If Steve Earle wore a dress, this is what he would sound like. Chelle Rose is Appalachian tuff. You can hear her hardscrabble raisin’ in her voice. There’s enough barbed wire twang in her voice to snap a fencepost in half should it be bold enough to try and block her way.
It’s no act. Although Rose called Nashville home for 20 years, she recently returned to her birthplace in Lenoir, Tennessee where everybody shares her accent.
Rose whisper sings most of the tunes, but don’t let that lead you astray. There’s plenty of steel in her convictions, her attitude as hard as week old grits. This is not easy listenin’ music. This stuff makes you sweat and mumble, like a fever dream. But this is for real. You wouldn’t want piss this lady off. You run around on her and you’re liable to come run drunk, flop down on the bed and pass out, only to wake hours later screaming in agony from the lye she spread beneath the bottom sheet to brand your sweaty, cheatin’ ass for all time.
What passes for a love song here would scare most any but the lionhearted admirer away. On ”I’m Not Your Girl,” even though she lets her lover “Lay your pretty ass on my bed because you are king of my world,’ she lets him know exactly where he stands, telling him: “I don’t want you/ I don’t need you/ I don’t care if you stay/ every time you push my buttons/ you always get in my way.” She sounds a lot like Lucinda Williams on this one, but her twang is bit more syllable bending, and the whole thing has a sinister cast courtesy of Keith Richard-like riffs that sound like they might have wafted off the soundtrack from Memo From Turner slither around her.
On “Mean Grandpappy,” we get a pretty good insight into what may have colored her attitude on men folks. Even though dear ole grandad was a cool flashy dude to the rest of the world and could play the piano like Jerry Lee, his hands-on approach to kin of the female persuasion didn’t go unnoticed. When they laid him down in the cold hard ground whar he belonged, “there was not a tear in the eye of any of his kin/Grandys gone home to Satan’s den,” Rose tells us. But the whole thing comes out into the light as she explains her role in celebrating Grandpa Rose’s passing: “It was one of those things you can’t talk about/ He was powerful over me/ I was just a child. But I’m a grown woman now/ and you better believe/ lay a hand on my child and you’re gonna bleed.”
Rose reveals a gentler side on “Sing Pretty, and the transformation is stunning, a back porchier version of Emmy Lou Harris as Rose saying she wants to sing this one sweet for her mama because “it hurts her to hear the pain I put out.”
But Rose’s pain is our gain. Although she calls it “Appalachian rock and roll,” old fashioned heartache and sorrow music is more like it. It’s a hurt to treasure, a pain to renew an acquaintance with to help banish your own. Take as needed.