In conversation, Caitlin Rose's quick wit and feisty confidence recall Rosalind Russell, the archetypal gal-pal in 1940s films like His Girl Friday. A smoldering brunette like Russell, the 26-year-old Nashville singer-songwriter's third release, The Stand-In, was a surprise sensation last year. Her cool, casual croon coasts through warm, polished arrangements that hark back to '70s countrypolitan tinged with a modernity evidenced by her terrific cover of The National's "Pink Rabbit."
Her manner's intoxicating. She apologizes for her difficulties answering a question, blaming it on this being first serious road break since the album was released a year ago.
"I have a distaste for stock answers, so I'm always trying to be original in every conversation," explains the singer-songwriter, whose performance is guaranteed to be a highlight of this weekend's MeadowGrass Festival.
"Trial and error," she declares after fumbling an answer moments later.
"Like life," we offer.
"And my career," she adds.
In truth, Rose was born for the business. Her mother, Liz Rose, has co-written several hits with Taylor Swift ("White Horse," "Teardrops on My Guitar," "You Belong With Me") and written other songs for Lee Ann Womack and Gary Allan. Music was always around the house, reinforcing an innate love for country. By high school she was playing clubs with friends — with whomever would join her, really.
"There was never any plan," she says. "I started making music and I really didn't know what I was doing, but nobody told me to stop."
This continued until Rose turned 20 and caught the attention of U.K. indie Names Records. It released her 2008 solo debut, the seven-song Dead Flowers EP, highlighted by the titular Rolling Stones cover. She returned two years later with the full-length, Own Side Now. Frequent trips to Europe built a strong overseas following, particularly in London. And that, in turn, gave her the kind of cachet she'd been lacking back home.
"Everyone is asking, 'Oh, you go to England, you have a career in England,'" she snickers. "Not to be too cheeky, but I've been a little sister in this town for a long time, and I still kind of feel like that."
That'll change soon, if it hasn't already. Rose signed to ATO for The Stand-In, and a flush of accolades soon followed. The album went to No. 42 on Billboard's country charts, powered by strong melodies, great writing and tight focus. Only one track clocks in over 3:30.
Rose co-wrote the songs with her friends Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson. It was a process she enjoyed, but she's also eager to turn her inspirations and influences into a style of her own.
"You never want to be a throwback, so it's kind of a fine line to walk," she says. "My problem is that I'm not much of an innovator, so I try to stick with the songwriting and then just feel it out."
Rose can be demure and self-effacing. She recalls performing as part of a class assignment and blushing so hard she had to leave the room. But on record she can come across like Chrissie Hynde in a bad mood: "Pay no mind when I slam the door, because we both now know that's what you came here for."
"Most people have two sides," she insists. "Hopefully it's not bipolar disorder."