Nashville Cream: Right now, the references I’m hearing to rural life in songs are most often coming from male mainstream country acts. The songs usually come in list form, with stock references to rural life and redneck identity. What makes what you’re doing different from that?
Chelle Rose: Wow. There’s a lot I could say about that, and a lot I shouldn’t say. But I mean [laughs], I don’t really have a connection with that world. But I know what you’re talking about, because you can’t escape what’s going on there with that. I understand what that is, you know, what they’re trying to sell, because really, that’s what they’re trying to do — they’re trying to sell that they are representing people. I feel like most people are smarter than that and can tell that it’s maybe not real. And I’m not saying that all of them are not real. But I feel like it is a little contrived. I don’t really know what to say, except for that I don’t write to sell anything to anybody. Maybe that’s it. I write because it makes me feel the closest to who I am. Music, for me, is just a different thing.
NC: One of the differences to me is that you deal in specifics, whereas a lot of the songs I’m talking about deal in the generic. Plus you tend to write dark. For a song like "Browder Holler Boy" to be about your first love, it’s definitely not a romanticized portrait.
CR: No, [the Browder Holler boy] drowned. When he was 25, he and a bunch of boys went camping. They did this all the time. One of them had a canoe. It was supposed to be unsinkable. He was just one of those guys, you just couldn’t tell him, "Helton, you can’t go out on the lake by yourself. You can’t take the canoe out by yourself." I mean, he’s gonna do what he wants to do. I think they might’ve been drinking. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but he got tangled up, I think. He must’ve fallen asleep or something and woke up and startled himself and maybe tipped over and got tangled. I’m not sure what happened. We’ll never know. He hollered for help, and they couldn’t see. It was pitch black. Tragic, because he was really cool. Everybody loved him. See, it’s a love story, but it’s sad and it’s dark. But I think his family, you know, his brothers and the people that knew him growing up, I think they understand what I’m saying. Yeah, it is our love story, but it’s definitely got a dark backdrop there. I don’t know why everything I write tends to be that way.
NC: Who’s the mysterious character at the heart of the song "Damsel"?
CR: Well, that’s a pretty funny story. I was down at Katy K’s one day, back in early 2002 or 2003 ...
NC: Katy K’s Ranch Dressing?
CR: Yeah. There was a girl, and she was living here in Nashville at the time. She was a burlesque dancer. Gorgeous, gorgeous girl from East Tennessee. She was trying on dresses. And Ryan Adams was in there. He had Brad Pemberton with him, I believe, his drummer. And I just remember thinking, "Good Lord, there’s Ryan Adams." You know, Nashville. So here she comes out in this dress, and she’s got on a white dress with red cherries on it. She looks at us and she was just like, "What do y’all think?" Ryan was like — his eyes were like this big — like, "I think it’s hot." She goes, "I’ve got to go to a wedding." And I was like, "She’s gonna wear that to a wedding?!" I mean, because, you know, she was looking fine. And I think that he started thinking, "I might like to go to this wedding with this girl if she’s gonna wear that dress." And that’s exactly what happened. They ended up exchanging phone numbers right in front of me, and he was gonna take her to this wedding, in that dress. I went home and called my friend Brian Walsh later and was telling him the story, because I thought it was funny. And we started writing this song. ...
It’s weird how songs kinda get born that way. But it struck me like, "Wow!" Because it would never occur to me to wear something like that to a wedding. I wish I could. I want to be that girl. But, um, yeah. Living vicariously through the burlesque dancer. People ask me, "Do you have any 'Damsel' in you?" Yeah, a little bit. I probably tapped into that a little bit. But we pretty much were drawing on that little scene that went down. ... I used to play that song really hard. When I got down to Texas, Ray Wylie [Hubbard] scrapped that whole arrangement and we brought it down to this. ... I mean, that’s one of the biggest gifts he gave me was bringing some things down where the story could come up. And I love how that turned out. I think it actually let the story — you can actually hear the story now. And when I used to rock that out hard, you didn’t know what I was singing about. All you heard was me screaming "Damsel." [Laughs]
NC: I love the only cover on the album — Julie Miller’s "I Need You."
CR: You can’t touch hers.
NC: She’s a very different singer from you. I talked with her a lot about how people perceive her to have the voice of a little girl. The way you deliver that song brings out the visceral, desperate spirit of it.
CR: I tried not to think about the fact that it’s brave to try to sing a Julie Miller song. I absolutely adore her. And her version of that song is definitive. I love her so much. ... I wish I had written that myself, because it just says all these things. It’s like, "I need!" Everything you need is right there. I started singing it back around 2002, I think, live with my band. And then I kinda put it in my back pocket because I thought I would be making a record about ten times in between the first one and this one. And things fell through a lot. I wanted to record that song for years. ... Her and Buddy [Miller] both have been really sweet to me and supportive. Buddy heard me sing it one night live, and went home and told Julie, which made me a nervous wreck, because I’m like, "Oh Lord, she would hate what I’m doing to this song. it’s sacrilege."
NC: I’m sure she loves the way you sing it. She told me that when she was young, she used to wish she had a much bigger voice.
CR: I’m glad her voice sounds exactly like it does. I love it so much. She inspires me. ... The way she writes and taps the vein just goes so deep. It can move me to tears when I hear things she’s written. Sometimes I wish I could be delicate like she is. That’s a special gift, too. We all wish we could sing different than we actually do. When I first started singing, I was miserable, because I didn’t learn to accept what my voice sounded like. So you finally have to get to a point where, "This is what I do, this is what I sing," and you just kinda accept it.
NC: Even Bonnie Raitt was telling me how early on she took to drinking and smoking a lot so that she could develop the texture she admired in old blues singers' voices.
CR: I’ve never been able to be a smoker. I don’t know. I see people doing it and they look cool. I just look like a big goof. So yeah, no cigarettes. Probably the drinking, I’ve been there. But it doesn’t really help your voice longterm, that’s for sure. [Laughs]
NC: In the song "Alimony" you talk about what it’s like being married to someone who, as you put it, thought music was a waste of time and money. You can sense the frustration in that song. But it’s kind of a triumphant rock 'n' roll song. Was that a tough one to write, or was it really cathartic and fun?
CR: There’s a really interesting story about "Alimony." I don’t know if other people hear on the album what I do. It seems to be a very different kind of song than anything else I’ve ever written. To me, it does. Hopefully it works on the record. Everybody seems to love it. Elizabeth Cook brought the idea to me. She had heard of a woman over in East Tennessee, I think one of the coaches' wives, that got divorced and opened a salon and called it Alimony or something like that. She was like, "You really should write a song called 'Alimony.'" She’s so great at writing these funny and quirky songs. You know her style. I mean, she’s just a master at it. I am not. That’s not my thing. ... But it must have stayed in my mind, the idea, or it set me on a path. And it must’ve been cooking, because I had pneumonia and a fever of 102 and was in the shower one night. I was living out in Leiper’s Fork. And it came out like a rap song. [Laughs] I mean, it really just poured through me. I had to get out of the shower — I was so sick — and pick up the guitar. It all came at the same time: the melody, the words. So I’m writing as fast as I can and doing the little chords and everything, and then I go back to bed. And then I get up the next morning and I’m thinkin’, "I think I wrote a song last night." ... I was so sick. And I had written that. And I thought, "This is either really good or really bad. I don’t know." And then a few weeks later, I put my band back together, and it’s like me and Tim Carroll and Rick Schell and Paul Slivka. I went over to FooBar in East Nashville. It was the first night we’d played that song. we’d just learned it and rehearsed it. And I mean, it just felt good. [Laughs] My divorce still wasn’t final even, but here I am out singing this song about alimony.
NC: I gather that before you had any inkling you’d be making an album with Ray Wylie Hubbard, his music was influencing you while you were going through your divorce.
CR: Big time. I even told him, I had dinner with him a couple of nights ago. Well, he was actually telling me a story about Ringo Starr, and how every time he would be around Ringo he would just look at him and go, "Man, that’s a bleep Beatle." And I’m like, "You’re my Beatle, Ray. You’re my Beatle." And he just laughed. But seriously, I’d never seen Ray play live. I just had his records. And I was telling him that he had signed — I’ve got several of his records that are signed "To Chelle," because I would buy them on the pre-order. ... I’ve said before, he’s kinda like Santa Claus. I mean, in my mind. The first day he picked me up at the hotel to go to the studio, I can’t even tell you. I couldn’t even breathe. It took me a few days to get myself together, which is so silly, because he’s so laid-back and so cool and easy to be around. But he’s Ray Wylie Hubbard. And he’s my hero. Elizabeth [Cook] walked in here one day, my best friend, and I had a stack of Ray’s CDs sitting there. She’s like, "You been listening to some Ray Wylie Hubbard?" I was trying to think of who would be the right person for me to hand these songs over to. I was just trying to plot and scheme a little bit, really. But I didn’t know anybody in Texas, much less Ray Wylie Hubbard or any of his people. I’m pretty sure he’s in the mafia down there or something. [Laughs]