Caroline Reese ’14
Courtesy Caroline Reese

When Caroline Reese ’14 sings, it’s often about her memories of summers spent at Battle Creek Ranch in Townsend, Mont. It was there, at the age of 11, that her mother brought her to participate in a cattle drive together. She was what ranchers call a “tenderfoot” — a tourist come west, seeking a taste of a simpler way of life.

At Battle Creek Ranch, that way of life involved riding horses, cutting hay, feeding and herding cows, and gathering around campfires each night to sing together after a long day’s work. The lifestyle and the music left a lasting impression on the young Reese. When it was time to go, she cried, remembers Shelly Richtmyer, who owns and operates Battle Creek Ranch with her husband, Lary Richtmyer.

Reese has returned to Battle Creek Ranch nearly every year since and, just as often, has cried when it was time to leave again, says Richtmyer. While Reese long ago ceased being a tourist on the ranch — the Richtmyers first hired her at age 16 to help them acquaint tourists with ranch life — she became a tenderfoot again when she left for Princeton in 2010, following a gap year spent on the ranch.

Reese came to Princeton bursting with songs inspired by her time in Montana.

“I remember laying in bed at night singing so loud,” Reese says of her younger self. “My brother would shout across the hall, ‘Shut up!’”

Reese recorded her first album during her freshman fall at Princeton. But when Reese later visited Battle Creek Ranch during breaks in the school year, Richtmyer noticed she “wasn’t liking performing in front of people.” To Richtmyer, Reese appeared discouraged.  

She started pursuing internships unrelated to music. “I just felt really lost,” says Reese. “I didn’t want to do something I was going to fail at.”

It likely didn’t help that Reese’s childhood next-door neighbor Taylor Swift was achieving more fame and fortune as a singer-songwriter than anyone could have imagined for a young girl from Reading, Pa.

Mark Watter ’14, Reese’s classmate in a songwriting class during their senior year, could understand what Reese was going through. His high-school classmates Alex G and Sam Acchione were successfully breaking into the indie rock scene that Watter longed to be a part of. Meanwhile, inside the Orange Bubble, Watter and Reese sat in awe of the skill of their classically trained Princeton classmates.

After one of their first days in the songwriting class, taught by composer Paul Lanksy *73, Reese remembers leaning over to Watter and telling him she was going to quit. “I can’t hang with the big dogs,” Reese says she told him.

“Don’t do that,” Watter says he told Reese in reply. “I feel the same way.”

The self-taught duo decided to form a band, along with Alice Terret ’16, called Caroline Reese & The Drifting Fifth. They soon attracted a following on campus.

Tamara Pico ’14 first heard Reese perform at a Christmastime concert in Tower Club. That night, the band played Reese’s whiskey-soaked “Moonshine and Summer Nights,” and Pico was transported to the first time she fell in love, she says.

Also among the band’s earliest fans were Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 and his wife, Lori Martin, who would attend Reese’s shows together. When the band later released an album on its website, an email notified Reese that Martin, a partner at WilmerHale, was the album’s first purchaser.

While Martin says she might wait a few minutes longer before purchasing Reese’s next album, to avoid drawing attention to herself, she says she loves Reese’s music, especially the lyrics. “She is on the edge of greatness,” Martin says.

Reese, meanwhile, is no longer afraid of failure. She’s conquered her feelings of being a tenderfoot and is again pursuing what makes her happy — writing and performing her own music. “If I ‘fail,’ this has enriched my life beyond anything I could have imagined,” says Reese of songwriting. “Failure doesn’t really apply.”

Reese’s next album, which will be released in January, is titled Tenderfoot.