Up by her roots

Kasey Chambers, raised on Australia’s vast Nullabor Plain by free-spirited, Hank Williams-loving, occasional Seventh-day Adventist parents, emerged a couple of years ago as wish-fulfillment for alt-country believers.

And alt-country music is for believers — believers in a broken voice, in the perfect song, in messages that speak for us all.

Evangelists of the nascent genre were for years relatively few in number — initially, there was just Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and a few affiliated avian bands (The Byrds, Parsons’ own Flying Burrito Brothers, The Eagles).

Then, in the ’90s, a slew of new bands — led by Uncle Tupelo (later splintering into Wilco and Son Volt) and The Jayhawks — stepped under the newly named alt-country tent, while genre elders like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, performing for years before there was a hyphenated label to call their sound, were ushered in along with the young upstarts.

By the end of the decade, there were enough alt-country musicians with solid fan bases to demand Gram tribute albums, form a few radio stations, win critical accolades and garner some commercial success.

And about that time, Kasey Chambers showed up at the tent door — more than half a world away.

The Australian singer/songwriter’s first album, The Captain (Asylum), begins with Chambers’ declaration, “I never lived through the Great Depression” (though it’s not clear which country’s), and proceeds then through 12 pitch-perfect songs about home, loss and insecurity — universal themes for anyone who grew up, as she did, singing Jimmie Rodgers by the campfire.

Word of Chambers’ talent — especially her startlingly girlish voice, which brings to mind an indie Dolly Parton — burned through the press in the United States, and Chambers quickly came to the country that was her musical home. In a recent interview, she said that visiting Nashville for the first time lived up to her expectations.

“When I went to Nashville, I went out to a little club and saw [alt-country singer/songwriter] Matthew Ryan there, and he’s become one of my idols,” Chambers relates. “It was a great introduction. I thought: Oh, my God, this is the greatest place on earth!”

While The Captain was released in Australia several years ago, it didn’t come here until fall 2001. So when her follow-up, Barricades and Brickwalls, came out on Warner Brothers in January 2002, it seemed as if the one album was recorded immediately after the other.

Chambers views Barricades as a much more mature effort.

The Captain was written and recorded by a teenager,” she explains. “With Barricades, I was in my mid-20s, and it’s a big difference there, especially when it comes to writing songs.

“When you’re a teenager, the last thing you want to do is be honest with yourself,” she continues. “I think I’ve gotten a lot more honest with myself [since].”

Admitting that she was “probably too influenced by what [she] listened to” while recording her first album, Chambers says she tried to make Barricades more reflective of who she really is.

While The Captain hovers in the safe alt-country territory first delineated by Gram Parsons (minimal, even sleepy production), Barricades breaks the mold with its first song, the title track.

In what some read as an answer to Lucinda Williams’ escape-artist ode “Changed the Locks,” the title cut on Chambers’ new album has her informing her love interest that “iron bars and big ole cars won’t run me out of town/ I’ll be damned if you’re not my man before the sun goes down.”

Matched with grunge guitars and snarls that would impress Courtney Love, it seems that Chambers has already left the alt-country camp — that is, until the album’s second song, the pop-syrupy “Not Pretty Enough.” Williams herself chimes in on the third track, “On a Bad Day,” and by “A Little Bit Lonesome,” which could have been written by Bob Wills or Webb Pierce, there’s no doubt that Chambers is firmly in alt-country’s grip, though not being afraid to experiment.

Like many alt-country artists of her generation, Chambers is just as comfortable with honky-tonk as she is with rockabilly. The singer even brings in The Living End (Australia’s answer to The Rev. Horton Heat) for the two-minute one-off “Crossfire,” wherein she boasts, “I call my baby just to hang up on the phone.”

While The Captain’s childhood reminiscence “A Southern Kind of Life” was easily confused by U.S. critics for a song about the American South, Barricades’ “Nullabor Song” records the experience of growing up in a desert more accurately and specifically.

Chambers maintains that she is at heart a country singer — despite being from Australia and claiming the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way as her new favorite album.

“I love country music, not necessarily the stuff that’s coming out of Nashville,” she says. “I still get out old Emmylou albums and listen to Gram Parsons. That’s where my roots lie; that’s country music to me.”

While Chambers has yet to find U.S. country-radio success, she’s already won the admiration of American alt-country icons, opening shows in 2001 for Lucinda Williams — whom Chambers calls her “biggest female role model.”

“It’s really flattering,” she admits. “I never thought I’d get to meet people like that, let alone work with them and [have them compliment my music]. You play your music and enjoy it and everything, but sometimes you feel like you’re banging your head against your wall and [you] think you might be sitting in your bedroom the rest of your life. [Having] people you’ve looked up to your whole life saying nice things about you is amazing.”

While 2002 was musically a quiet year for Chambers, her personal life was marked by a number of major changes — including having a child, Talon, born in May.

And with her just-begun third album, Chambers’ songwriting has taken yet another turn, she reveals.

“I’ve been through one of the biggest things I’ll ever go through — having a baby, being in love, staying at home and enjoying the family life,” she explains. “And it’s a different mood in the songs. [But] I still manage to make them sound sad, even though I’m really happy.”

That’s her job, after all.

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