**Editor’s Note: Ken Morton Jr. is a distinguished country music writer, and the Owner/Editor of That Nashville Sound. He has kindly offered to contribute quality interviews and other content to Saving Country Music since Engine 145 has ceased operations. Please join me in welcoming Ken to the Saving Country Music community, and expect to see his work featured occasionally.
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After taking more than a decade between her debut Nanahally River album (2000) and her critically acclaimed and Ray Wylie Hubbard-produced Ghost of Browder Holler album (2012), Chelle Rose wanted to waste no time getting back into the studio to keep the momentum going in her music career. Spin Magazine had named Ghost one of the top country album releases as had No Depression, Engine 145, Country California, Twang Nation and several other publications. Google called her one of the very best unsigned artists. Heavy on regional storytelling, the gritty gospel-laden album was triumphed almost-universally for its personal tales of the people that she encountered growing up in the Appalachian hills she calls home. As fate will have it, however, life had other plans. The health that Rose had taken for granted went sideways. A diagnosis of hypothyroidism pulled her from both stage and studio and derailed all of her musical objectives.
That musical muse might have been knocked down, but not out. Rose is back on the road to recovery and is happy to announce that she’ll be headed back down to Austin this spring to record her follow-up album that she hopes to release in late 2015 or early in 2016.
For the first time since her recovery, Chelle Rose opened up to Saving Country Music about her trials and tribulations over the last two years and what her plans are now that she’s back on a healthy path.
First and foremost, let us know what happened health-wise that took you off the road and away from recording.
When I was doing limited touring behind the Ghost record, I knew there was something wrong. I wasn’t myself. I attributed it to just being tired and that I needed rest. It was last May that I knew something was really wrong. I was over on stage at The 5 Spot in Nashville and it was just me and Sergio Webb. We were doing an event for East Nashville Radio. I thought I was going to pass out right there on the stage. It was the worst feeling and just misery. That’s when I thought there was something seriously wrong with me. People might have thought I was drunk or on something or whatever. But I was really sick and didn’t know why.
I finally went and had a lot of blood work done and testing and stuff. It was a big long drawn-out ordeal. I’m still trying to get healthy from diagnosis which was a whole lot of hormonal and adrenal problems due to hypothyroidism. I had never realized how that could mess people up. I had always been healthy and just took it for granted. I never realized it. It just took me out of commission. I’d take my kids to school and just come home and just lie down until it was time to go get them. I would do dinner, get them ready for the next school day and just get back into bed. That was my life and I just fell off.
I think I kept a good poker face on social media, probably. I was trying to figure out what was going on all that time while I was trying to get better. And then I was just getting frustrated because it wasn’t happening fast enough. I wanted to bounce back like Tigger and that has just not happened. (Laughter)
Without your health, it’s hard to think about much else, including making music.
And then my Momma died. I was driving back and forth to see her those last days and do as much as I could while I had that window. I also fell in love. I met my true love. That took some time and I let myself because I wasn’t working anyway. Time just flew by. I’m just now making plans to go back down to Austin to cut the Blue Ridge Blood project. I’m really excited about it- maybe even more than I was for even the Ghost record. I’m not sure why that might be because that was a really special project as well and it had been so many years in between (the records.)
This time around, I go down there knowing all the guys, all the players. I know what sound that we’ll get. I’ll know how much they’ll care about the songs. I’m pretty excited about all of that. George Reiff will be producing the records. He was my engineer on the last record and had a heavy hand in it. A lot of the reason why that record sounds as good as it does is because of George Reiff. He worked with the Court Yard Hounds after they did their thing with the Dixie Chicks. He has produced Chris Robinson’s recent projects. He’s a really cool behind-the-scenes kind of guy. I’m in good hands and I’m just hoping that I can keep my energy up. I need to keep my end together and not be the weak link in this whole thing. (Laughter)
Before we dive in and talk more about the new album, how is your health today?
I feel good. I really am feeling a lot better. I don’t pretend to have quite as much energy as I used to, but I have to kick myself from feeling too depressed about that because I’m getting healthier. I used to have way more energy than most people. I’ve always been someone who is high-spirited and go, go, go. My grandmother raised me and she was the same way. We’re just doers. So to get sick like that, it was a bit of a depressing time. To not be able to perform live and express myself was just awful. But I’m on the other side of that even though I’m not completely back to who I was.
I’m still not sure I could make it through and entire set-list right now, though. I just turned down some gigs this week. I question whether it’s too soon to push myself that hard physically. That’s just so hard to even admit. I had always taken my health for granted. I’ll never do that again.
I’m glad to hear that you’re climbing back out of that hole and getting yourself healthy again.
I’ve taken a natural approach to this whole thing. There’s only a couple of synthetic meds that I’ve taken but for the most part, everything I’ve tried to do has been natural. That makes my progress slower but it reduces the side effects. Part of it means my own choosing to go a little slower. It’s been a year trying to get healthy and get back to work. It made me uninspired.
But when I met my boyfriend, he was always around picking and singing and it got the juices flowing again. I started writing a little more and that felt good. So now that I’m feeling better and getting back to my old self, it’ll let me get back to work. I’m looking forward to that.
Let’s talk about that new project. I’ve always thought it interesting that all the characters from your songs are from those East Tennessee mountains but you go all the way to Austin, Texas for the sound.
I guess there was 12 years between my Ghost record and my debut record. That’s just insane to think about. A lot happened between those two records. There was a lot of living in there and it really affected the sound. If you listen to the songs and the writing on that first album, it was some of the same. It was the people and places that I knew. It was growing up in Carolina with my grandmother’s people. She raised me so she would take me every summer. I spent a lot of time on both sides of those mountains so it’s not just East Tennessee in my blood. There’s also a lot of Western North Carolina. It pulls on me and I long for it more than Tennessee at times. It’s part of my soul.
When I wrote some of those songs for the Ghost record, some of them had been done way back when I was either writing for or recording the Nanahally River record. There was a lot of years between those two projects so some of those songs had some time on them. Others were written when I was going through my divorce in 2008.
On this new project, I’ve mined a lot of those same themes with the exception of the divorce, which was painful. I hadn’t expected to go to that same well, but when I started writing, that just comes out. Those are the stories that I’m inspired by. Evidently, I’m just not done writing about that region and the people and the stories I’ve grown up knowing. There is a lot on this new record that is inspired by grandmother. She died in August. She was my Momma. She was the only mother I ever knew. She raised me from the age of three. The title song “Blue Ridge Blood” is honoring her. I really didn’t even mean to, but I’m really in that same vein.
It might have a little bit of a different feel. I’m taking Sergio Webb with me to Austin so that will be great. He’s a new ingredient. He’s been my secret weapon over here. My first band I put together, I lost my guitar player to The Cure. (Laughter) I just can’t compete with a million dollar offer. He took off for London, dang it. Everything worked out alright because I called Sergio and we’ve had a great chemistry. I couldn’t imagine making a new record without him. It’ll still have Rick Richards on drums, George Reiff on bass and Billy Cassis. Billy’s just a workhorse in the studio laying down the foundation on the tracks.
I don’t know exactly what’ll it sound like. I just have faith in the songs and I’m going to roll. We’ll see what we get.
How soon will you go down to Austin?
George called last night and I missed his phone call but I’ll talk to him in the next day or two and look at our windows. To sync everybody’s schedules will probably be a miracle but we’ll shoot for the next couple of months. It’s possible we might not release anything until first quarter 2016. I could be wrong and it might be earlier but it’ll take a few weeks to get all the promotional stuff in place. Not as long as last time, though. We’re not starting over from scratch. It is a slow process, especially when you’re a mom and you’re trying to wear a lot of hats. I’m like a turtle sometimes.
Your songs on Ghost had a tendency to be incredibly biographical and you allude that Blue Ridge Blood will be the same. You want to make sure you take the time to tell the stories of people you know correctly, don’t you?
Yes, although I want it to be more soulful than I want it to be correct. I can bullshit about as well as anybody. I can write autobiographical stuff as well as anybody, but I can also do pretty well at making shit up. (Laughter)
I don’t claim to be too serious about it all. I just want it to be soulful.
I started writing a song a few months ago. It was the comeback story of this legendary locomotive steam engine here nearby. I kept trying to write it and it just wasn’t strong. It was forming up, but it just wasn’t coming together. I was getting frustrated. I was over spending some time with my Uncle and he has some railroad ties that just run right next to his property. The train woke me up all night long. I don’t know why or how that sound got be back on track but it did. It just made that song come out so fast after being woken up all night long. The song did not go the way I thought it was going to but I had to let it go and be a story I hadn’t planned on. And I did end making some of it up so it’s just weird.
Inspiration can come from weird places. I’ve got one last question for you and it’s meant pretty open-ended. What is country music to Chelle Rose?
What is country music to me? I grew up listening to commercial country music in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. I didn’t really discover true songwriters until the 1990’s when I picked up the guitar and for the first time, started writing myself. What I knew of country music at the time was what I only heard on the radio over in Knoxville. It took me a long time to go back and really discover what country music is. Today, if you ask me what country music is, I’d tell you that it’s any artist that is doing something rootsy. They have to be authentic with it and are playing music for the right reasons. They don’t have to be doing it to be commercial or a big star. Roots-oriented music is the closest thing we have to true country music now.
Other than that, I believe that it’s all behind us. There’s some artists that are writing country music. But it’s a little more edgy and it’s different from what I think of traditional country music as. It’s very different from the beginnings and the truth.
There’s a lot of people doing it today, but I’m not really sure what you should call it. I don’t know if you should even call what I do country, but I am. But it’s not what a lot of people would think is country. They only call country what they hear on the radio. I don’t listen to the radio. So I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know who any of these popular artists are. I hear their names, but I don’t know a lot about them.
If I am listening to the classics on satellite radio and I hear something that catches my ear, I always look it up to find out more. I want to hear that. I want to be inspired. I think there’s a movement right now to find the authentic in things. People can discover it so much easier now. It’s so much more accessible.
I love it. I think it’s a great time to be an indie artist, whether you’re in country or rock or whatever. Is that a good answer? If not, why don’t you write one for me? (Laughter)