On The String: Maggie Rose Calls For Conversation
On a Thursday night in late August, it was as if a banquet table had been set for hundreds of fans at Nashville’s Brooklyn Bowl. At least that’s how it looked, with Maggie Rose’s new album cover as a giant backdrop. Its tableaux spilled into 3D space, with flowers and greenery on and floating above the stage. A six-piece band warmed the room up before Rose entered with pop star panache - stiletto heels, her signature shock of short white hair, and a glossy red and black outfit that hugged her body like latex paint.
There’s a lot to unpack about this dramatic entrance and a production a few levels more ambitious than the typical Americana album release show. For Maggie Rose has made a lane of her own, where show business execution and roots music aren’t incompatible. Over 13 years in Nashville, many of those spent chasing a country music comet, she’s built a tribe of excellent musicians and fervent fans. Her fusion of old-school soul, provocative songwriting and pop style is savvy and effective, reminiscent in its way of Kasey Musgraves’s imagistic world-building, but very much its own thing.
And that record? It’s called Have A Seat. It’s flying toward the top ten at Americana radio. Recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL, with vocal performances worthy of that shrine, it’s one of the most ambitious, relevant and sophisticated albums of the year.
“I think that it used to be a bit of an obstacle for me the fact that I transcended a lot of genres and my music was very versatile,” Rose says in Episode 180 of The String. “Now, I think I've found a way to gracefully put it all together, and it's something that's being celebrated about this music.” She cites the diversity of the dates she’s been playing as evidence, from Newport Folk Festival to the jam-band-heavy Summer Camp a couple of weeks ago in Illinois. “It’s all the sensibilities that I have been able to hone being in Nashville. And having Nashville evolve has correlated with my evolution as an artist as well, because I have all these resources and people to collaborate with who are allowing me to go there in a more precise way.”
Rose grew up in Maryland and attended a DC prep school before heading to a brief stay at Clemson University and then to Music City. But she’d been singing the whole time, including with a touring Bruce Springsteen cover band. Among the folks who took an interest was industry mogul Tommy Mottola, and that set the stage for some record deals in the country music space. It didn’t go badly, with charting singles, loads of admiring press and a cherished relationship with the Grand Ole Opry that’s led to scores of performances there over the years. But in country, it’s a stratosphere-or-nowhere model of business development, and by 2018, she says she found herself without a label, contemplating next steps and some minor regrets.
“I was always a hard worker, and I have always been very polite, especially early on. And I think I should have been more strong-headed about what it was that I wanted to do,” Rose told me, adding that she could have been more prepared to “just ask those simple questions about what kind of artist you want to be and what connections you want establish with your listeners, instead of being so fearful that the whole thing would topple over.” She talks about how she engaged in a bit of “reprogramming” as she found the network and the songs that would let her realize the specific vision on Have A Seat.
It started with songwriting, honed she figures by more than a thousand co-writes in Nashville that sharpened her ability to pack a lot of message into sturdy forms and memorable melodies. She wrote most of this new record during 2019 with a sense of grieving for the country’s divisions and short tempers. So, songs emerged about communication, understanding and empathy but also about giving power and voice to everyone, hence the double entendre of Have A Seat.
Inspired by an event she attended at FAME Studios in 2018, she set her sights on using that famous space as a vehicle for a sound that felt up to date but timeless in its instrumentation and feel. Muscle Shoals vets like bassist David Hood and guitarist Will McFarlane mingled with members of Nashville’s Them Vibes, the band she’s been using as her support for years. Ben Tanner, mover behind Single Lock Records and a valued keyboardist and producer, oversaw the sonics, including string and horn arrangements.
“These are components that I never have had on records before. (They) let me make this an event and really go for it,” Rose says in appreciation of Tanner’s role. “And I didn't want to have a throwback record. I wanted to amplify the soulful parts of my music and voice and point to what's gone on at fame. But I wanted it to be contemporary, so he injected it with all this psychedelia and did all the crazy keyboards and made it really like a dreamscape.”
None of that however obscures Rose’s voice, which takes its place among the ranks of top tier roots divas like Grace Potter and Susan Tedeschi. It’s a powerful but subtle instrument set in service of music that seems to unite Nashville’s musical communities from pop to jazz, from Americana to urban. In that respect, Have a Seat leads by example.