The ballad of
Caroline and Page
A mother’s worst nightmare, a daughter’s downfall and the road to recovery
Page Dukes pauses on the threshold of the Solstice Cafe in Grant Park. The gun she carries isn’t loaded. She is the only one who knows it.
It’s late May 2007, a steamy afternoon in Atlanta with temperatures hovering in the mid-80s.
Dressed in leather jacket and jeans, Page walks toward the cashier and points the small black gun at her. She holds out an open makeup bag and tells her victim to fill it with cash from the register. The cashier thinks she’s joking, but Brian Scott, the cafe’s chef sitting at a table nearby, nods and tells her to give Page the money.
Scott knows Page well. Until recently she was a waitress at Solstice, but he’d fired her for being strung-out on heroin much of the time. This is the second time in four days Page has held up the cafe. This time she walks out with $200 cash and jumps into a waiting cab.
The next day, a hazy Sunday morning, she gets high for the last time. Scott spots her walking from Oakland Cemetery toward her Grant Park apartment. He calls the cops and Atlanta police officers pick her up. She’s booked into the Fulton County Jail. For this 20-year-old college freshman and daughter of a beloved singer-songwriter, armed robbery is an act of desperation. A choice, really, between death or jail.
It is a defining moment, one that will change everything for Page and for her mother, Caroline Aiken.
Photo: Producer Charlie Garland and Caroline prepare to record her radio show in Athens.
Inside a brewery near downtown Lawrenceville, patrons sip craft beers at bars on both sides of the room while others sit on couches playing cards or board games on low tables. A wide warehouse door opens onto a patio where people sit at wooden picnic tables enjoying the unseasonably warm October evening.
Kelly Bowlin, owner of the music venue in an old train depot across the street, escorts a woman through the door. She’s dressed in black boots and tights, her long silvery hair flowing over a black blouse that winks with silver spangles. An acoustic guitar is slung across her shoulder.
“Ladies and gentlemen, playing tonight across the street at the Train Depot, may I introduce Caroline Aiken!” Bowlin shouts over the TV.
People applaud with puzzled looks as Caroline strolls around the room strumming and singing a few bars of a song. After she finishes, folks applaud again. A few shout and whistle. Caroline waves and together she and Bowlin walk out arm-in-arm.
“That was really fun!” she says and they both laugh, crossing the street.
The Train Depot performance space is intimate. Candlelit tables dot the room where passengers once awaited the L&L of the Seaboard Air Line Railway a century ago. Caroline sets up on the tiny stage, accompanied by Athens musician David Herndon on electric guitar. The turnout is small for a Grammy-nominated artist who’s recorded and performed with Bonnie Raitt, opened for Muddy Waters, Randy Newman, John Prine and Richie Havens, and who helped nurture the careers of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, the Indigo Girls.
The night is basically a favor to a friend in his effort to grow a live music venue, something Caroline values and understands. It also speaks to her love of performing, craft and artistry that instead of simply phoning it in, she proceeds to put on an emotionally engaging master class on how a professional working musician conducts herself.
In a powerful, husky voice reminiscent of a mid-career Joni Mitchell, she leapfrogs through her catalog of nine full-length albums dating back to 1988’s “Line of Vision.” A train rumbles by and without missing a beat she riffs on an old Traffic tune. She switches to keyboards, introducing a cut from her 2015 album, “Broken Wings Heal.” The song features lyrics Page wrote for a national poetry contest when she was 12.
The competition was based on the writing prompt, “Suddenly I turned around and…” Page completed the line with “… everything had changed.” She won first place.
In 2010, while Page was serving time in prison for the robbery, Caroline set the poem to music. Called “Everything Can Change,” the vocals and solo piano accompaniment are appropriately somber for a cautionary tale.
At one point in life / I knew what everything was all about.
All the things I’d so carefully arranged / Had somehow gotten misplaced.
It was all twisted and deranged / And laughing in my face.
‘Cause everything had changed.
So if you think you’ve got it planned / Know that life isn’t fair.
And when you suddenly turn around / Be ready for what’s there.
‘Cause everything can change.
When Caroline introduces the song, she touches on Page’s history of drug addiction and its consequences. And she expresses gratitude that it’s in the past.
“For six years,” she says, “I didn’t speak about Page at all on stage.”
A unique childhood
Born in Gainesville, Page was 18 months old when her parents divorced. Caroline retained custody and Page’s dad had visitation rights. Having a professional musician for a mother was exciting. They moved into an apartment in Atlanta next to Oxford Books where Caroline was a regular performer in the upstairs cafe. Page had the run of the place, feeling like she owned it.
By the age of 7, Page was consistently beating her mom at chess and attending Garden Hills Elementary. They spent summer breaks in New York, and then later California. They went on tour with the Indigo Girls.
“I got to sing in front of thousands of people,” said Page. “It was a really unique childhood.”
She learned to play cello and made straight-A’s even through middle school, when she first used drugs.
Page was 14 the first time she tried heroin. The pull of the drug would ebb and flow, but its hold on her strengthened as she got older.
Most teachers loved having Page in their classrooms, but there was usually one each year who would complain to Caroline during parent-teacher conferences.
But she’s making an A in your class! Caroline would say.
Yes, but she’s rude, was often the response. Page challenged her teachers intellectually and by her own admission she was stubborn and wanted to learn in her own way.
She played in a Misfits cover band in middle school and high school, reveling in the goth/punk attitude. It made her a target for the sporty popular kids, who bullied her. So she transferred to an extension school — no cheerleaders, no football games, no extracurricular activities — and graduated early with honors and a full scholarship to Georgia State University.
She got a job at Fellini’s Pizza, moved into an apartment with a friend and started college. But Caroline suspected something was wrong. Page’s behavior became increasingly erratic, and she refused to let Caroline inside the apartment.
One day when Page was visiting her mom, she went into the bedroom to shoot up. Caroline walked in on her.
“That’s when I found out she was addicted to heroin,” said Caroline. “I’d never been around anyone doing heroin, and this was her telling me. This explained it all to me.”
Caroline tried to convince her daughter to enter a rehab facility, but Page wanted to kick it on her own. She was successful for a while, but she relapsed and everything changed for the worse.
After her arrest, Page spent 318 days in the Fulton County Jail awaiting trial. There she received treatment. With the help of the medical staff, she went through withdrawal and emerged from her addicted haze. She felt like she’d been given a second chance.
“Why couldn’t we have done that before?” said Caroline in retrospect. “I needed somebody to say Page was a danger to herself and others, to hold her in a rehab that wasn’t brutal and mean, but with doctors who understand the mental anguish of being so low that you just want to end it.”
Page started helping inmates prepare for the GED high school equivalency test. She accepted responsibility for her actions and wanted to move on, to help others. Her counselors noticed.
Solstice owner Brian Scott wrote a letter on Page’s behalf, asking the court to show mercy. Prosecutor Holly Hughes was willing to offer treatment, a shorter sentence and parole rather than a long-term prison sentence. Even Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob was in favor of leniency, but her hands were tied.
Georgia has something called the Seven Deadly Sins law. Despite being a first offender, Page faced a mandatory 10 years prison sentence. She had two options: Go to trial and risk an even longer sentence, or plead guilty and serve a decade behind bars. She stood before the judge and admitted her crime.
“Most judges signed up for this job to use our best judgment,” Shoob would say later. “This is called judging without being able to use your judgment. It’s depressing.”
Searching for family
A native of Atlanta, Caroline was 3 when her family moved to St. Simons Island. The family housekeeper and cook practically raised her. Emma Lee Ramsey sang with Bessie Jones and the Sea Island Singers, and can be heard on Alan Lomax’s 1964 “Southern Journey” recording singing “Oh Death.” She is framed in Caroline’s memory, dressed in a white uniform, singing throughout the day and in every room of the house.
“She loved me when no one was looking,” said Caroline. “I knew, even as a kid, that she was extraordinary, especially seeing how she was treated as second class, expected much of and not much coming to her in return.”
Caroline recalled bringing an injured seabird to the house in a box one day. Together she and Emma wrapped the bum wing against the bird’s body and cared for it until the wing had healed. A broken wing is usually a death sentence for a wild bird, Emma told Caroline. Weeks later the two stood at the shoreline, water lapping at their feet, as they released the bird back into the wild.
When Caroline wandered from the house one day and got lost in the dunes, it was Emma who spent three hours searching for her, finally bringing her back safely.
The late ‘60s brought divorce, a stepfather and a move to Long Island, N.Y., where Caroline started a band at age 13. Eager to explore the world, she moved to California to live with her father. Most days she spent on the beach with a 12-string guitar, perfecting the instrument that would become central to her life. When she was 18, she befriended some like-minded free spirits who invited her to join their Christian commune. She spent five months traveling around Costa Rica and Brazil, singing songs about Jesus in Spanish and Portuguese with the other members.
“It was Christian, seemingly innocuous,” she said. “We sang songs about being childlike, and we acted like we were fishermen searching for love. I was there to sing, to belong, to finally find family. There was no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, just music. I found out later that I was one of the only ones abstaining; sex became something very wrong in this group.”
Called Children of God (now Family International), the organization was eventually exposed for engaging in pedophilia. When Caroline discovered what was going on, she returned to Atlanta. The experience left her nearly broken.
“It tore me out of the frame, and if not for music, I’m not sure I could have survived that,” she said. “It was the only thing that made any sense at all. It’s been that way most of my life, through good and bad times.”
Back in Atlanta, Caroline began to establish herself on the local music scene, playing regular gigs at Little Five Points Pub and Moonshadow Saloon. She opened for acts such as Muddy Waters, Little Feat, Doc Watson, Phoebe Snow and .38 Special. And after hearing Emily Saliers and Amy Ray play an open-mic night at Trackside Tavern, she invited them to open for her at Little Five Points Pub.
After Page was born in 1987, Caroline did what most single moms do, she focused on her career, recording the first of nine albums and touring extensively. But that all changed when Page went to jail.
Page spent her 20s shuttling between Arrendale State Prison in Alto, Emanuel Women’s Facility in Swainsboro and Pulaski State Prison in Hawkinsville. For those 10 years Caroline’s music took a back seat.
“[Music] wasn’t important to me anymore,” she said. “It was more important that I show up for Page.”
Show up she did. As often as she could, she would make the trip to wherever Page was, even on days when it was raining sideways or snowing.
“She was there for me immediately,” said Page. “She came to see me every chance she could. We would just sit there and look at each other and talk for hours. For most people, I was just gone. She was there every step of the way.”
Caroline quickly learned to manage her frustration when it came to navigating the protocol and layers of seemingly arbitrary rules surrounding visiting Page in prison and meeting with wardens and commissioners.
While standing in line with other family members waiting for visitation, she would notice slight infractions — shorts, open-toed shoes, tank tops — that might bar visitors from entering.
“No one knows the rules. People wouldn’t have enough winter clothing for themselves or their children, or they’d be wearing improper shoes or wearing shorts. So, I would save their place in line and tell them to go down to the Dollar General and get shoes and clothes so they wouldn’t be turned away.”
After the initial shock of Page’s predicament wore off, Caroline felt grateful that at least she knew Page was alive and safe. She could work with that.
Page wasn’t idling her days away either. She took college courses online, joined Voices of Hope, a traveling choir that performed at churches and conferences all over the state, including the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. She became a certified veterinary technician while working with a dog rehabilitation program. She took any opportunity she could to move forward, to make sense of her situation, to make up for lost possibilities on the outside.
Vega Studio sits atop a hill at the end of a gravel driveway off South Milledge Avenue in Athens. A large transmitting tower stands beside the low-slung narrow building. The interior opens directly onto a narrow, dark hallway with enclosed studio space on either side. In a tiny yet delightfully comfortable studio halfway back, a half-dozen acoustic guitars hang on one wall, tiny white lights drape from the ceiling and a plush, floral couch sits underneath a window looking into the control room where Clay Hinson sits before a giant sound board and computer monitor.
Caroline stands at a microphone, recording voice-overs for a recent live band recording for New South Showcase, the weekly show she created and hosts on WUGA, the local public radio station. She pulls the headphones off and guitar riffs come spilling out like aural sunshine, the show’s opening theme taken from the song “Broken Wings Heal.” It is the title song on one of only two albums she recorded while Page was incarcerated.
Produced by John Keane in his Athens studio, the album features a list of local industry veterans: Emily Saliers, Michelle Malone, Ike Stubblefield and Randall Bramblett.
The title track, written by Boo Ray, an Athens singer-songwriter now based in Nashville, is an uncanny reflection of Page’s experience.
“I fell in love with the vernacular and spirit of this song, which cuts right to the bone, and says everything I need it to say and more,” said Caroline. “It is a beautiful centerpiece to this recording.”
The song is an exploration of incarceration and addiction. Ray’s version has a gritty edge and a country twang while Caroline’s soars with a bright dreaminess.
They watched me unravel, come completely undone.
Sometimes I get low, can’t see your face anymore.
It’s so long since I got a letter, one day I’ll be better.
One day I’ll walk out that door.
Over the years Caroline has written a number of songs dedicated to Page, but “Broken Wings Heal” feels like a love letter. Caroline agrees, but then adds, “My whole life has been a love letter to my daughter."
Page spent the last months of her sentence at the transitional center in Alto. She was allowed brief periods of leave to spend time with her mom outside of prison walls. Passes were doled out in increments of three hours, then six, then eight and finally 12 hours.
Page recalled her first 12-hour pass in August 2016. It was her 30th birthday. Caroline picked her up and drove her home to Athens.
“It was my first time seeing my mom’s house and playing my guitars,” said Page.
There was a carrot cake with candles, new clothes and a long hot bath. Happiness.
Caroline picked Page up from the transitional center for the very last time in May 2017.
“It was surreal, they just opened the gate and I was gone,” Page said. “I was used to having to come back at the end of the day, calling every two hours to check in. So that was the first night I thought, ‘I don’t have to go back.’”
For three months, Page lived with Caroline. She hoped to enroll at the University of Georgia but was denied entrance because of her criminal record. But she got into Piedmont College, which offered her a scholarship, so she enrolled and got her own apartment nearby in Cornelia.
Currently a junior, she attends full-time with a double-major in mass communication and philosophy/religion, and a minor in social justice. She keeps busy with advanced courses in writing and reporting, philosophy and sociology. She’s also news editor for the school paper and, like her mom, hosts a weekly radio show. It’s called Sunday Bummer Club.
“I play depressing music and have angsty conversations about existential philosophy,” she said with a grin.
With Page free and on her own, Caroline doesn’t talk with her as often now. And that’s fine with her.
“For the first time it’s odd not to talk to her every day,” she said, “but it’s nice. I know she’s doing well. I’m starting to reclaim my time, pull my own projects out, make the house mine again.”
Caroline spends time these days writing songs, hosting touring bands on her radio show, giving guitar lessons and, as chapter president of Guitars Not Guns, teaching foster kids and at-risk youth. And, of course, she plays gigs — around town, across the country and beyond. She recently returned from tour dates in Amsterdam and Wales.
The last night of 2017 was clear and cold in Atlanta. Drivin’ N Cryin’ was the New Year’s Eve headliner at the Star Bar in Little Five Points. Although Caroline prefers not to play out or even drive on the holiday, she was invited to open the show.
Backed by guitarist David Herndon and Eddie Glikin on drums, the trio blasted through a tight set, bringing things to a dull roar amid the technicolor grime of the iconic local spot while Page cheered them on. After the set Caroline and Page took pictures together in the bar’s photo booth.
“I will cherish those photos forever,” Caroline said later, “not just because they are with her, outside, free and happy, but because it was her idea to take them. She congratulated me and said I did good. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Listening to her mother recall that night, Page smiled.
“People need to know about my mom. She’s obviously an amazing performer and legendary musician, but she’s also a really awesome mom.”
ABOUT THE STORY
Caroline Aiken was the first performer my wife and I saw when we stumbled upon Eddie’s Attic in Decatur after moving to Atlanta in 1993. We loved her music and have followed her career ever since. At a recent show, Caroline told the backstory of the song “Everything Can Change” about her daughter, and I was blown away. I’d heard something of this already, but I knew there was a deeper story here, one that more people needed to hear. I consider it an honor to have been able to write about these two strong, intelligent, creative and resilient women.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Jim Simpson is an award-winning fiction writer and freelance music journalist who’s written for No Depression and Gwinnett Daily Post, among other outlets. A native of the wilds of Florida’s Gulf Coast, he now resides on the scruffy fringes of Duluth with his wife and two daughters. He has been at work on a novel for longer than he originally intended and hopes to find a home for it this year.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Curtis Compton joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.