Before moving to Austin, TX Whitney Rose had never danced the two-step. Now, the country-pop singer's infatuation with Texas' rich musical culture, from stage to studio to dance floor, informs an enthralling new project, a love letter to the Lone Star State. Her new EP, South Texas Suite, is a touch nostalgic, deeply romantic and defiantly personal – it's Texas, through Whitney Rose's eyes and ears. South Texas Suite is a meticulous study of sound and place, but also a product of unexpected circumstance. Last October, shortly after the release of her album Heartbreaker of the Year, Rose packed up her boot collection and headed south to play a two-month residency at Austin's famed Americana bastion, the Continental Club. But that November-December engagement went so well, she wound up staying. Since then, she's toured with Sam Outlaw, made her European debut and signed with Six Shooter Records.
Rose became smitten with Texas, and the warm welcome from Austin's vibrant musical community made her feel right at home. Songs started pouring out – so many that she just had to start recording. The first result is this new EP. Rose herself produced South Texas Suite, a first for the poised countrypolitan songwriter. Top to bottom, the EP is the work of an artist who is both an insider and an outsider, an observer and a maker, a listener and a storyteller – no matter where she lives. She recorded South Texas Suite over two days at Dale Watson's Ameripolitan Studios in North Austin, accompanied by Grammy winner Redd Volkaert, Merle Haggard's former guitarist; Earl Poole Ball, who spent two decades tickling keyboards for Johnny Cash; Kevin Smith, now playing bass in Willie Nelson's Family Band; and Tom Lewis, who's drummed with the Mavericks, among others. All four play in Haybale!, the Continental Club's Sunday-night stalwart; Lewis also plays in Rose's band, along with guitarist Bryce Clark, steel player James Shelton and acoustic guitarist Sophia Johnson. They're also on the EP, along with fiddler Erik Hokkanen and accordionist Michael Guerra.
The sensuous waltz of the opening song, "Three Minute Love Affair," with its Tex-Mex flavor provided by Guerra's Flaco Jiménez-worthy accordion, beautifully sets the tone for South Texas Suite. Of course, no self-respecting two-stepper would take to a dance-hall floor without Rose's favorite footwear; her heel-stomping honky-tonk ode to that Texas wardrobe essential, "My Boots," is also a feminist statement. "Lookin' Back on Luckenbach," is a wistful mid-tempo ballad about leaving a beloved place behind. Rose didn't write "Analog" or "Bluebonnets for My Baby," but the "sultry country classicist," as the New York Times called her, certainly identifies with both songs. In "Analog," by Brennen Leigh, Rose sings the praises of lazy rivers and "that needle skipping on my old hi-fi," as opposed to the soul-sucking conveniences of modern, digital life. And in "Bluebonnets for My Baby," by Teri Joyce, Rose could almost be Shelley Fabares singing "Johnny Angel" to one of her '60s-flick leading men.
And the Bakersfield-style instrumental closer, "How 'Bout a Hand for the Band," originally was the outro for "My Boots." "I had amazing musicians, so I wanted the end of ‘My Boots' to be a big jam," says Rose. "But the song ended up being really long, so we had to cut that. But it's such incredible playing, I didn't want to rob the world of getting to hear it. It was a cool way to tie it up." Indeed it is.