With her first solo album in a decade, Sally Rose is getting back to her Americana roots. But don’t worry, she’s still a rock n’ roll riot grrrl at heart — and she’s bringing some much needed queer femme representation to the world of country music.
In a year in which the world of local music has seemed frozen, somehow Sally Rose has managed to stay as busy as ever. The bassist and vocalist for Shagwuf and the Sally Rose Band is used to living at a very fast pace. “I am notorious for overbooking myself,” she said. “This past year, I have, in normal Sally Rose fashion, managed to stay overbooked and overbusy the entire time, but that is a very natural coping mechanism for me.”
The latest example of her indefatigable work ethic is her new solo album, Tread Light. “This will be, technically, the third album I’ve put out since March 13 of last year,” she said. The pandemic put paid to the release party for Dog Days Of Disco, the album she released in March 2020 with Shagwuf. That show had been scheduled for, of all days, March 13 — the very day that news broke about the true extent of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the band had to make the heartbreaking decision to pull the plug only hours before doors were supposed to open. All touring and promotional plans were cancelled, but Dog Days Of Disco still came out, and Shagwuf followed it in fall with an EP, Trendy Weapon, and its accompanying short film, The Year Was 2020.
Now, only a few months later, Sally Rose is making a statement all her own with Tread Light, her first album as a solo performer in a decade. As with everything that came out of 2020, the pandemic had a great deal to do with the album’s gestation. “The notion of doing a solo album has been in the back of my mind for at least two years now. I’ve had a lot of people ask me about doing it; I just felt like I didn’t ever have the time or the resources,” she said. “It was an idea I neglected for a long time.”
Once she went into quarantine, though, that all changed. “It turned into this window of opportunity for me to refocus on getting back in touch with my singer-songwriter roots,” she said. “It reminded me how powerful it can be to write music in solitude. Really, you’re the only person you’re writing that music for. Trying to find a greater appreciation for writing and performing music by myself in my little cabin became really important to me. It became really valuable and sacred to me to be able to pick up my guitar and write music by myself again.”
The album she created may be a solo album, but she didn’t make it alone. Compatriots from Shagwuf and the Sally Rose Band, including Sweet Pete Stallings on bass and guitar, Benjamin Jensen on drums and upright bass, and Catherine Monnes, aka Sally’s mom, on fiddle and cello, helped beef up the sound, along with Charlie Bell on pedal steel and producer Lance Koehler throwing in the occasional “big bada boom.”
No, what makes this a solo album is the fact that it is, for the most part, a significant departure from what Sally’s usually up to, musically speaking. As a self-described “country girl who has lived in Nelson County her entire life,” she sees Tread Light as “somewhat of a homecoming album.”
“I spent the last 10 years really working hard to embody this hustling riot grrrl that I always wanted to be when I was little,” Rose says. “I wanted to be a person on the frontlines as an activist and an ally, [and] I thought that was only possible if I was playing loud rock n’ roll. The irony there is that I was working really hard all these years to play into this stereotype for a genre that already has a lot of people speaking up on issues. Although punk rock might not be the most incredibly inclusive and diverse genre, it’s far more inclusive and diverse than country or Americana, or even the indie-folk or singer-songwriter genres.”
This belated realization, coupled with months of sitting at home with an acoustic guitar, led to an epiphany. “It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said. “There needs to be representation in the country music scene for queer female artists. It is that much more important for me to take up space in the country music scene as a queer female artist, to give representation and to remind, influence, and even educate people in my hometown about the fact that I am queer. Country music is predominantly owned and run and operated by cishet men, and I am almost ashamed that I spent so many years running away from the fact that I can be both a rock n’ roller riot grrrl and also be a queer female artist playing and writing and singing country music. Because we fucking need the representation.”
Rose was also inspired by seeing a similar project from a friend. Besides playing with Shagwuf and the Sally Rose Band, she’s done regular live performances over the past several years as a duet with Erin Lunsford of Erin & The Wildfire. “It’s always really special, singing with somebody that i love, trust, and admire so much,” Rose said. “She and I would always talk about the struggles of being a frontwoman and a manager of your own band, and how hard it can be touring as a woman and dealing with the finances, the taxes, booking tours and shows, and managing band dynamics.”
Another thing Rose and Lunsford bonded over was their songwriting. “She and I had talked about putting out solo records for a long time, and when she came out with her solo record in 2020, it was this huge inspirational moment for me, being like, ‘Holy shit, my girl’s doing it,'” Rose said, referring to Lunsford’s 2020 album, The Damsel. “It took my breath away, and totally inspired me to do the damn thing.”
Rose’s collaborative relationship with Lunsford tied into the sort of solo album she wanted to make. “I love collaborative projects, and really wanted to make an album of duets,” she said. “Even though this is being promoted as a solo record because it’s not the Sally Rose Band and it’s not Shagwuf, at the heart of it, Tread Light is an album of duets.”
Indeed, Rose’s most prominent vocal partner on the album is Lunsford, who contributes her voice to three of the album’s ten songs. Other duet companions include indie-folk artist Devon Sproule, punk rocker-turned-folkie Tim Barry, singer-songwriter Sarah White, and Alethea Leventhal of Charlottesville electro-goth group Ships In The Night. “Everybody who plays on this album is either a dear friend, one of my idols, or both,” said Rose. “Because of the pandemic and everybody being at home, it allowed me to reach out to a lot of my personal legends and approach them when nobody was playing shows. It made each of those people a lot more approachable and available, because everybody is looking for ways to create, collaborate, and have some sense of togetherness right now.”
While it’s the final song on the album, Tread Light‘s title track might be the hardest-hitting. As the only song that overtly addresses everything we’ve all been through over the past year, it is both empathic and encouraging, as Rose and Tim Barry duet on lines like “It’s OK to break down in the grocery store. It’s OK to admit fragility,” and “We’re all trying to get by in such compromised times. In your loneliness, you are not alone.” The song, and the album, ends with a powerful message: “We’re strong apart, we’re stronger together. If we can brave this storm, we’ll survive any weather.”
“It was so gut-wrenching to see that even a global pandemic couldn’t bring us together,” Rose said of the song’s lyrics. “In March , when I wrote ‘Tread Light,’ it felt like if anything was going to humble American society and slap everybody in the face, [it was] that regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, upbringing, background, financial comfort or discomfort, any one of us can get sick, any one of us can die tomorrow.”
To Rose, the fact that even this literal life-or-death situation only served to further increase the divisions that exist in America was particularly disheartening. “I have very strong ideals and opinions as an activist, and of course I like to think that i am on the right side of history, but it made me realize that sometimes it takes trying to listen to somebody else’s struggle and somebody else’s perspective to bring us together,” she said. “I’m hoping that resonates with this song, that even my neighbors that I might have really really different political views with, if they need something, if they need soup, then I can make soup and drop it off on their porch. Because I don’t want them to die.”
Other songs on the album have a less political take on the world, but nonetheless impart a particularly Sally Rose-ian worldview. “Bleeds,” a classic honky-tonk blues, feels musically timeless, like it could have been written in Bakersfield in 1965. But when Rose and Erin Lunsford sing “Why did you ghost?” on the chorus, the listener gets a firm reminder that this is a very up-to-the-minute album.
Meanwhile, “Colorado,” a song Rose has previously released with the Sally Rose Band (on 2012’s Live At George Bower’s), was never intended to be on the album. “It made the cut in one night, when I was on psychedelics with a small group of friends — this was all pre-COVID, for the record — and they wanted me to play guitar and sing a song,” Rose explained. “The only song that I could remember how to play at the time was ‘Colorado,’ and it took me straight back to when I was sleeping in teepees and working on a farm out there with one of my dear friends, Emily, after I had been brutally devastatingly crushed and heartbroken — like I have been many times.”
Heartbreak also pervades one of the two covers on the album — Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” Asking Rose about it, I couldn’t help but reminisce about my late teenage years in the mid-90s, driving around Charlottesville on lunch break from my summer job painting city school buildings, all the windows rolled down, sweating my ass off, listening to Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See on a crappy boombox in my passenger seat. Rose has resonances aplenty with this song, and they’re of a much darker and more personal nature.
“As someone who is a self-proclaimed codependent empath, I have had a tendency to fall for people that I thought I could fix with love, and I’ve gotten burned a lot by ignoring red flags, thinking that trust and love and nurturing could heal people who had traumas or demons. And that is simply not the case. It led me to get hurt a lot when I was younger,” said Rose.
“‘Fade Into You’ is one of those songs that I always felt deeply whenever I was in a situation where I would get hurt so bad, and I would be completely blind to somebody’s narcissistic, sociopathic tendencies. I would get lost in the relationship, and put it on a pedestal, and see nothing but light and hurt in someone, when really they were just a pretty fucked-up person. No amount of love, or trust, or comfort could fix those things. Therapy could fix those things, but not me as their partner. So now when I listen to ‘Fade Into You,’ it reminds me of the many many times that I did fade into relationships, and fade into partners, giving more of myself than I could or should have. That’s what a lot of us hopeless romantics do, and there’s a lot of beauty in wanting to love and wanting to be loved. ‘Fade Into You’ is just one of those tragically beautiful songs that perfectly encompasses that feeling.”
As 2021 gets going, Rose finds herself hoping things get back to something like normal life. “Moving forward into 2021, I’m just hoping I can get back to some sense of ‘normalcy,'” she said, “by practicing with the boys in Shagwuf when it’s safe again, and by pursuing my solo career as a musician. Those are my dreams and goals for 2021.” She laughed. “Touring would be great. Playing live shows would be great. Hugging friends would also be really, really great.”
Of course, touring isn’t possible right now, but Rose is more than ready to return to action on the live music front as soon as it’s safe to do so. “What I would do to be able to play and go on tour right now, and sleep with a crick in my neck in the back of the van without AC, sweating our asses off, and not getting fed, and drinking too much… I miss all of that so much,” said Rose. But when asked about touring behind Tread Light at some point in the future, she wasn’t really sure how she’d approach it.
“That’s something I have not thought a ton about, just because touring feels forever away,” she said. “I would love to tour Tread Light as a solo album, potentially with Erin Lunsford, and do a solo album duet tour. I feel like touring by myself would probably be a really great growing experience, but also, if I’m being completely honest, boring as fuck, and really lonely. Touring is an important part of my life because of the friendships that you make and the experiences that you share with the people in the van — those inside jokes that you’re going to have with that person for the rest of their life. So yeah, I haven’t even talked with Erin about that [idea] yet, but it’s definitely something I would love to do.”
Unfortunately, the Sally Rose/Erin Lunsford duet tour won’t be coming to a venue near you anytime soon. However, you can catch a preview if you tune in on Sunday, February 14th to Sally Rose’s special Valentine’s Brunch album release livestream. Not only will the stream feature Erin Lunsford joining Sally for a special duet performance, the whole thing will be coming to you live from Minimum Wage Recording Studio, where Tread Light was tracked. The livestream will kick off at 1 PM on Sunday, and you can watch it on Facebook Live by following this link. Whether you’re heartbroken (“like I’ve been many times,” says Sally) or enjoying a snowed-in quarantine Valentine with your sweetheart, this performance is sure to lift your spirits.
All Photos by Rich Tarbell