There's always been an uneasy balance between country music's fidelity to its establishment priorities and its reliance on inspired renegade outsiders – Hank Williams being the classic case – but in recent decades, those roles have become strangely confused. These days, it's the supposedly conservative Nashville music establishment that has been steadily broadening its reach by diluting its core values with the commercial pop imperatives of the likes of LeAnn Rimes and Taylor Swift, while the more authentic expression of those core values has been left to upstart mavericks of more liberal inclination, such as Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. For fans of the latter, this debut album from Caitlin Rose will be like catnip.
Rose is blessed with a voice as sweet as Patti Page's or Patsy Cline's, and a songwriting talent that brings a flinty frankness to country's standard romantic fare. The opening track, "Learnin' to Ride", offers a brilliant distillation of her approach, using the standard horse-breaking analogy for sexual activity (country's equivalent of rock's automotive analogies), but bringing her own peculiar phraseology to bear on the matter: "Tennessee stud took me for a blooming bud/ He chewed me up, spit me out just the same/ He took my words, spilled my beans into the herd/ Now they all look at me with courage and disdain". It's that "courage and disdain" that catches the ear, evoking the sea change in attitude among a jostling herd of youths, no longer kept tentative by her mystery, but raising their own fragile morale by diminishing her. But despite the indignity, she takes the knocks as just part of the process, determined to get back in the saddle soon enough.
The album pings back and forth between ancient and modern attitudes. The same theme of damaged goods, for instance, recurs in "Own Side", whose understated, conversational tone broaches the issue head-on. "Who's gonna want me when I'm just somewhere you've been?" she frets over piano streaked with pedal steel; and given the elastic morality at play in most music today, it's like a throwback to the 1950s, an impression emphasised by the way the double-tracked vocal lends winsome close-harmony tints to her delivery. (At times on Own Side Now, she harmonises with herself like a female Don and Phil Everly rolled into one.) But then a few songs later, Rose is celebrating a casual affair and how "New York's a good town to let go", and bashing out the country-rock of "Shanghai Cigarettes" with the wild-child bravura of the younger scions of the Cash/Carter dynasty, her kick-ass band spitting the fluid guitar licks across the motorvating groove with the panache of the Flying Burrito Brothers in their prime.
Ultimately, the enduring message of Own Side Now comes in "Spare Me", where she adopts the persona of "queen of the hive" and relishes her ascendancy over those who would denigrate her reputation, secure in the knowledge that "they're all little boys, but you're a big girl now". And her own girl, at that.
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