It’s a tale as old as time: Boy meets girl in Memphis parking lot, bond over a mutual love of Brandi Carlile, spend ten years making music and then, serendipitously, land a record deal at the moment they’re ready to pack up their dreams.
Or at least that’s the story of Ben and Emily Roberts, the Nashville duo better known as Carolina Story.
According to Ben (who Emily describes as “real good with dates”), the two met on August 3, 2007. “I learned the majority of [Brandi Carlile’s] The Story album on the guitar, and said hey, I can play this, and you can sing. Let’s hang out. That’s how it started.”
Eleven years, a marriage, and two kids later, Carolina Story is still at it. Their debut album, Lay Your Head Down, is a fierce labor of love — a long time coming, as the couple describes. Introspective and celebratory all at once, Lay Your Head Down is the culmination of a long, winding road, manifested in the perfect harmonizing of Ben and Emily’s voices. Wistful, tender, and brutal at times, it’s an excellent debut for a band that wasn’t always certain of the future.
The Young Folks: Did you both always want to be professional musicians?
Emily Roberts: Yes, that’s definitely what I was going to college for. And I knew Memphis was on the outskirts of Nashville, thought it was a good halfway point cause I knew I always wanted to end up in The Music City. So that was my journey. But Ben, he has a bunch of-
Ben Roberts: Yeah, my journey’s a little bit curvier. I actually went and played college football outside of Boston and then transferred to the University of Arkansas and-
Emily: -Majoring in history.
Ben: Majoring in history and then went out and did a NOLS course, National Outdoor Leadership School, a semester in the Rockies. Then ended up moving to North Carolina and was whitewater raft guiding and then going to school to be like outdoor education. So I really didn’t know what in the heck I wanted to do.
Emily: You were in high school band-
Emily: Music was always present.
Ben: Always was a part of my life and I was in bands growing up, in college. But never really saw myself [as a musician]. Once I hit college I didn’t really plan to be a musician. And when I ended up making my final transfer to Memphis, I met Emily and the rest is history.
TYF: Is there one single person, maybe besides each other, who’s been really influential in your journey as musicians?
Emily: It would have to be ol’ Bruce Roberts for me, which is Ben’s father. He kinda was our manager so to speak, there in the beginning and really just was continuing to encourage us to go for it and even helped book shows with Ben and-
Ben: Both of our parents, both sides of our parents have always been super-supportive, but I would second that, too. I mean if it hadn’t been for my dad, he and I tag-teaming all the management and booking for years and years, I think we would’ve hung it up a long time ago. He had shouldered a lot of that load. On top of his full-time job and raising a family. He’s incredible.
TYF: What’s it like balancing the business with your personal lives? You’re married and so there’s the personal aspect of that, but then you guys are also band partners and that’s a whole different dynamic.
Emily: Yeah, it’s definitely still challenging. We still haven’t figured it out. Cause it’s so intertwined.
Ben: Yeah I think we’re still trying ten years in, still trying to figure out that balance and how to separate our time as co-workers and as a couple.
Emily: There’ll be times though, in this day and age, where I feel like you can’t escape it. There’s e-mails you can answer to at all times of the day or the night, but I’ve always just tried to say okay, this is nighttime, let’s be a couple and let’s not be-
Ben: Yeah, let’s be present, in the moment.
Emily: Ben laughs at me, but sometimes I even refer to Carolina Story as they.
Ben: Them, like they’re taking up so much of our time. It’s like, dude you are them. And right now, I’m still doing all of the booking and the management duties right now. Not by choice, we’re just waiting on the right people to come along. So that adds to our already extensive workload.
Ben: And we’ve got two kiddos as well, so. It’s a bit of a circus.
TYF: I’m sure. I know that you guys are touring now. Do the kids come with you?
Ben: They’re not coming on the big release tour. But I know that it’ll always look different. Sometimes we’ll bring ’em when we can and other times, unfortunately, we’ll have to leave ’em with my parents or Emily’s parents. Again, it takes a village, you know?
TYF: Yeah, of course. Do you think being parents has changed your music?
Ben: I think it definitely has naturally taken … It’s harder and harder to find that time to write and to allow the creative processes to unfold. That typically, for me, leads to a lot less sleep because the kids go down, then Emily and I spend time together and then she’ll go to sleep and a lot of times that’s when I find my little pocket to flesh out ideas. Midnight to 2:00AM.
Emily: I was gonna add, I think as songwriters, there’s a few songs on this record that even talks about your children’s children. We actually wrote that before we had any of our own children.
TYF: Oh really?
Emily: Yeah. “When I Was Just a Boy” is one, I think that we wrote, and it also tends to lean towards children. I don’t know. I think when you get us, you get that whole marriage journey and the hope of having children and a family and it flows out in that way without even trying.
Ben: Yeah and this album is a snapshot, by design, of the last ten years. That’s just what this album is. Sort of a bookend on the first decade of the band and that journey. But I wouldn’t say having kids necessarily changed the writing. More of just the time. The time allotted. We thought we were busy before ’em.
TYF: This album has been ten years in the making. How does it feel to finally release it?
Ben: We’re both just super-excited to finally be releasing music again and this album, I think there’s a whole lot of nuggets of our personal journey in this album. Of struggle and triumph and mountains and valleys of it all and what lead us to this point. When we actually went into the studio to begin recording this album-
Emily: This would’ve been 2017.
Ben: Yeah, this was in August 2017. We did not plan this at all, but just as we were getting ready to- we did it live with the band and just as we were getting ready to strike the first note, I looked at my phone and I looked at Emily and I said it has been… It was August 3, 2017. I said it’s literally been ten years, almost to the minute that we met.
Ben: And that sort of is the theme, I think, with this record. It’s that full-circle, bookend moment.
Emily: Yeah there’s always been these signs, I think, if you really just let yourself be open to that, and just seeing those pinnacle moments in your life and letting them be those pinnacle moments, led us to that day, and led us to today. It kept us going for sure. The signs.
Ben: Yeah and it’s really wild, too, that to for the last two, three years we’ve been off the road and our lives are getting ready to take a big turn. I had been substitute teaching and then gained an internship teaching creative writing at a school here. And coaching for sports, and working in a bakery, kind of doing everything I could just to keep food on the table. I actually had all my grad school applications ready to go last spring and we were getting ready to-
Emily: We’ll still do Carolina Story.
Ben: We’ll still do Carolina Story, we’ll always write, because we can’t help it. We’ll tour a little, but we kinda just both came to grips that our story and our journey and road was getting ready to turn left or right. I mean, literally I was getting ready to send out all the applications and a week later our attorney said hey there’s this label, Black River, and would you guys be interested in coming and playing a few songs for them? And we were like what the hell do we have to lose? We went and played three songs, three of the songs that are on that new album now and it was like one of those- we’ve always just taken the little crack in the door, the crack in the window, those little openings and those little opportunities and we’ve always followed those to the end of the trail. It’s just kind of wild that we’re here. We just feel very grateful that the band really was given a second life.
TYF: That must’ve felt incredible when they called you. Especially feeling like you were towards the end of this journey and realizing that it’s sort of the beginning of another part of it.
Ben: Exactly, yes! Kinda crazy.
Emily: I heard someone say one time when you try so hard, you can’t get it to budge. But if you step back for a moment, I don’t know, clear your mind.
Ben: Yeah, we just banged our hands for years and years and we’d be gone for three weeks out of every month just to make ends meet and we were super burned out. It’s just pretty wild to be sitting at the vantage point that we are, looking back on it all.
TYF: That must have been crazy then, when you guys got named one of Rolling Stone’s “Ten New Country Artists You Need to Know.” How did that feel?
Ben: Amazing. I got to call my mom and say look ma, Rolling Stone. We just couldn’t be more grateful.
TYF: Do you guys have a favorite song on the album, or one that means the most to you personally?
Emily: Man, that’s a good question.
Ben: I would say mine, and I think you’ll agree [Emily]… Let’s say it at the count of three and see if we’re on the same page. One, two, three.
Ben: Let Me Rock.
Emily: Let Me Roll.
Ben: That’s mine. It ends the album. It’s the last song we cut and the last song we wrote for the album and in the chorus it talks, well the whole song, but, the whole day is singing songs with you. The all-night drives, the dives, the bars, behind your room. You said it’s been a long hard road and so it’s true. Let me rock, let me roll with you. It sums up, I think the last ten years. And that journey, it has not been easy. But we’ve had each other as a constant throughout, and keep each other going.
TYF: Yeah, it’s a very sweet song and you’re right, it does kind of encapsulate everything that you’re talking about. The journey from you guys meeting and forming the band until now.
TYF: Was it hard narrowing it down to twelve songs to get on the album?
Emily: Yes, we brought about six of the old ones and then we got six new ones, I would say, that had never been recorded.
Ben: But another sign that we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be in this moment was we were actually going into, on a Monday morning, to have a meeting with the label, to talk. They were gonna come up with their list of songs that they wanted on the album and we were gonna come with ours. And this is before we had recorded anything, they had heard demos and things. And we got into the meeting, and I remember being pretty stressed out. It’s like man, this is our first label deal, I don’t really know how to navigate these waters. I’ve always heard horror stories about creative control and all this stuff. We literally walk in, I’m anticipating it to be this big, not argument, but back and forth. The label had written out, I think at that point just ten songs, but the ten songs were identical to our list.
TYF: Yeah, that doesn’t happen that often.
Ben: We kinda talked for 10-15 minutes, just hanging out. And then they were like, well let’s get to it, we wanna show you the list. And they showed the list, and I was like you’re kidding. I think the meeting lasted four minutes. It was like, well let’s go get lunch now, or something.
TYF: That’s so funny. It really must feel like, in a lot of ways, that you guys are exactly where you’re meant to be.
Ben: We do. We do.
TYF: I saw in your bio that you guys played- obviously, ten years building up to this you’ve played a lot of different types of venues. I know they called out nursing homes, and that kind of thing.
Ben: Oh yeah.
TYF: Have you ever played somewhere strange or [a place] that you weren’t expecting to be a good gig and it ended up being awesome?
Emily: Man. Mine is, it was probably our second or third year in. Probably our second. And we played at a homeless shelter in North Carolina.
Ben: In Greensboro, North Carolina.
Emily: Yeah, and we got up there, played some of our originals. But then we ended with a Johnny Cash song.
Ben: Yeah, “Folsom Prison Blues.”
Emily: You would’ve thought that- they treated us as if we were Johnny and June.
Ben: You would’ve thought we were resurrected, you know? I’m telling you.
Emily: Just the joy it brought them, and even some of ’em I think were getting up on the tables.
Ben: They were standing on the tables and standing on chairs and clapping and hooting and hollering. I swear I saw some people even throw food, and were like throwing rolls back and forth. To me if you can start a food fight in a soup kitchen, then you’re onto something.
TYF: Yeah I’d say so.
Emily: But I think early on-
Ben: -We would do that all the time, though. We would play on Mondays and Sundays and Tuesdays, days that were harder to get club shows. Being completely unknown, and doing all of our own booking. We would play nursing homes, we would play homeless shelters and then even chip in on feeding the people after or before we played.
Emily: That’s [because] of Bruce Roberts.
Ben: Yeah one of my dad’s ideas was this thing we were doing for a long time, maybe we’ll resurrect it, called traveling troubadours where we would go in and in one city we’d play a church, we’d play a bar, we’d play a theater, we’d play a homeless shelter and a nursing home. The idea [was] really being [able] to see everything that that community had to offer and try and impact it in your own way with your music and service.
TYF: That’s really cool.
Emily: That’s really how we started. I’m, again, just so grateful that that’s how it began for us cause it is the foundation of who we are and who we are as artists, and I see our approach to writing. So, we didn’t-
Ben: Yeah, that part of the journey has informed a lot of songs and a lot of stories and lyrics.
TYF: That’s really cool. Your music is very intimate I’m sure [that approach] lends itself to it very well.
Ben: You really get to know the people and just the stories we have of the people we met along the way, it’s all worth it.
TYF: I think, a lot of times, too, it’s important, especially when you’re starting out, you want your fans to feel like they’re a part of a community.
Emily: Oh yeah.
TYF: They feel invested and-
TYF: You’re visiting these unconventional venues, you’re meeting a lot of people. I’m sure it really made people feel like they were a part of something.
Ben: Yeah, it’s definitely been a grassroots thing since the beginning.
Emily: And I would say the majority of our fan base or our likes on Facebook, I feel like we know those people personally. We are that intimate. We hardly ever stay in hotels, it was always on someone’s couch or floor.
Ben: We never, for the first four, five years, I could count on maybe two hands the hotels we’ve stayed in.
TYF: What do you hope people will take away from this album when they listen to it?
Ben: I think … without getting too into it, I think the country is sort of torn right now. It’s ripping at the seams, in a way, for many reasons. I hope the songs, people really do dig into them and feel the lyrics and listen, and I hope that it allows people to feel less alone. That depression and anxiety and those moments in life where you’re getting kicked down and you don’t know how you’re going to get back up again and keep going. I hope that these songs and our story can meet someone half way and that they feel a sense of hope. It’s all gonna be okay, one foot in front of the next.