Take a moment and ask yourself: How rare is it when a singer-songwriter doesn’t seem more one than the other? Chuck Berry was equally gifted at both; so are Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen. If we regard the Beatles as their performing unit and Lennon and McCartney as a single writing entity, sure.
Though she’s leagues less famous, you can also make a case for Whitney Rose, who graced the cover of Texas Music in winter 2018. From her first recording in 2012, and particularly from her second, 2015’s Heartbreaker of the Year, Rose’s gifts as a performer and writer have been not only equally evident but plain to anyone with ears, and that’s as true today as it was then. One listen to her latest album, Rosie, makes that clear.
Rose is also a dynamite performer, which makes the recent health issues that have sidelined her from live shows a significant loss for fans.
Rose keeps the specifics of what she’s struggling with to herself. “I’m trying to take care of my health right now and listen to the doctors,” she says. “But I really don’t know when I’ll be able to perform again, and neither do they.”
In the press release for Rosie, she provides a little more context, but not much. “After ignoring my body while in constant pain for a number of months, I was hospitalized in December 2022,” she explains. “I’m still in recovery but am focusing solely on getting better, and it seems to be paying off thus far.”
Long ago, the Band’s Robbie Robertson said that life on the road was a “goddamned impossible way of life.” But for the vast majority of working musicians, it’s financially necessary, especially in an age of dwindling album sales because of streaming.
For Rose, the road and live performance have come to mean more than a paycheck. Could she imagine being happy if she knew right now she could never tour again?
There’s an unusually long pause before she answers. “No.” Another pause. “It’s what I do. I’ve always loved traveling. I enjoy getting out to explore a city that’s new to me.”
Taken as a whole, the songs on Rosie are a tad more subdued than her earlier work. There’s no pandemic-doldrums thread, or any other sort, that runs through them; she doesn’t approach albums that way. “Sometimes a theme will just emerge organically that seems to tie songs together,” she allows, “but it’s never intentional.”
The same muse-at-the-wheel disposition yields most of her songs. “Occasionally a melody will just come to me, and that will determine what works lyrically,” Rose says. “Other times I’ll hear a phrase that sticks. That’s how ‘You’re Gonna Get Lonely’ came about. I was heading out on a solo tour, no band, and someone said, ‘You’re gonna get lonely.’ It sounded like a song.”
Rose was born on Prince Edward Island, eight miles east of the Canadian mainland, but came to her love of country music honestly. She grew up in her grandparents’ bar, where she was singing Hank Williams’ “There’s a Tear in My Beer” by the age of 2. She revisited it on Heartbreaker of the Year and, on Rosie, contributed her own entry to the barroom weeper genre, “Minding My Own Pain.” Like most of her songs, it’s a witty update within a very old template, yet it doesn’t sound like a pastiche.
It’s not the only style that Rose inhabits. “I Need a Little Shame” recalls The Ronettes minus the Ronettes, with Rose playing the part of Ronnie Spector and matching her moxie even as she’s confessing her sins. On the countrypolitan “Can’t Remember Happiness,” Rose turns the title upside-down, twice. The past was great — she can’t remember a happiness greater than her childhood and adolescent memories— but the present, with her current love, is greater. Talk about going against the country grain.
If you scroll through listeners’ comments on her songs, you’ll occasionally find an objection to Rose’s stylistic diversity from the genre-monogamous. That might be one reason she isn’t better known. As a writer, her tastes fall within the expansive Americana tent, but they require a similar breadth from listeners. Sadly, her current health has made songwriting harder.
She cites Dolly Parton and Keith Whitney as primary influences on her approach to music, but as a listener herself, her tastes run much broader. Her latest song crush is Camilo Cabella’s “Bam Bam,” with Ed Sheeran.
Rose moved to Austin in 2016 after a two-month residency at the Continental Club. Like anyone who’s lived there for more than a year, she’s nostalgic about the city’s former glory. “So many of my friends have moved away,” she says. “They can’t afford it anymore.”
For now, her main concern is getting better and getting back on the road. “It’s been hard,” she admits. She sounds tired, then adds, “It’s slowly getting better. But it’s day to day.”
Cover photo by Lyza Renee