind that brought so many sounds, styles and people together for an incredible debut solo album. Restless tells the story of the journey that took Melby from Mississippi to Tennessee, from band member to solo artist, and from here to whatever trail she chooses next.

“Restless, I think, can mean a lot of different things,” Melby muses. “It can be romantic or just in life. I think everybody feels that. If they don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. You’re always going to be looking. The day you stop looking is the day you give up in life. I think it’s a good thing to be a little restless. It keeps you pushing yourself and looking for more, exploring and figuring out what you don’t like, which is just as important as figuring out what you do like.”

In Tenn-Tom and the Tenderheart Sessions, Melby has connected sounds of the past with the talent of the present day, the genesis of her career with its transitional move, and the styles of many into the melody of one. It is apparent that Melby’s connection to the river she calls home is the driving force behind her latest project.

The Tenn-Tom itself is a connector between two things in its purpose, but in function and spirit, it stands alone as its own body, its own creation, and its own place to be called home. To hear Melby talk about the river, one could just as easily think they were hearing a description of the album that bears its name.

“It just moves people in a different way.”