The easier it becomes to get access to any and all kinds of music — and information on that music — the more aware we become about what different genres do, what their conventions are, how they use structure — hell, even what topics they address. This makes (or should, anyway) for a wider knowledge of music, but it also might make you question if an artist is a genuine article in a particular genre. Like the listener, the musician has the same access, and we’ve seen plenty of bands turn into quasi-professional music theorists, applying elements from different genres adroitly but often without rhyme or reason other than it sounds (at best) great and (at worst) just different.
So how do you know when someone is genuinely steeped in a genre when they find focus in both learning tradition and crafting their own space within it? Well, you’ll know when you hear a singer like Caitlin Rose. When I say she is a country singer, I don’t say that to exclude all the other things she is at the same time — a clever wordsmith, a pop siren, and a charming frontwoman. No, I say it because she embodies the soul of a country singer in all the best ways. The young Nashvillian’s album, Own Side Now (available last year in Europe, and now finally released in the US) is country without being quaint, poppy as all hell but never overly light, twangy in a way we recognize but not by the numbers.
Rose surrounds herself with effective players, who kick up country dust to float in the sunburst of her singing, but it’s Rose’s songwriting that makes these songs distinct and powerful. Like the equally excellent Jessica Lea Mayfield, Rose writes songs that are wise beyond her young age, but where Mayfield shrouds us in a depressive shadow, Rose smiles at us with boundless charm throughout the record. This may prove all the more dangerous since most of the time — while she smiles at us, doe-eyed and seemingly innocent — she’s sneaking a sharp blade between our ribs.
Her songs are heart worn and endlessly quotable. “And love is just one more useless thing you don’t need but you can’t throw away”, she snaps on “Spare Me (Fetzer’s Blues)” as she begs to be left alone. The extended metaphor on “Learning to Ride” might seem almost too country if it weren’t so perfectly and energetically executed, while the swaying rocker “Shanghai Cigarettes” finds her using an empty pack of cigarettes as one last kiss-off to an ex-lover. In these moments, Rose channels regret, but in a strangely powerful way. She isn’t going all woe-is-me but instead taking a begrudging pride in her mistakes (or yours, whichever “you” she may be addressing) before moving on to the next one.
She does sometimes leave that bracing charm behind for something a little more hurt. “I’ve been falling for so long that I can’t tell”, she admits on the hushed balladry of “Simple Wishing Well”. And though she claims she’s not chasing her lover anymore in “Own Side”, when she gets to the chorus she wonders, with a heartbreaking sigh, “Who’s gonna want me when I’m just somewhere you’ve been?” It’s a hushed, devastating line as Rose strips herself down to being just a thing discarded. In these moments, we see the emotion behind even the brightest moments of the record. As clever as Rose can be, we know when she’s avoiding the hurt and when she’s genuinely moving on.
Own Side Now is very much an album of independence, from that self-reliant title on down. Despite the straightforward approach of these ten tracks. They can have a Byrds-esque shine or a blue-light hush, but they are all tapped from the same Nashville vein, and the emotions here are a little trickier than they seem at face value. Therein lies Caitlin Rose’s talent. Her voice is as clarion-clear and formally beautiful as it is full of personality, and her words are as sharp as they come, but Rose is no mere singer-songwriter. The shifts in mood, the attention to layers on these records, and her own keen eye for production (she co-produces this with Mark Nevers and Skylar Wilson) all show us that Rose is not just a clever new voice. She is a knowing — and, more importantly, feeling — country musician, and one with a bright future ahead of her.