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Folks from the rural South will tell you: The hills and hollows of their homelands are full of real-life characters that are often stranger than fiction. East Tennessee native Chelle Rose introduces us to a slew of those characters (some real, some not) on her excellent sophomore album, Ghost of Browder Holler, which received acclaim in 2012 from Spin and The New York Times among others. As she looks ahead to 2013, Chelle (pronounced like “Shelly”) is delighted and surprised by all the attention.
“It shocks me, really. I’ve been here in Nashville for 16 years and I never really fit into the mainstream. I wasn’t ever accepted on the other side,” she says. “So I kept doing my thing. When I put [Ghost of Browder Holler] out I felt good about it. I loved it. It was my stories, and a lot of my heart and soul went into it.
“I really hadn’t thought much of it until the end of this year,” she continues. “I had a little moment to kind of pause and go, ‘Wow, it’s been a good year.’”
The success and interest in her music has created many new challenges for Chelle’s business operation. “The first few months I thought I was gonna lose my mind, because the label is me,” she explains. “I would say it’s mom and pop, but it’s only mom, and I’m a single mom,” adds the mother of two.
Ghost of Browder Holler is only Chelle’s second album in over a decade, but the end product—produced by Texas legend Ray Wylie Hubbard—sounds like the work of a seasoned pro. It’s an intriguing brew—stripped down and bluesy, haunted by the spirits of the past, and sung with a raw intensity. Chelle dug into her upbringing in East Tennessee when she was writing the songs, but wasn’t really thinking about selling records while she was creating.
“I’ve always recognized the way I write these stories that it would never be anything popular that I would hear on country music radio, but it’s just how it came out for me,” she says. “[But] when I was in my 20s I wanted to be Patty Loveless. I open my mouth and sing, and dang it, that’s just not what comes out.”
Her voice, a raspy growl that’s more Lucinda Williams than Loveless, shoots feeling through these tunes and hammers them home. In the title track, the ghost of a boyfriend who died young haunts Chelle’s dreams, and in “Rufus Morgan” she preaches the gospel of a real-life legendary Appalachian minister who was her cousin.
“I didn’t realize that everybody doesn’t grow up with those kind of characters. I thought that was normal. It’s not,” she says with a laugh.
In “Alimony,” she discusses her own divorce, taking aim at an ex-husband who didn’t approve of her musical aspirations. It kicks off with this tremendous couplet: Well I married a man ’cause he was kin to Dottie West / Found out it ain’t exactly true, it was by marriage I guess. Chelle’s inspiration for the rocking song came while she was in the shower, battling pneumonia.
Thankfully, fans won’t have to wait another decade for the next Chelle Rose album. While readying for a coveted performance at South by Southwest in March, she’s also hard at work writing songs that, once again, will focus on people and landmarks around East Tennessee.
“I guess I’ve got one more, or maybe, who knows how many will come?” says Chelle. “I never really run out of fun stuff to write when it comes to people and places in that region.”