It must have been two summers ago, Kristi Rose and the Handsome Strangers had just completed a blistering set at Summer Lights, Rose’s powerhouse honky-tonk vocals shaking the concrete halfway to MetroCenter. Talking offstage after her set, she was all excited about a new tune she had been working into her repertoire, although she hadn’t sung it that day.
“It’s a Peggy Lee song,” she said. “It’s called ‘Johnny Guitar.’ ”
“From the movie?” I asked.
“Right,” Kristi said. “Exactly.”
Johnny Guitar, a 1954 film starring Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden that can only be described as Hollywood’s first great anti-western masterpieceand an accidental one at that. Driven by the kinetic energy of cosmic cat fights, bad love, rampant androgyny, and an anti-McCarthy subtext, it’s utterly sublime trash. But for Rose, one component stands out. “Oh God!” she exclaimed. “The
That’s Kristi Rose for youa singer whose eyes and ears are forever open to the world of the hyper-kitsch, the intense “Trucolor” of American popular culture at its most splendidly low and theatrical. Hers is not the snide regard of condescending irony, but of an artist in genuine love with the garish detritus of throwaway night lifeof crummy lounges, Hee Haw hay bales, back-alley burlesque, and big hair. An ex-farm girl from the Illinois-Kentucky border region, she can still recall the childhood thrill of hearing Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” for the first time.
“I thought she was ,” Rose says of Gentry. “She and Jeannie C. Riley. And of course it all had to do with how they looked.”
It’s no accident that when Katy K of Ranch Dressing moved to Nashville, Rose helped introduce her around town. Look on the back of Rose’s ferocious 1986 Rounder Records album, , and you’ll see her wearing a Katy K dress. The two of them have been comrades-in-crinolines since meeting in the ladies room at the Lone Star Cafe in New York. Back then, Rose was fronting a band called Kristi Rose and the Midnight Walkers, pitching her high-octane swamp honky-tonk to an East Village fan base of bikers, punks and drag queens.
“The first Wigstock...Katy K and I were talking about this,” Rose says. “We were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, they were passing out flyers. Everybody’s getting together over in the park tomorrow.’ ”
The point is that Kristi Rose was working the hillbilly underground years before it was working in downtown Nashville. Thus, it’s a story come full circle that, starting this Saturday, Nov. 18, Kristi Rose and the Handsome Strangers will settle into a weekly gig at Wolfy’s on Lower Broadway. “Basically,” she says, “what we’ve done is we’ve said, ‘Let’s try it for several weeks, see how it flies, and then just take it from there.’ ”
Rose and the boys have already worked a few one-off gigs at Wolfy’s, playing their hopped-up hillbilly tunes to the usual Broadway mix of loyal fans and appreciative tourists. Not the least of her crowd-pleasing numbers is a robust rendition of, yes, “Ode to Billie Joe.” Others include her own “Man Among Men,” a gale-force blast of rock ’n’ roll carnality that was the highlight of her Rounder album. She still often closes her shows with it; listen from a front table at your ears’ own risk.
From what Kristi’s heard, the response at Wolfy’s thus far has been strong. “Apparently, they get all sorts of calls,” she says. “You know, ‘Is she playing?’ ‘Does she play every week?’ ‘Oh, we saw this girl.’ Or, ‘We heard about this girl.’ ”
Farm girl Rose arrived in Nashville in 1992, bringing with her a decade’s worth of nightclub experience and a strong following in Europe. “The last thing I did before I came to Nashville was play in France,” she says. “Got off the plane, packed my bags, got on another plane, and came to Nashville.”
Since then, she has been playing the clubs with the Handsome Strangers, a shifting aggregate the most long-term member of which has been guitarist Gary Goodlow. Her husband, Fats Kaplin, sits in when he’s not on the road with one of the many acts (the Mavericks and the Tractors, for example) that have relied on his picking prowess. Though she’s always had a great ear for interesting covers, Rose still writes much of her own material, the best of which reveals a songstress of considerable wit and deceptive sensitivitybut not too much sensitivity. Her “Come Back Tomorrow” sounds like the bastard result of a Wanda Jackson-Eartha Kitt cowriting session.
On the nightclub front, Rose has lately organized such local cult phenomena as Cocktail Capers at the Gas Lite and the Thrillbilly Lovefests at 12th & Porter, though she insists it’s not her intention to take on the role of after-hours activist.
“I did something at the Gas Lite because I’d been wanting to do cocktail music,” she says. “Because I love all that stuff.”
Nevertheless, such events have expanded the scope of downtown night life, and, in the case of the Thrillbilly Lovefests, have threatened to do for the Hager twins what MTV did for Tom Jones. While the steady influx of ’70s pop powerhouses has been bigger news to Music Row, it’s artists like Roseones with seasoned street credentialswho have really changed the quality of life in this town.
“Fats and I...our view of Nashville is so ridiculously rosy,” she says. “Because it has been so incredibly good, for us.... I mean, our lives have completely changed.
“We’re always going”Rose throws her hands up in mock celebration“ ‘It’s a boomtown!’ But it is. And it’s great. It’s great to feel like you’re here at a time when that’s happening, to be part of it.”
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AGGGHHHH that last picture!