Back when a then-unknown Colbie Caillat released her breakthrough song “Bubbly” in 2007, in a time when MySpace still walked the earth, she and her songwriting partner Jason Reeves didn’t know what to call the relaxed, acoustic pop song when they posted it to her gleefully decorated profile. So they just called it “folk.”
“We had no desire to be a specific genre at the beginning,” says Reeves, sitting at a Nashville coffee shop with Caillat, Nelly Joy and Justin Kawika Young — the quartet now known as the country band Gone West. “We were just writing songs and recording them. I still don’t know what ‘folk’ means.”
Likewise, Caillat, Reeves, Joy and Young didn’t set out to make a calculated grasp at country with Gone West, in part because they’d always been adjacent to the genre.
“The first time I heard ‘Bubbly’ was on CMT, actually,” says Joy, squeezed onto a single seat with Reeves, who also happens to be her husband. A onetime member of the duo JaneDear Girls, Joy is a longtime Nashvillian and songwriter and, as a Texan and former CMT Awards nominee, likely has the most traditionally “country” pedigree of the band. But Caillat, known for imbuing a California-meets-Hawaii spirit into her music, has left the Pacific Ocean behind for landlocked Tennessee, living not far from this coffee shop with Young, a longtime sideman and successful Hawaiian artist, who is her fiancé. And though the shores of Maui might not immediately seem inherently country, there’s not as much distance as one might assume.
“Hawaii,” says Reeves, “is as country as it gets. Wide open spaces, nature. Hawaii is super country.” “Super country” indeed, from the native steel guitar to the “paniolos” (Hawaiian cowboys, in essence) that Caillat sings about in the band’s song “Gone West.” It serves as an introduction to the group in the key of some Mumford & Sons or Lumineers-esque stomp-clap harmonies.
Their first single “What Could’ve Been,” released via Triple Tigers Records, the country arm of Nashville indie powerhouse Thirty Tigers, takes a different turn however. It’s a ballad that doesn’t sound too far to the left of anything currently spinning on country radio. It’s also clearly storytelling: as a band made up of two committed couples, singing about failed romance isn’t exactly ripped from their current diaries. But it’s this kind of narrative songwriting that landed them in country music, not the other way around. “This is just where that kind of songwriting lives now,” Reeves says.
It’s not like Caillat even needed to start a band. “Bubbly” and the song she co-wrote with Jason Mraz, “Lucky,” still stream in high numbers, along with the track “Breathe,” on which she collaborated with Taylor Swift (another early country crossover moment). She’s carried a dedicated fan base along for years, while playing and writing with her friends — her artistic relationship with Reeves dates back to 2005, when he was new to California and they started composing songs just for fun.
“My parents let him move into our house,” recalls Caillat. “We had a job together at a gym, and we would write songs all weekend.” Some of those songs would become the material for her debut Coco, which contained “Bubbly.” Years later the foursome hit the road with Caillat to support her 2016 album The Malibu Sessions on an acoustic, harmony-driven tour, and “we realized how fun it was to be on stage together,” she says. “So we got back to Nashville and, that summer, wrote our first song.”
Working with some of country’s most successful and respected songwriters, like Tom Douglas and Liz Rose, cemented their new direction.
“We had a writing session with Tom Douglas and he really encouraged us to follow through on this project,” says Joy. “We sought out to write music from our hearts and that’s usually storytelling and lyric driven. And that lends itself to country music.” Next came a record deal with Triple Tigers, the label that also houses Scotty McCreery, and a Grand Ole Opry debut back in October. “What Could’ve Been” will ship to country radio in July and, if the reaction the band received from programmers at Country Radio Seminar this year is any indication, it could have some life on the airwaves.
“People came up to us and said, ‘We need more harmonies [on the radio],'” says Joy.
But it was Caillat’s longtime fans — not country radio — that Joy was most concerned about. “I was really worried about them. Were they going to go, ‘What’s going on? Is she in a band now?'” Joy says. “But, instead, it’s been the opposite. They’ve almost been like, ‘Finally.'”