Cigarettes figure large in the life of Caitlin Rose. She is rarely seen without one, has written more than one song about them, chooses places to go out in Nashville according to whether they’ll allow her to smoke them or not and goes through packets of American Spirit (“the blue ones”) faster than you can say “the future of country music”.
This is hardly surprising. Since the age of about six, Caitlin, who just turned 23, has been singing harmonies with her dad, Johnny B Rose – a man with a lifetime in the sales, distribution and marketing of country music for DreamWorks, Capitol and MCA among others – on a country-blues song he wrote called “The Last Nicotonian”. Here’s a sample verse: “Someone put a warning on the package/ ’Bout the time I forgot how to read/ I don’t care what the Surgeon General says/ I’d rather smoke than breathe.”
Around 15 years later, his daughter would take the idea one step further in a song on her debut EP “Dead Flowers” called “Docket”. “I got a fresh pack/ I got a red Bic/ The Surgeon General can suck on my dick!” It goes without saying that Johnny B is immeasurably proud of his oldest daughter.
Fittingly, my own first encounter with Caitlin Rose was also underscored with a smoke. She had just come off stage (not that there was one) in a room above the Big Chill bar in London’s King’s Cross last December. As cold as it was, she immediately headed to the rooftop terrace to spark up, asking for a light along the way. Once there, she happily engaged the few brave souls outside in conversation that was as deft as her on-stage banter (gobby but self-effacing: think a country Lily Allen). As one couple came up to tell her that “Answer in One of These Bottles” was as good a country song as they’d ever heard, she accepted their praise with grace and babbled on about her love of Loretta, Patsy and Linda Ronstadt.
She asked if I’d ever been to Nashville, and I had to admit I had, but that I’d failed to find the heart of the place and that my own tastes veered more to the Americana side of things. “What does that word even mean?” she asked. “And what’s wrong with country? Come to Nashville and I’ll show you the good stuff.” “I might just have to do that,” I replied…
Nearly seven months later, and just weeks before the release of her first album, I’m taking her up on that promise. Since that first meeting, we’ve been “chatting” on Facebook, following each other’s tweets (her love of social media is as strong as her love of nicotine) and, before she heads back to the UK to play a heap of shows and festivals, she’s put a few days aside to deliver on her promise to change my perception of her home town, and the part of it she lives and hangs out in – east Nashville – in particular.
My education starts at a nondescript Mexican bar and restaurant close to my hotel (her love of food is as strong as her love of cigarettes and social media). She immediately orders a margarita (her love of alcohol etc etc). Aaron – her manager, whom she teases like a much-loved older brother – is talking about the music business in Nashville and how, in the wake of the success of the Kings of Leon, all the local bands think that the way to make it is to crack the UK market first then return home as conquering heroes; the path that is mapping itself out for Caitlin.
The conversation soon turns to another current enthusiasm: the British “nu folk”movement and the global return to roots music, of which Caitlin is about to play her part. We sink a few beers, then decide to go for a few more at the nearby “strip”of Broadway, a street that holds more honky-tonks than an episode of Dick Emery.
Of all the legendary country bars here, a couple stand out. My crack team consider Robert’s Western World – “the home of traditional country music” – a better option than Tootsie’s World Famous Orchid Lounge, so we find ourselves at the former, where cowboy boots that may or may not be for sale line one wall and a foxy fiddle player passes round a plastic bowl for the ageing cowboys up on stage. If the acts that play Robert’s are any indication of the state of “traditional country music”, it’s fair to say that Broadway is less the pathway to the stars and more the boulevard of broken dreams.
Waiting to be served at the bar, something telling happens. Caitlin spots a girl she knows from high school and attempts to strike up a conversation. The girl is the living embodiment of “give a shit”. Reluctantly, she comes over but Caitlin’s sweet and good-natured attempts to find out about her life are met with a shrug. “What was that about?” Aaron asks. “I have no idea,” says Caitlin. “We’re friends on Facebook and everything.”
What Caitlin fails to understand (until we explain this to her later) is that if they are friends on Facebook, the girl will have seen the sort of language the UK press has been lavishing on her old high-school buddy: “Her wry vocal drawl has earned her comparisons to Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline,” The Sun’s “One to Watch for 2010”; “Just wait till you hear her songs about teenage pregnancy, ruined love or female braggadocio,” The Guardian; “Her voice is as sweet as Saturday night whisky and as clear as a Sunday church bell,” The Daily Mirror. Which is all well and good, but not so much if you’re flipping burgers at Robert’s Western World.
The next day, Aaron goes to work at his day job for the Country Music Association and Caitlin suggests a tour, with her as the guide, around the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Astonishingly, she has never been here before, but her mum – who just happens to be Liz Rose, the Grammy award-winning songwriter for the mainstream teen country sensation Taylor Swift – bought her a guest pass for Christmas, and now seems as good a time as any to use it.
She thrills to the black-and-white footage of such vintage female country acts (nope, I’d never heard of them either) as Patsy Montana and Minnie Pearl. She recoils in horror at the flowing-round-the-room Rafael Cennamo red dress that American Idol winner Carrie Underwood wore to the 2009 Academy of Country Music Awards. She sings along word-perfect with every song she hears. And she laughs her ass off at the exhibit she most wanted to see: four stuffed squirrels shot by Hank Williams and dressed by the country legend to look like the members of his band. “Why the hell would you do that?” I ask. The answer is obvious to Caitlin: “Because they didn’t haves the internets in Hank’s day.”
Too soon, we have to get back to Caitlin’s to meet the photographer, another Nashville resident. Caitlin’s wooden house, in the East End – a newly hip part of town that, like its namesake in London, had become run down but has now been transformed by young artistic types (the film-maker Harmony Korine lives nearby) – is everything you would expect it to be. We sit on the swinging bench on her front porch, smoke cigarettes and sip iced tea.
You weren’t born in Nashville, right?
“Nope. I was born in Dallas, Texas, but we moved here when I was about seven. We were still a happy family then.” (Her mum and dad split up when Caitlin was 10.)
Did you go to university?
“No. I went to community college for about a year but I’d started taking music seriously by then so I dropped out.”
When did you start writing songs?
“I was 16 and in high school. I was listening to punk-rock: Bikini Kill, the Ramones, the Donnas. Anyway, it was Black History Month, so I wrote a protest song about the Civil Rights march called ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’. It had the word ‘fuck’ in it.”
Was it a punk-rock song?
“It was, like, straight up three chords.”
The same three you’re still using?
“Hmmm. I’ve learnt at least five more since then. But it’s all about simplicity. That’s why punk-rock and country are similar in lots of ways – it’s usually very simple chords and the songs are all about being pissed off, or drunk.”
So was there a country epiphany?
“Yes there was, though the truth is I always loved Reba McEntire, even if I wouldn’t admit it. But the thing that really changed things for me was the Mountain Goats – this guy John Darnielle, who had all these great songs he’d play really fast and loud. I used to cover them because they were easy and awesome.
“Darnielle had this song called ‘I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink’ that I didn’t know was a Merle Haggard song. When I found that out, I went and bought Merle’s greatest hits on vinyl. It was one of the best things I’d ever heard. That’s when it started and I got excited because none of my friends knew that country music was good.”
Really? Weird. This is Nashville.
“Yeah, but when you’re growing up you’re hammered down with the shit more than anyone else is. You don’t understand it, you don’t like it and it’s thrown at you everywhere. One of my boyfriends thought I was just being ironic but after hearing me play Linda Ronstadt over and over, one day he just said: ‘Wow. You really love this stuff, don’t you?’”
Is he still around?
“No. But, you know, I wasn’t single for about six years and songs aren’t easy to come by if you’re thinking about somebody else all the time, which is what I do in relationships.”
That night, Caitlin arranges what she calls a “guitar pull” in her favourite local bar, Dino’s. Essentially, it’s a chance for the many people she knows in local bands to sit around, smoke, drink beer and play songs together.
All the people who show up are seriously talented. Skip Matheny, the singer in a local indie-rock band called Roman Candle, plays an acoustic version of his song “Why Modern Radio is A-OK” that would steal the show, if there were a show to steal.
Jordan Caress – who plays bass for Caitlin – sings songs with her brother Alex and Brian Ritchey, who all also play in a band called Korean is Asian. Matt Campbell, from the Deep Vibration, displays an impressive knowledge of Bob Dylan’s back catalogue, while Jeremy Fetzer, who plays guitar for both Caitlin and the Deep Vibration, adds sensitive lines to everyone’s efforts. Some of those here – a local singer-songwriter called Jon Decious, who once played bass in the Pink Spiders – have flirted with the Billboard chart.
Caitlin’s dad is here, too, and his “The Last Nicotonian” gets more than one airing as the evening stretches into the next day and things – though never the music – get gloriously messy. At one point, while his daughter is playing the heartbreaking “Sinful Wishing Well”, Johnny B leans over and whispers into my ear, “She’s pretty special, isn’t she?”
It’s typical of Caitlin Rose to have arranged this night in my honour. In the run-up to the UK release of her album, she requested that anyone pre-ordering the record from Rough Trade be treated to a bonus compilation CD featuring many of the musicians who turned up to Dino’s. If she is going to be the one to make it, she is keen to take as many friends as possible along for the ride.
And make it she will. Because while Nashville doesn’t really know what it’s got right now (too busy hanging on to the tacky merch and faded cowboys of a bygone era), what Caitlin Rose represents is nothing less than the freshfaced, outlaw-minded future of country music. That she looks like a female cross between Elvis Presley and Gram Parsons will do her prospects no harm, but – still in her early twenties – she has also already written a number of songs that will be sung in the bars and honky-tonks of Nashville for years to come.
The next day, waiting for the bus to the airport, a Facebook chat session commences. Caitlin: “Woke up drunk, I think. I hope Nashville got represented in the best way possible. If anything, we know how to hang out in bars. Drink a beer at Tootsie’s [the bar has a concession at the airport]. Me: “Is that a good idea?” Caitlin: “Always.”
The single ‘For the Rabbits’ is out tomorrow. The album ‘Own Side Now’ is out on 9 August. For tour dates see thecaitlinrose.com