According to Chelle Rose’s press materials, the origins of her new “Appalachian rock and roll” album were a bit unique. In the fall of 2010, a decade after her last album, Rose was listening to a live interview with Ray Wylie Hubbard on Twisted South Radio. The show’s host, Zeke Loftin, asked Hubbard what he’d been listening to lately. “I’ve been listening to this songwriter from Nashville named Chelle Rose,” Hubbard answered. As Rose explains, “I bolted up from the bed and heard him say he’d be interested in producing me.” Loftin suggested on air that Rose call in if she was listening. She did, telling Hubbard, “You’re hired, let’s do it.”
The result, Ghosts of Browder Holler, is a perfect blend of Rose’s words and melodies, delivered via her dusky, low-register vocals, and Hubbard’s stark production and choice of in-the-pocket Austin studio musicians. In the main, Rose’s stories and character sketches draw from her Smokey Mountain roots—on both the North Carolina and Tennessee sides. Without question, she has the seasoned and worldly voice to tell her own rough-edged tales of haunted mountain people. Her lyrical settings include graveyards, coal mines, and rural towns. Hubbard gives Rose’s imagery appropriately pulsating rhythms and an ambiance of mystery suitable for Rose’s backwoods portraits and metaphysics.
While every song clearly belongs together on one disc, there’s a variety of tones and tempos. For example, the gutbucket “Browder Holler Boy,” featuring Hubbard on guitar and harp, is an autobiographical account of how Rose’s first love died in a canoeing accident but returns time and again as an insistent spirit. “I Need You” kicks out the jams with some vocal and guitar nods to Mr. Jagger and friends. Equally hard-driving is Alimony,” a somewhat humorous comeuppance for an ex-husband who didn’t think Rose’s music was worth all the time and money she was investing in it.
Then there’s the slow ballad “If I Could,” the pure country of “Rattlesnake in the Road,” and the folk tunes “Weepin’ Willow on the Hill” and “Wild Violets Pretty.” The latter, featuring vocals from Elizabeth Cook, is a story about a woman losing an unborn child. Not surprisingly, many of the sketches have hardened women as central characters. The Adam Hill-penned “Leona Barnett” is about a woman forced to work in a coal mine after her husband is killed. She doesn’t “know who I trouble more, the mean ole devil or the good ole Lord.” The ironic “Damsel” is about a “pretty wild woman with cherries on her dress,” whose womanhood started too early. She ends up leaving young boys in the dust.
On the other end of the spectrum, in “Shady Grove Gonna Blow,” an older woman preaches about needing to be in the presence of the Lord as an elemental apocalypse is coming. With a similar theme, a stand-out Memphis/Stax cooker is the story song “Rufus Morgan (Preacher Man.)” It includes vocal support from frequent Austin session singers, the McCrary Sisters. The track also boasts keyboards from former Faces member Ian “Mac” McLagan in a song drawn from Rose’s North Carolina summers when she was a child.
Who can Chelle Rose be compared to? I suppose one could come up with a list of influences and peers, but any such list would be misleading. Perhaps a jigger of Marianne Faithful, a shot of Townes Van Zandt, and a pinch from Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind period. But mostly we’re looking at a new, original recipe available in only one kitchen. Ghosts of Browder Holler isn’t technically a debut album, but it has the feel of a release heralding the arrival of someone special. After all, if a performer defies easy labelling, that should signal a talent cutting her own trail.