Kimmie Rhodes – Lady Luck
“Up ahead you may see the night
But back behind, all the turns seem right…”
— Kimmie Rhodes, “Rhinestone Highway”
“The conscious mind allows itself to be trained like a parrot, but the unconscious mind does not — which is why St. Augustine thanked God for not making him responsible for his dreams.”
— Carl Jung, Psychology And Alchemy
Walt Whitman may have chosen to sing the body electric, but anyone who makes the trip out to see Kimmie Rhodes will come away singing the body eclectic.
The occasion for this particular visit is the release of Picture In A Frame, a new album consisting largely of duets with Willie Nelson on Rhodes’ own Sunbird Records.
But there is, as the late-night shills on TV like to say, much, much more. In talking about her music, Rhodes is also apt to digress into progress reports about (pause for a deep breath here)…the series of oil paintings she is completing for an upcoming gallery show in Austin…the cookbook project (her second) on which she has embarked with her husband…the plays she has written/is writing/will write with Greater Tuna co-founder and star Joe Sears…the new book project she has begun with celebrated Austin photographer Gray Hawn…the “day job” she has doing hair on the set of the major studio production of Alamo, starring Dennis Quaid and Billy Bob Thornton…
Slightly dazed, head spinning, the interlocutor comes away from an audience with Rhodes feeling like, well, a lazy, indecisive, no-good, worthless son of a bitch, and sadly in need of a nap. Not to put too fine a point on it.
“It’s scary!” Rhodes admitted, when confronted with the scope of her myriad projects. “It’s like the chain-smoking of art, or something.
“I like to skip around from thing to thing, and what it really does is keep you from rushing any one idea too much. My songs have always been like that, too. I’ve had songs that have taken years to finish. Some I’ve finished in my sleep.
“If I find I’m stuck on one project, that means it’s time to be stuck, and to let it lie for awhile, because this one over here is wanting your attention right now. It looks like I’ve got way too much going, but I’m not in any hurry on any of it.”
Such a laissez-Zen attitude might be anathema to the assembly-line worker bees who populate, say, Nashville’s Music Row. There, it’s all about the next Arbitron or Soundscan report, the next single, the next hold, the next session. The pressure to perform, literally and figuratively, is unceasing.
But Rhodes has found success in that arena too, albeit on her own terms. She has seen her songs covered by Trisha Yearwood, Amy Grant, Wynonna Judd and others; she’s co-written with some of the cream of the Nashville songwriting crop, including Beth Neilsen Chapman and Gary Nicholson; she’s penned songs for movies, appeared on Letterman and Austin City Limits, and toured Europe with Willie and Family. In addition to Nelson, those who have lent their voices to her albums include Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. But to the music world at large, she’s less a public figure than a persistent (albeit highly touted) rumor. She’s OK with that.
“There was a time when you could say the planets lined up for me as a commercial songwriter,” Kimmie will tell you (should you ask; she doesn’t dwell much on career analysis). “But it wasn’t anything I did on purpose. Anything I’ve ever tried to do on purpose has never worked.” She considers this statement, rolling it over internally like a particularly piquant sip of wine. Then she laughs delightedly.
Rhodes’ house is a tin-roofed affair, encircled by a row of oleanders whose blossoms glow a blazing red on this hot, still May afternoon. She and her husband, producer/songwriter/musician Joe Gracey, make their home out west of Austin, near a rambling development called Spicewood. More to the point, they live on the perimeter of what has been dubbed “Willie World” — the Pedernales recording studio, the golf course, the several houses, and the mock western town of “Luck, Texas” that make up the loose-knit domain of…well, you know. That guy.
This is the periphery of the Texas Hill Country, a rolling landscape of limestone outcroppings, olive-green cedar brakes, hidden springs, and, in season, profusions of wildflowers. Even with its acres of subdivisions, there is a lingering sense in Spicewood of the frontier, of being on the edge of something.
The far-flung constellation of Spicewood-based friends, allies, musicians, hangers-on, and kindred spirits who oscillate around the central sun that is Willie Nelson get together for potluck guitar pulls on holidays, and impromptu parties almost anytime. Everyone sings gospel music in the clapboard church in Luck on Easter Sunday. A couple of small, superbly equipped vest-pocket studios in the vicinity stand ready, should the Muse come calling in the middle of the night. There is a sense that you make your own fun out here — and that, too, is redolent of the frontier.
One of the studios is in a small structure behind Rhodes and Gracey’s home. A perfect artist’s retreat, the one-room building is a tidy, light-filled space scattered with funky, mismatched furniture. Enormous panels of hand-painted glass (scavenged from a remodel of one of Willie’s nearby domiciles) dominate the room.
It’s where Kimmie has recorded her last several albums. In a corner sits a computer alongside a few racks of digital decks. The democratization of technology is what in part has enabled Rhodes to conjure up her own record label with a modern-day family band — Gracey and their son Gabe both play on the sessions, with one or the other typically producing. (The pair have two more children, Jeremie and Joely). “We’re a cottage industry,” she once observed, “and we’ve got the cottage to prove it!”