Josh Rouse – Leaving middle America behind
“Why Won’t You Tell Me What” charts a relationship’s downward trajectory over the album’s bluesiest shuffle. “Give me a sign, some kind of sign,” Rouse begs, but he doesn’t sound like he expects an answer. And in “My Love Has Gone”, which opens with a mournful harmonica wail, it’s all over but the finger-pointing: “Lost in a fog, I’m using spite to find my way,” he murmurs, before adding, “I miss her smile, I miss her laughing in my face.” It’s a cocktail of longing and resentment, alone with the TV on, waiting for the phone to ring. It’s also Rouse’s favorite song on the album.
Elsewhere, he seems to have already left all that behind. “Winter In The Hamptons” is springy Brit-pop that reminds you Rouse’s early influences included the Smiths (just as “My Love Has Gone” bears the mark of mid-period Cure). And with its repeated declaration that “We have stayed too long,” it makes the record’s clearest bid for moving on and away. The album closer, meanwhile, is a bit of lazy-day folkishness called “Life” that matches a Donovan-like lullaby melody to willfully naive lyrics: “Just sing a song, and feel all right/’Cause that’s just life.”
The album marks a break in another way: It will be Rouse’s last for Rykodisc. Although he says he’s been happy to have a home for the past seven years, he notes that the relationship hasn’t been quite as steady or stable as it looks. The label’s catalogue/reissue mission sometimes takes precedence over its roster of contemporary artists, and its limited resources mean limited marketing and support.
“It’s been good, and it’s been frustrating at the same time,” Rouse says. “Since I’ve been there I’ve put out five records and there’s been four different people running the company. They’re always moving offices, and there’s turnover. As far as what direction they’re going in or who’s running it, it’s always been unpredictable.”
If Nashville puts a bookend on a period of Rouse’s life, it’s been a prolific one. After growing up in Nebraska and then moving frequently in his teen years, he landed in Tennessee for college, attending Austin Peay in Clarksville. That led, eventually, to a 1996 move to Nashville, where Rouse worked the standard range of aspiring-musician jobs (parking valet, coffeehouse counterguy). While he was self-producing the songs that became Dressed Up Like Nebraska, financing it with his parking tips, a chance meeting at a Grant Lee Buffalo show garnered him a manager and, in short order, a deal with Rykodisc. Rouse, who had barely begun to play live and was still mostly unknown in Nashville, was suddenly being booked for tours of the U.K. and U.S.
Naturally, that also gave him higher visibility locally. His full-fledged entrance into the Nashville scene came via friendship with Kurt Wagner, the majordomo of the eclectic art-pop outfit Lambchop. Rouse and Wagner even recorded an EP together, 1999’s Chester, and Rouse was soon immersed in the camaraderie of the city’s indie crowd.
Nashville can be a hard place to win fans; “It’s a tough town,” Rouse acknowledges. “I’ll go see some band that’s in town that has all kinds of press, and there’ll be 50 or 60 people there.” But once they’re won, they tend to stay won.
“I was always really supported, right from my first record,” he says. “All the press and the community, they were like, ‘This is great.’ And it’s been that way for all my records. I do really well there.
“It’s pretty supportive in that aspect,” he adds. “There’s a lot of people there just trying to make a living playing music, and they all help each other out.”
There was enthusiasm outside of Nashville too. Dressed Up Like Nebraska was well reviewed, as were its follow-ups, Home and Under Cold Blue Stars. And 1972, which found Rouse newly willing — and able — to explore his inclinations toward blue-eyed soul, brought his best reviews yet and closest brush with breakout success. Still, he struggled to separate himself from the neo-folk-rock pack. In the Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau gave 1972 a moderate endorsement while confessing that he initially had trouble telling Rouse apart from the other Joshes crowding the category: Joplin, Ritter and Kelley.
At that point, having logged four albums and an EP in just over five years, Rouse could have been forgiven for slowing down, retooling, reconsidering or just plain resting. Alternatively, he could have tried to leverage the last album’s buzz into 1972 Part Two. But all of those options ran counter to his instincts.
“You know,” he says, “looking at Tom Waits or Dylan or Neil Young, these people that kind of put out a record every year, I kind of like that. I kind of like the records that aren’t the popular ones, the ones that have a lot of subtle songs. I’ve always been a fan of that anyway, so I thought, well, why don’t I start doing that? I mean, I wasn’t setting out to make some masterpiece record. You know, it’s gonna be something when people look back in ten years and say, ‘Well, you know 1972, but do you know Nashville?’
“There’s not a lot of people doing that these days, you know? Really making a lot of records. I’ve been fortunate that Ryko’s let me continue to make records and they’ve continued to put them out and I’ve been able to build an audience. So it’s kind of like the ’70s in the way that I’m doing it.