Photo: Jim Herrington. NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Hardscrabble Appalachia is known for its bluegrass, moonshine and coal mines. Now, with the May 1 arrival of gut-honest singer-songwriter Chelle Rose’s second album Ghost of Browder Holler (Lil’ Damsel Records, street date May 1, 2012), add visceral rock ’n’ roll to that list.
Rose brings her elemental power to the 12-song disc produced by legendary Texas songsmith Ray Wylie Hubbard in Austin. And while those cuts, ripe with mystery and passion, sound like they were plucked from the kudzu-scented air of her native Loudon County in East Tennessee, they’re really written from life.
“When I get homesick, I pine for Western North Carolina sometimes even more so than East Tennessee,” says Rose, who moved to Nashville in 1996. “My maternal family lives on both sides of the Smoky Mountains. I grew up there among the people I still know and love. I’ve always felt connected and consoled by the mountains and my people there, so writing about them comes very natural to me. There are many settings and characters rich for the mining.”
The album’s opening track, “Browder Holler Boy,” is a perfect example. It kick-starts the set with a haunting slide guitar invocation and then spins a true tale of Rose’s first love, Timothy Andrew Helton, who died young in a canoeing accident, but returned to visit her as a noisy spirit. The tune also features Hubbard’s gritty supporting vocals and laid back harmonica. The heart of Rose’s close-to-the-bone sound — a driving approach she calls “Appalachian Rock n Roll” — thumps through the grinding, guitar-fueled “Alimony,” a playful but dead-serious account of the marriage she ended in order to attain her dream of becoming a songwriter and performer. There’s more than a hint of Exile on Main Street to “Rufus Morgan (Preacher Man),” which features legendary Faces keyboardist Ian “Mac” McLagan and Nashville’s leading spiritual singing family the McCrary Sisters. Rose wrote the song as a tribute to a rural holy man from her family tree, and its lyrics are a virtual tour of Western North Carolina’s richly forested land, where her “grannymom” often took her to visit other family members during childhood summers.
Like the sweet and gravelly edges of Rose’s expressive voice, other songs echo the beauty and harshness of Appalachian life. “Leona Barnett,” written by her fellow East Tennessean Adam Hill, is the story of a woman driven to work in the mines after her husband is killed in a mining accident. And “Wild Violets Pretty,” which features Grammy-nominated Americana star Elizabeth Cook as guest vocalist, is about losing an unborn child.
“Sometimes I can’t perform a song live until I’ve had time to heal from a deep wound, and often the healing begins with the song,” explains Rose. “I write a lot and don’t really look for material, so you know if I’m covering someone else’s song I am feeling it with every ounce of my soul.”
Although this Appalachian wildflower didn’t get her first guitar until she was 25, music was always a deep part of her life. “My daddy was a piano player and so was his daddy,” she relates. Sherri King, her biological father’s first cousin, had some minor country hits in the ’70s, but had the distinction of writing, singing and playing on her own recordings — which made her a rare triple threat in Nashville’s good ole boys club. She was also a member of the legendary group Barefoot Jerry, a band of player’s players, and was a featured vocalist with Charlie McCoy’s band. “One of my first musical memories was sitting on my Granny Rose’s floor listening to Sherri’s second album and just running the needle over and over it,” she recalls.
“I’d always sung and thought about maybe singing on a stage some day, but getting that guitar really woke something up in me,” Rose recounts. “I started listening to songwriters like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and my gut told me I was most likely not going to continue working in accounting.”
So Rose relocated to Nashville in 1996 where she began seeing her inspirations in person. “As soon as I arrived I began ‘going to school’ to hear Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, Malcolm Holcombe, R.B. Morris, David Olney and Marshall Chapman. They were just a few of my favorites and some of them have become friends and mentors.
“When I moved from Knoxville to Nashville, Townes Van Zandt was at the top of my dream list of songwriters to hear live. I was devastated to hear of his passing in January 1997. I did however sit on a back church pew at his service, sad with regret that I would never get to hang with him. He played a huge part in my journey to become a songwriter.”
Rose’s next step was making her debut recording. “Being at home and writing Nanahally River in the late ’90s with a baby on my hip seemed completely natural and just as important as the deep well of writers I was exposed to on the music scene at that time,” she says.
Along with her mentor and musical kindred spirit David Hardman, Rose made her 2000 album Nanahally River in a basement studio. “Recording [it] was really casual with a lot of friends helping me out,” she says. “I paid J.D. Wilkes from the Legendary Shack*Shakers to play harmonica on Nanahally River by cooking him chicken n dumplins. I like to think that added to the magic.”
Fast-forward 10 years. “More than a decade passed between albums because I was busy raising a family, but always writing when inspiration struck,” Rose continues. “I’ve never just sat down with a goal of writing a song. They just show up and I document them the best I can. Fate interceded in early fall of 2010 when I was snuggling with my daughter and had headphones on listening to Ray Wylie Hubbard do a live interview for Twisted South Radio. They asked him what he’d been listening to lately. He said, ‘Well, I’ve been listening to this songwriter from Nashville named Chelle Rose.’ I bolted up from the bed and heard him say he’d be interested in producing me. And the host, Zeke Loftin, who I had collaborated with on a charity event, said, ‘Chelle, if you’re listening you should call in.’ So I did, and I said, ‘You’re hired, let’s do it.’ A few weeks later I was off to Austin with my guitar and songs.”
For Ghost of Browder Holler, Hubbard handpicked the players, who convened at engineer/bassist George Reiff’s Austin studio. “Every morning we’d sit at the kitchen table and pull one of my songs out of the hat,” Rose says. “Then we’d work out an arrangement and either agree or disagree to cut it. It was a beautiful, intense process that resulted in a record I’m so proud of.” That spontaneous approach — and the band playing all the basic tracks together in the studio — helped preserve the disc’s cohesive live vibe.
“What’s in the tracks is some hard core blood, sweat and tears from myself and many talented musicians who were generous with their contributions to the arrangements and to the soul of this album,” Rose declares. “I tried to quit music, but it just wouldn’t quit me. I realized I need it like I need food, water, sleep and love. It’s not about chasing fame or any kind of fortune. It’s about a strong connection with who I am. I share my music because it creates a beautiful exchange of energy in my life. It most certainly is medicine for my own soul. If it has the same effect on others, then I’m blessed.”