Supernatural Inspiration: An Interview with Chelle Rose
First, you take multiple generations of Appalachian family members and the stories that are passed on down from each one. We’re not talking about the touristy Appalachian towns, but the serious backwoods locations that are still associated with moonshine and coal mines. You then mix in a healthy amount of heartache from a recent divorce, one that caused a delay of over a decade between her first album, Nanahally River, and this new release. You throw in some Texas personal experiences and a lifetime of Austin/Americana influence from producer Ray Wylie Hubbard. A long sisterly relationship with Elizabeth Cook is drawn on for inspiration and direction. Music from idols such as Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, Marshall Chapman and Townes Van Zant are mixed in for good measure. A decade and a half of performing live of what she calls her “Appalachian rock and roll” ties it all together.
What results is hard-driving gritty collection of a dozen songs that each tell a story of a person or place that created and shaped the artist. Just one listen to the outstanding track, “Rufus Morgan (Preacher Man),” and you’re hooked. Part biography and part genealogy, this story of Rose’s cousin and his influence on “the mountain people” rocks along to extremely personal lyrics set to a gospel-themed chorus led by the The McCrary Sisters.
Chelle (pronounced “Shelly”) sat down with Engine 145 and revealed some of the intimate details behind the making of the album, including a spirit that helped name the album.
Ken Morton, Jr.: Let’s start at the beginning. Give me the background of the title, The Ghost of Browder Holler.
Chelle Rose: The story of the Browder Holler ghost actually took place in my grandmother’s home where I grew up. I moved there when I was three to live with my grandparents. I was visiting back there with one of my kids and sleeping in my childhood bed. It was one night visiting my grandmother and I was having visits from my childhood sweetheart who died tragically when he was only 25 in a canoeing accident. That sounds crazy to some people but it’s my truth. I was frustrated with him. He didn’t do anything to scare me at all, just little silly things. But that night, he picked the bed off the ground and let it drop. It’s a big old antique bed. I think they had to take it all apart to get it upstairs it’s so heavy at Momma’s house. I could never lift this bed. It’s just crazy heavy. But they could feel it in the whole house, they thought we had an earthquake or something. I just picked it up and dropped it and then left. And that prompted me to write that song, “Browder Holler Boy.”
Basically, it was my way of telling him not to mess with me any more. I’m never going to forget about him. I know what [he was] in my life and always will be. But I just sort of called a truce there. “Can you go home? I love you, but go home.”
When I got ready to name the album, I just totally completely drew a blank. I was down there working with Ray Wylie not even thinking what I was going to call this whole thing. That whole process was really intense and we were just focusing on one track at a time. I hadn’t really even put the whole thing together. It was pretty overwhelming. I struggled. I came up with different names and none of them seemed right. It was like when I was naming my children. You just have to go, “Okay, I’ll know it when it comes to me.” I pulled that line out of that one song and it kind of makes it the title track, but not really. It is the first track. But as soon as I said it, I knew it was pretty appropriate. It’s a pretty strong story there and pretty interesting to some people.
KMJ: Have you had visits since that bed-dropping incident?
CR: No, I haven’t. I think his little ego was satisfied. (Laughter) I would imagine he’s pretty proud. I still hear from his family quite a bit. They all still live in Loudon County. I just got back from there visiting my Granny-Mom. She raised me since I was three. She’s 86 and I still slept in the same bed all weekend. I wasn’t really that I would hear from him. It was more that I would feel things around me and I would intensely know it was him. It was aggravating. That has all kind of stopped. I won’t say the song helped him get to where he needed to go, but something happened. It was a shift of energy of some sort. That kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it?
KMJ: Maybe he just got stuck under the bed.
CR: (Laughter) Yeah, maybe. He’s probably pretty proud though. I was probably the girl least-likely in our class to go off and be a songwriter and musician. I’d say that much is true.
KMJ: The album is filled with all of these fantastic backwoods characters and mountain men. Are they all real? Are they all autobiographical?
CR: All of them are true. I feel like I am a pretty keen observer of humans. It’s probably my main interest on earth. I like to watch and listen. I do it even when I don’t want to. I’ll be in a restaurant trying to have dinner with my kids and some other person or conversation will catch my ear and it’s like a magnet. So I’m fascinated with people. And I’m just so lucky to grow up in a region that is just so rich with characters. They were all around me. I just thought everyone had that and grew up that way. Now I’m 44 and I look back and say, man, I’ve been exposed to some pretty cool people that just aren’t normal. East Tennessee makes up its own breed, you know? (Laughter) There are a lot of stories there. I’ve barely just scratched the surface of people I knew growing up.
Now I’m living in Nashville and I’m surrounded by all these artists and songwriters and great music. But the characters aren’t around here as much. You have to go home for that. I had the same thing in westernNorth Carolina, too. My Granny-Mom was born and raised in Franklin,North Carolina. So I grew up going there in the summer time at my great-great grandmother’s home. The creek that ran through her back yard had six or seven different colors of clay. That’s heaven for a kid. That place was just magical. You would just meet all these people and hear all these stories about your ancestors. That’s what they would do, they’d just tell stories. I soaked all that up. I carry it with me. It’s very much a huge part of who I am. I’ve always shared it with my kids, but now I’m putting it out on records and sharing it with all of you. It’s kind of cool, because I think people forget about those kinds of stories and those kinds of characters. Nobody pays attention much. Maybe it’s a lost thing. I’m more interested in real people and their stories.
KMJ: While we’re on the topic of interesting characters, I should probably ask you about Ray Wylie Hubbard, your producer on this album. How was it working with him?
CR: Honestly, it was scary on the front end. In 2008, I was living out in Leipers Fork, way out from Nashville in Williamson County. But it’s different from anywhere around here [in Nashville.] I was going through a divorce and I soaked up a lot of Ray. I had become a fan of his well before that but I fell hard for his music during this time. Him and Levon Helm’s Dirt Farmer. And when I started to make this record, I was going to go on up to Woodstock and work with Larry Campbell. I was ready to put all of this together and Larry’s mother and brother passed away within a month of one another. Bless his heart and things just got elusive with him. I didn’t hear from him. And while I was waiting, I got to sit with Levon and sing with him on a ramble. Things sort of fell apart and I said, “Now what am I going to do?”
But I would have never considered Ray Wylie Hubbard. To me, Ray Wylie was like Santa Claus. I’d never even seen the man play live. I had only soaked myself into his records. I’d never even had ever met this man. He was larger than life to me. It was a pretty cool story how we connected. But when I went to Austin and he picked me up that first morning at the hotel to go to the studio, I could hardly breathe. That’s the truth of it. I don’t get easily get intimidated, but wow. There he was. He was real. I had to get over that and step out of my own way.
But working with Ray was fun. He’s just a straight-shooter and so am I. So there were times when at the kitchen table, we’d sit at the kitchen table, pull a song out of the hat and sort of go head-to-head on it. I couldn’t just say, “Whatever you say, Ray Wylie.” It frustrated me and it frustrated him. And that’s just the truth. And we laugh about it now. But it was not as easy as either of us thought it would be. But the end result turned out the way it was supposed to. We fought over things that maybe needed to be. We picked and chose. The sessions were intense but they were very organic and real. It was a beautiful way to make a record. He helped me with arrangements to bring the stories forward. I’d been rocking these 70’s songs really hard and the stories were getting lost. What Ray did was simplify arrangements and bring things down a bit so people could actually hear the story. Those lyrics deserve to be heard. I look back on that and that’s a pretty cool gift. He’s absolutely wonderful. Period. I love him.
KMJ: Nearly all of the tracks are written or co-written by you but one–a Julie Miller track called “I Need You” that I had heard once before done by Lee Ann Womack. What was the scoop behind having that one track on there?
CR: Wow, I didn’t know Lee Ann covered that song. I knew she had done a Julie Miller song, but not that particular one. I’ll have to go check that out. I love her. But on that Julie Miller song, I started playing that song live back in 2002 or 2003, I think. I don’t really know what year. I love the song and I she’s been such an inspiration to me. I’m not aware of any other female artist that does what she does. I think she’s great. I quit performing it live awhile back because I knew I wanted to put on an album someday. I had meant to get it on an album years ago. I kind of put it in my pocket. How’s that for selfishness? (Laughter)
Buddy heard me play it one night at the Exit/In. He was on the side of the stage. He loved it and went home and told Julie. So when I was getting ready to cut it for the album, I called them and got her blessing. They’ve just been really super cool. I had so many songs. I could have cut all my own. But that gets a little boring and feels a little self-indulgent. You kind of have to salt and pepper it with a few of other people’s stories. You need to diversify a little bit. As long as I can sing them and feel them hard-core. Boy, that’s one of them. I think she’s wonderful. I can’t imagine anybody wouldn’t like that song. It’s pretty intense.
KMJ: There’s a note you made in the liner notes that says you were ready to quit music at one point but that music wouldn’t quit you. Would you elaborate?
CR: When I was trying to make myself write the liner notes for this album, I would get up in the morning and say, “I’m going to do it today.” And every night, I would go to bed and it wouldn’t be done. I was procrastinating. I knew I needed to say something, but I didn’t know what. So one night, I was sitting in bed and it just came to me and I wrote that.
It talks about why I need music. That came to me exactly how it is written. I really need it like food and water and sleep and whatever. I jotted that down and thought it sounded silly. But I read it to my best friend, Elizabeth Cook. I asked her, “Does this sound stupid?” It came straight from the heart but I thought it sounded a bit goofy. But she thought it was perfect and I trust her more than anybody. It’s just my truth.
I did try to quit. I put all my guitars up for almost a year. For personal reasons in my life, I thought music just wasn’t going to happen for me because of a certain relationship that I’m no longer in. I felt like it was going to force me to choose. What ended up happening is that I did have to choose. I had to make big changes in my life. I chose music. Everybody thinks this is just a hobby anyways. I let it all weigh on me for awhile until I woke up one day and I was absolutely drowning in a miserable energy because I was not doing what I was supposed to be doing. So I turned my life upside down and shook it all out and started over. I got back on my path and I’ve never felt better or healthier. This is what I’m supposed to do. I think a lot of people get torn between their path and their energy. I’ll never turn my back on it again. I can’t imagine not doing it ever again. It feels too good. That’s my world. That and my children.
KMJ: This album crosses genres seamlessly across bluegrass, country, rock and roll and lots of stuff that falls under that big umbrella they call Americana. For you, as the artist, is it important to have it fall under a specific genre and if so, where do you see it falling underneath all of that?
CR: I kind of have a tag that I throw on my music, because I never knew how to answer that question. I kind of feel like I lean in a lot of different directions- especially so in a live show. I like to rock out. I’ve always had a rock band. My guitar player played with David Bowie. He’s absolutely amazing. These guys have always brought a rock and roll element playing live. I love it. I’m out to have fun. You can’t be too serious about this stuff. That does sort of help me fall into Americana.
I have so many friends that I have and respected that they call Americana along this musical dream. They are under that umbrella. If they put me there, that’s fine by me. I don’t expect anybody to claim me and I don’t force myself into any specific genre. I call it “Appalachian Rock and Roll.” It’s not that I’m trying to be Bill Monroe and invent anything, because that’s just crazy. It just rolls off the tongue, you know? And it looks good on my t-shirts. (Laughter)
- bob: Portland West was almost Boston West. From Names on the Land by George Stewart: "When more people arrived in Oregon, Amos …
- Jack Williams: There's "Eight More Miles To Louisville", where Portland is referred to as Portland East.
- nm: Of course, Bangor is also mentioned in "I've Been Everywhere."
- Stuart Munro: As if that's what this discussion is doing, Barry. I'm for the online commenters thinking about and discussing the music …
- bob: Agree on King of the Road. There's another song that mentions Maine, "A Tombstone Every Mile" recorded by Dick Curless …
- Barry Mazor: I'm sure there are many ways to lasso in and constrict any genre or format, any of them, so …
- Stuart Munro: I'm not sure that there hasn't been a shift in the meaning of the term "Americana" as originally used and …
- luckyoldsun: Given that the word "Americana" is a fairly common word that has been in use for decades--generally used to describe …
- Jack Williams: Fair enough, Stuart. My own purely personal view is that the term Americana is the successor term to Alt.Country …
- Leeann Ward: Yes, I do like the warmth to Jack's voice. It's too bad that he didn't record more of his own …