Chelle Rose: An East TENnessean indeed, in whom there is no guile
By Kevin Broughton
One gets the impression Chelle Rose has never met a stranger. Which is odd when you look at her involuntary frown-bordering-on-scowl in publicity photos – a trend that’s been constant since childhood. Whenever a camera’s trained on her, her countenance turns super-serious, surly even. “Momma always said my mouth was gonna get stuck like that,” she says. Lyrics on her brand new album Blue Ridge Blood commemorate the admonition, so much has it always been a part of her (visual, at least) persona.
And that’s the odd thing: Nothing in her photographs or the lyrics on this deep, dark, brooding record matches her actual personality.
She’s happy. Joyful, even. She’s blessed with an infectious, often high-pitched laugh that stands in stark contrast to her smoky contralto voice. And she’s not hesitant to laugh at herself when reminded, for instance, that she’s veered a good bit off course in a conversation. Self-deprecating and totally comfortable in her own skin, Rose is nothing if not the genuine article. There’s nothing contrived about this woman who doesn’t possess, if an hour-long interview is a fair sample, a single ounce of guile in her entire being.
There are a lot of givens when it comes to lifelong Southerners. Here are a couple: 1. We’re used to having our accents be a source of mockery. 2. We can spot fake Southern accents in a movie or TV show in a matter of nanoseconds, and it’s probably going to insult us and piss us off. Hence the “genuine article” assessment.
Her home state of “Tennessee” is pronounced with a pound of emphasis on the first syllable, not the conventional last one. In the studio, she knows what she “lahks.” Nonsense or unfounded criticism is “just devil doin’s.” While these might foolishly be sources of mockery outside Dixie, there’s an adorable sexiness to them that will buckle the knees of any real Southern man.
She knows and accepts her own limitations. “I’m not a singer singer, I’m an emotional singer,” might sound counterintuitive, until you’ve spent about 30 seconds in conversation. There’s a difference – and it doesn’t bother her (much) – between “singing pretty” and doing what Rose does.
And singing pretty would have sucked the all the life and authenticity out of Blue Ridge Blood. The Appalachian sense of place – and people – permeate the album. It’s what she is, and what the record is.
“Painstville Table” opens the album with the harsh reality of a hardscrabble coal miner’s life. It sets the tone, with what are maybe the best few lines of authenticity on the record: “But his lady’s got a baby in her belly, so he’ll trade his dream to a black lung thief. To put food on the Paintsville table.” You can’t manufacture that. It’s too organic, too real. Chapter after chapter in this sonic book they come. “Blue Ridge Blood” isn’t simply the title of an album and a song; it’s a way of life. And Rose’s very state of being.
Life, love, lies, cheating, despair and death. They all get her uniquely Appalachian imprint. “Mean Grandpappy” is particularly poignant, though the listener is left to his or her own interpretation of this painful tune. (And it uses one of the greatest Southern common nouns of all time, “sumbitch.”) It’s the title cut, though, that is thematic for the whole record. And uber-guitarist Buddy Miller leaves his mark on it, though of all things, as a backing vocalist. But again, with the overall dark tone of the album, one is struck by the way Rose can compartmentalize things, and it’s hard at times to reconcile her attitude to this record.
We caught up while she and her daughter were in the middle of a move from Nashville to her native East TENnessee. She is bubbly and game, not indicating for a moment all the awful stuff she’s been through in the last several years: a long-undiagnosed chronic illness that prevented a tour to support a fantastic album in 2012; divorce from a vindictive spouse; loss of her momma and meeting her biological daddy within a year; and an (accepted) marriage proposal.
And mere hours before our chat, she found out her beloved and brilliant producer, George Reiff, was just diagnosed with stage four cancer. (Hit this link and throw in a few bucks for his medical expenses.) I was surprised she could function, much less do an interview. But she’s a champ. One who’s made a great record.
An awful lot has happened in your life since the release of 2012’s Ghost of Browder Holler, and we’ll get into that in a minute. Ray Wylie Hubbard produced that record, and it has his sonic fingerprints all over it. Blue Ridge Blood is a lot more brooding and deliberate, but a lot of the themes and characters are similar. Was it the songs themselves that pushed this album in a stylistically different direction, or did you start out with the idea of doing a markedly different record?
You know, it’s funny. You can sit and think about what kind of record you wanna make. I know what I don’t wanna make. Every time I’ve tried to record anything and stick my pinky toe in the water with people around [Nashville] – I won’t mention names – I’m happy in the studio because it’s a creative environment. And then I come home and I’m like, “Oh my God, I hate it!”
I was originally supposed to record “Ghost” at Levon [Helm’s] studio in Woodstock. This was in 2010, just before he got sick again. He passed in 2012, so that plan was scrapped. So, I just started going through my record collection saying, “whose songs do I love?” Well, George Reiff produced a lot of them. You said it has Ray Wylie’s fingerprints on it, and it does. But George was a big reason it sounds the way it does. And Ray knew that. George is totally badass, and the coolest dang cat on the planet. He was the engineer and bass player on Ghost. This time he was the producer and bass player, and we just hired a couple of engineers.
But Ray was dipping his toe into producing, and a couple of friends of mine mentioned me to him, and he went online and saw a couple of my (probably horrid) YouTubes. Then I heard him mention my name – as somebody he’d like to produce – on a radio show! Till then I wasn’t really sure if he was real, or like Santa Claus (laughs). Three weeks later I was on a plane to Austin.
This album is more organic, in that the arrangements are real close to how I wrote them. On Ghost, they got changed up a good bit, sometimes in a big way. Like Ray would take chords out of songs, which kinda tripped my head up. But in the end when I looked back at it, he was so brilliant.
Both albums are firmly grounded in Appalachia – both the geographical region and the people in it. Why was that sense of place so important to the point that you titled the new one the way you did?
Well, I was sittin’ in the bathtub thinking of names for a band, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll name my band Blue Ridge Blood.” And I texted a friend and said, “Is this a band, or is this a song, or what?” And he said I needed to write it. So it had been cookin’ for a while. But to answer your question about how it always trickles in, it’s like the song says, “I don’t think I can even help it; couldn’t get away from it even if I tried.” It just hangs over me. Even if I’m writing about something else, it just comes through. I don’t set out to write about it, but it’s what I have and it’s all I have.
I’ve learned, it’s taken me years to kinda like my voice…
To do what?
Sometimes I like my voice. (Laughs) It’s taken me years to figure out this is what I have. I can try to sing pretty, but it’s still gonna be rough; I only can do what I do. I get bored with myself sometimes and I wish I could do something different, but it’s what I’ve got to work with. But the stories and the characters and places I grew up around…I could write a book. It’ll never go away, and it’s a deep, deep well. The folks I grew up were storytellers, and I like to tell stories and embellish, too. It’s fun.
Well, tell me the story about how you got Buddy Miller to sing backup on the title track. He’s the best guitar player in…like, the world, and I think his voice is way underrated…
So, was he just walking down the streets of Austin and y’all shanghaied him into the studio and said “C’mere, we need you to sing harmony on this song?”
(Laughing) No, I have to confess he’s a dear friend. When I came to Nashville 20 years ago, he was one of the first people I went to see. I was a fan back then, and now he’s just the king.
Metaphorically, you can listen to emotional baggage being systematically unpacked over the course of Blue Ridge Blood. In the last four years, you got an overdue diagnosis of thyroid disease, made first contact with your biological father, and met the man you’re about to marry. Is it fair to say the overall dark mood of the record reflects what was happening in your life?
Yeah, and if I were to tell you what happened in the past three weeks, and what’s going on right now…but I will save you that. It’s insane. A lot of life-changing events. [Here a tangent on the recent engagement ensues, to the point of hoping to plan the wedding in a way that won’t burden “the elderly folks” too much.]
Doll Face, that’s awesome, but I wasn’t really asking about your wedding plans.
(Laughing vigorously) Oh, yeah, sorry. What do you want to know, again?
The dark tone of the album, and how it might be a reflection of all the shit that’s gone on in your life the last few years?
I don’t really know. I don’t really think about it when I’m writing. I just write and then I’m done. I don’t really stay in that place, but man, it’s just a really hot topic in every interview now. I don’t think I realized how dark I am, even in my music, till people bring it up. And I’m not dark in my personality, in my everyday life. And that seems to catch people off guard, because I’m a pretty happy person. I can be moody…
But when I sit down to write it just sorta comes out that way. A lot of those events happened after I had written most of this album. Maybe with the exception of “Southern 4501.” I’m looking at the list here, let’s see…I didn’t meet my biological father until late last year, so that’s still kinda new – and lovely – in my life right now.
All of them were when I was sick, though, because I’ve had thyroid disease for a while now.
Well let’s talk about that, because “thyroid disease” sounds scary and mysterious. For those who don’t know – like me – how does the condition manifest itself, and how are you treating/dealing with it now?
That’s really a complicated question, because until I got diagnosed, I didn’t even know where my thyroid was in my body. I had never been sick, never missed a day of work or school. I was that girl. So I didn’t handle being sick with much grace, because I had always been healthy.
It really knocked me on my butt, and I was finally forced to go get blood work. I thought I had cancer. When you’re a momma, you don’t want to know that, and I kept thinking I was just tired. I had just put the record out [Ghost, in 2012] and had been through a rough divorce, and I knew stress could do that kind of stuff to you. I was thinking, “If I could just rest.” There was at least a whole year when I would take my daughter to school and just come home and get in the bed. Then I’d pick her up and make myself fix dinner and help get her ready for her next day, and couldn’t wait to get back in the bed.
Somehow I didn’t go too blue with depression, because that happens with hypothyroidism. So they tried to get me on antidepressants and I said no. Then, I discovered a book called Medical Medium, by Anthony William, and it’s just saving lives every day. It’s amazing. He’s like the Edgar Cayce of our times. Some people don’t like Edgar Cayce, but that’s just devil doin’s.
Did you just say “devil doin’s?”
(Laughs) Yeah, devil doin’s. But I had to scratch out everything I had learned about my body, and get myself on a brand new protocol. And as soon as I started treating my body like the book said to, I started to get a little bit better every day.
You’ve mentioned that your touring in support of Ghost of Browder Holler nearly put you down, and that you were turning down gigs – and at least one record deal -- before you found out how sick you were. What sort of plan do you have for promoting this album on the road? I mean, you’re a single mom…
Yeah, I have a son who’ll be a freshman at UT this fall, and an 11-year-old daughter. Music and family have always been intertwined with me, but bein’ a momma is always gonna come first, because if I mess that up, nothin’ else matters. So if it’s summer and I’m gonna do a three- or four-night run, and she doesn’t wanna come with me, for the first time I’ll have family close by that she can stay with. So this will be a new thing for me in that I can go and do more dates, because I have family support now.
Along those lines, I’m curious about audience reaction to this material in a live setting. These aren’t exactly “get up and shake your ass” tunes; do you think you’ll need a certain type of audience and setting for their to be a deep connection?
Absolutely. That’s one of the things I learned during a month-long residency I did at at Family Wash, which used to be a pub in East Nashville. Now they’ve moved into a fancy place, if you will, and it’s a little more sophisticated; it’s a dinner crowd. There’ve been nights when I’ve had a roomful of fans, and other nights where I’m pretty sure no one knew who I was. And that’s great, because that’s how I can gauge…if people put their forks down and get quiet, I know they either love it, or they’re saying “what the heck?” (Laughs)
And I’ll look out and people are either lovin’ it, or “what is that?” Because I think people either love what I do or they don’t like it at all. Like some of the comments on YouTube are, “Well, that’s just nails on a chalk board.”
(Laughing) Well, why would you even read ‘em? Why in the world put yourself through that?
Well, sometimes just by accident. (Laughs) But I really do get why some people don’t like what I do. It is not for everybody. I wish that I could sing differently sometimes, but I open my mouth and that’s just what comes out.
Eh. There’s plenty of girls who can “Sing Pretty.”
Yeah, I guess. But just the making of this album made me so happy and was so awesome, the rest is just icing on the cake.
All photos courtesy of Conqueroo