Wild Ones: Three hot acts present a new breed of female songwriter 

There's not much you can do to deal with a difficult woman. When she's not speaking her mind, she's probably refusing to make it up. She's playing nice one moment, misleading you the next. And in the meantime, she's likely doing what she damn well pleases. At best, you can only wish for a little advance notice. Luckily, Those Darlins—a folk-infused female garage-rock trio with affection for nostalgia—give fair warning. "If you don't want a wild one / Quit hangin' 'round with me," the group growls with a slur over a twangy pluck. "You knew right from the start / it's my personality."

The subject matter—a hard-to-handle (and hard-drinking) female narrator absolving herself of any wrongdoing with a you-knew-what-you-were-getting-into shrug—isn't particularly astonishing. Back in 1952, Nashville native Kitty Wells told Hank Thompson to shove it with "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." The song was a response to his "Wild Side of Life," which admonished a wife who was better at leaving than loving. Wells admonished right back—how could you blame a woman for splitting, when, all too often, some married men still act like bachelors? (Thanks to fed-up wives, it became the first hit by a female country singer to reach No. 1.)

By today's standards, that's awfully polite dissent. Back then, the track found itself banned on radio and the Grand Ole Opry. And over half a century later, some female songwriters are still telling the menfolk they've got a few things backward.

Those Darlins, along with other local acts such as Caitlin Rose and Tristen, are still helping issue that corrective. They are songwriters who draw on decades-old traditional folk, country and pop to tell provocative tales from an unabashedly female perspective. Their subject matter is both retro—drinking, smoking and heartache—and distinctly modern—D.U.I.s, homework and even late-night, drunken overindulgences in chicken. The result is both brash and intimate and—miraculously—without the precious, baby-voiced femininity that plagues female-led indie folk these days.

"What's remarkable about all of these acts is that they actually pull it off," says Drew Mischke, general manager at Mercy Lounge. "A lot of people—not just women—that I've heard the last four years have tried to do this revivalist thing and it almost exclusively comes off as forced and trite. It's like doing a cover really well. If you're going to do a cover well you have to do it justice. There has to be a certain amount of genuineness that comes with it. And if you're trying to cover or evoke a style or an entire stylistic period in musical history, it has to be earnest and genuine and it has to be good. And they're all great at it."

Perhaps that's because each of these artists has spent the better part of the last two years shaping and pruning their music. Unlike the dozens of newly formed bands made up of guys who seem to play within weeks of their first practice, these acts have spent time incubating. And the oldest among them is a mere 26.

Take folk singer Caitlin Rose, a 22-year-old wunderkind who's been called a cross between Ellie May Clampett and Olive Oyl, and who, in a show of love for Marlboros, isn't afraid to suggest that the surgeon general "can suck on [her] dick." With her high-waist jeans, board-straight hair, makeup-free face and wide brown eyes, her foul mouth and confidence are all the more arresting.

Rose has been writing songs since she was 14. At age 22, she has a sold-out seven-inch and a staggering country debut EP, Dead Flowers. After a half-decade of finessing her act, she also has an expanding fanbase and a slew of breathless reviews. Rose has been called a brilliant young talent, a plausible example of what Loretta Lynn's first teenage performance was probably like.

The debut amazes not just for Rose's vocals, which have the kind of bold ache and fullness one minute that has drawn comparisons to Patsy Cline, and a comedian's slyness the next. But her subject matter and turn of phrase surprise, proof that, as a teenager, she was already preternaturally acquainted with a heavy heart.

The track "Shotgun Wedding" may seemingly just ruminate on the age-old rural mishap of teen pregnancy, but Rose takes it on earnestly. Instead of lamenting the young couple's misfortune, she asks the listener to consider that such troubles might arise out of true passion rather than carelessness, the sort that promises the same kind of staying power as traditional unions.

Rose's range on the EP is startling, even if it's a little unfocused. There's the impressive Cline cover "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray"—a daunting task for any young vocalist, and one that Rose pulls off with utter ease. Moments later comes the goofy quirk of "Gorilla Man," a nearly spoken-word piece accompanied only by tambourine that some might argue covers up nearly all of Rose's vocal strengths. But instead, it establishes that she has the confidence to strike out on wackier avenues. The kid's got moxie.

Or take the song "T-shirt," which revisits '90s alt-rock it-girl Liz Phair, an artist Rose is still young enough to have possibly skipped altogether. Yet Rose recalls Phair's knack for delivering emotional depth with a kind of disaffected flatness.

"Singing in an alto at once pure yet deliciously tainted by MySpace and high school, Rose manages to infuse such barn burners as 'Shotgun Wedding' and 'Gorilla Man' with the kind of brio that tends to get ProTooled out of most modern country albums," wrote American Songwriter.

BMI also noticed that brio. Leslie Roberts, associate director of writer/publisher relations, has been following Rose's career with some interest. The former A&R exec for Sony has seen Rose perform only once, but it was enough to get her hooked on the EP Dead Flowers.

"The thing about her that's so unique is, not only is she a stylist like Lucinda Williams, but she's got vocal range like a Martina McBride," says Roberts. "A lot of vocalists don't have that range. She'll have a talking song and then a rangy ballad that she just soars on. That's actually really unique. I think she's a great songwriter—I love the stuff she writes, and I love her covers too.

She's really left of center for the country scene, but there are so many more outlets today. She'll find her niche. She's the kind of artist who will do great touring and she'll pick up a big following that way, and it'll just grow and grow and grow."

And though Rose is a regular presence on the rock scene, not the country one—she was a staple at basement shows, house parties and the dingy, all-ages downtown rock club The Muse when she began—it was when she began covering country that the rock scene took notice.

She's a regular at Mercy Lounge, The End and The 5 Spot. She opens for local rock acts like Glossary, but fields requests to play Billy Block shows at Cadillac Ranch, and the occasional writer's rounds at the Bluebird.

Country staple CMT includes her in its roundup on the current Americana scene. Though clearly mesmerized by her voice, it doesn't seem to know quite what to make of her range: "Rose is a musical free spirit.... When she was once asked what her Neil Diamond influence was, she said she used to roll joints on Diamond's greatest hits album." 

That all-over-the-place range, and the scant amount of recorded output is more about nurturing Rose's craft, says manager Aaron Hartley, who runs Nashville indie label Theory 8 Records. Hartley first started working with Rose when she was 19, when she was playing regularly at The Muse and at house shows under the name Save Macaulay the Band.

"Where do quirky artists fit?" Hartley asks. "It's really hard these days to figure out what's going to work and what's not going to work. If I am working with someone like Caitlin, it's just more important to flesh out that artistry and songwriting, and let her be who she's going to be, and appeal to that over time and build it—as opposed to shooting for the moon and crossing our fingers with a 'hit.' "

Mercy Lounge's Drew Mischke has watched Rose perform for some two years now, and says Rose is the real deal.

"A lot of these songwriters I see, in other markets, would probably be amazing standout performers that would grab people's attention," Mischke says. "But because Nashville is so saturated with them, and they all sing about the same stuff, it's nearly impossible for them to do anything that's different from each other.

"The combination of [Rose's] stage persona and her voice—it really is so much more distinct than the vast majority of singer-songwriters. Plenty of people write songs about heartbreak and getting drunk, but her lyrics and her voice—that combination is a perfect balance. She stands out tremendously against the backdrop of all that."

She's been steeped in the biz from a young age. Rose's father is longtime industry veteran Johnny Rose, and her mother is songwriter Liz Rose, who contributed nearly half of Taylor Swift's first record, and whom Rose credits with her songwriting approach.

"My mom, the way she writes, she's just grabbing things out of the air," Rose says. "Just spitting them out. Just very unabashed about it. She can sit with someone and talk about things and come up with lines and just spit them out. That's what I learned from her."

That's also where the 22-year-old picked up a keen interest in Linda Ronstadt, a singer who took song selection as seriously as a museum curator. It's a subject that inevitably comes up in any conversation with Rose again and again. And again.

"To be a singer is a really important thing," Rose explains. "Take Linda Ronstadt. The thing about her is that she was a phenomenal singer from the beginning. She was untrained and she didn't really know how to take care of her voice, but the thing she did as a singer was develop an entire artistry around it. She chose songs. She made J.D. Souther famous. She made a lot of people famous by having a sensibility of what songs were good. She had a feeling for these songs. I read her interviews all the time, and she has more music knowledge in her head than any VH1 special ever. There's something to be said for someone who takes singing as a craft."

Hartley considers Rose a "mix between Linda Ronstadt and Gram Parsons," pointing out that she can talk circles around him when it comes to music knowledge, especially country. And though Rose is aware that her obsession with the past seems odd for her age, she doesn't treat it as part of some larger mythical lore about herself.

"I don't want to be all, 'Oh yeah my mama and daddy used to play me Hank Williams songs,' because they didn't," Rose says. "It was just sort of a natural thing."

For now, Rose is practically still a teenager straddling decades of influence with remarkable ease, appealing for her unvarnished yet provocative image.

"I want to be the quirky thing that pulls through," she says. "The exception to the rule."

Tristen Gaspadarek, a 26-year-old Chicago native, has spent this last year doing her own kind of incubating. The multi-instrumentalist with a husky, ethereal voice, pixie frame and romantically wavy hair makes revivalist pop that's multifaceted.

She too comes from a musical family—father Charlie was a songwriter who furnished instruments for the family one Christmas and even played in her band. Gaspadarek has been immersed in guitar and piano since 14, and by 20, she had a publishing deal that placed her songs—what she calls "super super cheesy" pop—on the DVD releases of shows like Felicity and Everwood, as well as made-for-TV movies.

Gaspadarek's output now hovers well below the mainstream pop radar, but it still shows a staggering range of talent. The five songs on her MySpace page alone recall everyone from sweepingly delicate Kate Bush to the '50s pop of Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia fame. Other numbers evoke barbershop harmonizing. Take "Baby Drugs," a piece she wrote with Rose and cellist/guitarist Larissa Maestro.

"I will pick your clothes up in the morning," it begins with a gravelly croon over a fast-strumming ukulele and acoustic guitar. "I will put your coffee by the bed." It appears to be a song about a dutiful lover, until the next line gives it away: "Baby, don't you want me to bring you those drugs?"

"It's about taking care of a drug addict," Gaspadarek says. "But also about enabling people in relationships in larger ways. The idea is when you're enabling somebody that does drugs, most of the time, it's one of those things where you always think you can fix them. You kind of want to enable them because you love them, but you always also hope you're the person that will make them change."

Over the last two years, Gaspadarek can be seen harmonizing with Rose at a house party, playing solo shows at The 5 Spot, borrowing local rock acts such as The Privates, Eureka Gold, Roman Candle and And the Relatives as backing bands for a night, and performing Christmas specials with her former side project with Rose, The Garland Sisters.

But Gaspadarek has scant recorded output. She's spent the past year working with producer and engineer Jeremy Ferguson, who runs the East Nashville studio Battle Tapes. According to Ferguson, the two have run through four or five different drummers on one song alone, starting sure of some things and ending up unsure. In all, they've worked through some 20 songs to pare down the dozen that will make a full-length record. Ferguson calls Tristen his favorite female voice in town.

"When I first heard her singing, she was introduced as a girl who'd sing harmony on Caitlin's stuff," Ferguson recalls. "I thought, she's probably just another girl with an interesting voice. But when I heard her songs, I thought they were amazing. It's Paul McCartney type stuff. She just has this really strong sense of melody."

That sense cuts through on numbers like "Battle of the Gods," a folk song meant for medieval countryside roams, while "Special Kind of Fear" bounces with a '60s Brit rock shine.

"Where someone like Caitlin Rose pulls off the whole Cline/Loretta Lynn thing, Tristen pulls off this 10,000 Maniacs thing," says Mischke. "It's the same appeal except she's doing it with pop, with a great voice and great lyrics."

More tangible proof of that knack is held up by a perfectionist's obsession.

"I definitely have a problem with always wanting to record new songs and not finishing my old songs," Gaspadarek says. "But when you're producing your own record you want to always do something different, but then you don't know how to do that. I've had a lot of people come in and play and then decide what they're doing is not right. You'd normally hash that out with your band. I don't have a band so I'm trying to form these songs. It's a mishmash, but it always takes me a year to make a record."

The five songs on MySpace are currently an untitled tour-only EP, but they will appear on the upcoming full-length Charlatans at the Garden Gate, whose release date is yet to be determined. In the end, the Battle Tapes sessions will have featured the work of some 30 to 40 musicians, including Privates singer/guitarist Dave Paulson, traditional country artist Chris Scruggs, Features' drummer Rollum Haas and Matt Moody from Hands Down Eugene.

But some of her most interesting collaborations have been with Rose—the first female artist Gaspadarek saw in town that she wanted to approach. They formed the Garland Sisters, a short-lived side project that produced a handful of tracks.

"Finally, I'd met a girl that had really cool lyrics and great songs," she says of the first time she saw Rose playing at the Springwater. "I thought she was sassy."

Unlike a number of female singer-songwriters in the indie rock vein, both prefer story-songs to confessional, soul-baring works. "If you're going to sit around and sing about your fucking diary and no one cares, it's because no one cares about your feelings," Gaspadarek explains, then adds, "Sorry, I'm trying to be really positive lately."

Gaspadarek has made a reputation for herself as intensely outspoken, something Ferguson compares to other female artists such as Beth Cameron, the guitarist and frontwoman for the now-defunct post-rock outfit Forget Cassettes.

"If you get into a conversation with Tristen, you're going to get an idea of her view, for better or worse," says Ferguson. "[Tristen and Caitlin] are not timid people. She's just a strong, forward person."

Meanwhile, though both Rose and Gaspadarek have ventured somewhat out of the Nashville safety net, their goals involve selling records and getting exposure. They're both smitten with the idea of 1,000 True Fans. It's a buzzworthy notion from early last year, generated by Kevin Kelly, a senior editor at Wired Magazine.

The idea is that in today's industry, you don't have to reach the mainstream to succeed at all. You just need a core fanbase who will consume everything you create. They buy tickets in advance, pay for your releases and b-sides and seven-inches, and create a sustainable source of income that allows you to simply cater to them, and not go chasing mainstream shadows.

Those Darlins are closer to that goal. Just ask The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, which have all marveled at the red-light glow of the trio's smash-up of garage-rock, punk and country on their self-released, self-titled record.

Early on, the trio—Jessi, Nikki and Kelley (who've adopted the surname Darlin onstage)—were met with startling skepticism. The band's initial ruffles and lace, traditional country covers and clogging in place of percussion seemed to make for quite the novelty. For that very reason—"Attractive Women Put on Novelty Act"—shows around town seemed to be initially met with amusement and subsequent dismissal.

It was surprising to the trio. Sure, they added hokey outfits and started out with covers, but the originals they debuted more than proved they weren't hiding behind Hank Williams and gingham.

"We didn't start out to start a band," says Kelley Anderson, a singer, bassist and guitarist who founded the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp in Murfreesboro and has been a longtime booker and promoter in town. "It was organic. We got together to drink some beers and play some music and write some songs. It evolved into a really good friendship where we would spend all night doing that. I don't know of a lot of bands that have five-hour practices where an hour is drinking and cooking, another hour is thrifting, another hour is eating popcorn and watching a movie, and another hour is practicing. I found my clan. I honestly never met girls who loved playing music as much as they do and who were silly and adventurous and creative."

The band initially played Hank and Carter Family covers with the attitude that if people wanted to come out and listen, they would, not wanting to debut originals until they were ready.

"You don't want to get out there and suck," says Anderson, who's been playing guitar since she was 12 and graduated from MTSU with a Recording Industry degree. "You feel like you don't have the opportunity to develop live in front of people and suck. The minute you step outside the box, you feel you have to be great because you get more attention."

The countrified outfits may have worked against them initially. But Those Darlins has since become master manipulators of their own image, infusing their work with a coyly defiant punk attitude that's refreshing and provocative, and nothing like the pre-packaged sexuality of artists aiming for arenas.

"There wasn't a contrived thing to be sexy," says Anderson with a laugh. "If anything, it was like we were auditioning for Hee Haw. Of course, after the sixth show it wore thin. We tried to match colors—and still do pick one kind of color for a theme. But if someone had a really ugly blue dress and we were going to do blue, you just heard from them all night. 'I'm uncomfortable—I don't wanna wear this.' We had to be like Dee Dee Ramone. 'Put the jacket on, and stop whining!' "

Eventually, the trio began wearing their everyday jeans, boots and T-shirts, with sex appeal always on the backburner. But they control more than just their image. By starting their own label, Oh Wow Dang records, they also maintain complete creative and financial control.

Their careers took off when they slowly began dropping the covers in favor of originals—though it sometimes took some convincing to play them live.

One of the first was a song by Nikki Darlin called "The Whole Damn Thing." It's a delightfully simple tune about finding yourself drunk in your kitchen, hungry and eyeing a leftover chicken. "Not just the leg/ And not just the wing," it confesses over a clap-happy beat. "I'd like to let you know/ That I ate the whole damn thing." But it's also a distinctly female song—the need to confess to overeating is rarely a male act.

She'd written it before the band had started, but didn't think it was up to snuff. "Me and Jessi thought it was great," Anderson recalls. "Just the simplicity and the structure of it. And she was like, 'No, I'm not playing that.' "

The remaining originals on the record are a rooftop shout of boozing and musing.

"Red Light Love" is the standout, with a raucous punk clatter and a Ramones-style go-go-go of an accent. But "DUI or Die" is a contender—a cautionary tale with a doo-run pace and a bicycle bell ring. "Remember if you wanna drink and drive / better find a boy to take you home for a night."

Those Darlins may now know better about drinking and driving, but they're no less wild at heart. In some two years of finessing press, distribution and crowds, the trio are still converting outsiders to country or just changing minds about what alt-country means. That hasn't stopped Nashville—notorious for taking its chin-scratching time to warm up to new acts—from arriving late to the party.

"It was funny," says Anderson. "This was before we ever put an album out and had done only a few shows in Nashville. Some of the only negative feedback was when we played local shows on local bills. People would come out to our shows, but people in the music scene would kind of sneer at that and say, 'Oh, people just like it because they're cute girls.' The national press has been glorious. The only haters were Nashville people."

Elsewhere, their shit-kicking fierceness is inspiring awe among audiences and colleagues.

"I think they're great," Tristen says of Those Darlins. "They drink and cuss and they don't care what people think. They're sort of wild."

You can't say they didn't warn you. "If you can't handle crazy," the song "Wild One" intones, "Just go ahead and leave."

Email tmoore@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-744-3362.

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