Nashville has a well-earned cultural reputation for housing a competitive, cutthroat scene where the young and old face off in a spiritual battle to push and preserve the city’s rich musical heritage. But the portrait on display at the Mercury Lounge on Monday night was one of aching politeness. With only slightly curbed enthusiasm and a droll awkwardness that’s all her own, rising country singer Caitlin Rose highlighted her city’s most endearing quality: its commitment to professionalism. She told jokes about sweaty clowns in tank tops, she pretty much introduced every song by its title, she gave props to her band, and she sang most songs with a smile, despite staring at the ceiling for much of her set. Even while digging into some of the darker material from her occasionally caustic new record, The Stand-In, she had the decency to warn us. “Now we’re gonna get mean,” she said.
Before Rose brought the mean, opener (and Rose’s rhythm guitarist) Andrew Combs brought the charm. With his long hair and his dry, deadpan wit, he had an easy-going Tim Riggins-reading-a-Merle-Haggard-biography-while-drinking-beer-in-a-hammock demeanor, and his songs reveled in classic country tropes, particularly those of the rule-breaking, vaguely rebellious nature. He had a song about shooting a woman in the ankles, and he had another one called “Too Stoned To Cry” that’s about being too stoned to cry. “I kinda wrote it about myself and some other people I know,” he said before playing it. “That’s what I tell my mom. She hates this song.”
As a lone, whistling troubadour, Combs left something to be desired—too many of his songs relied on stock imagery and bluesy cliches about having a monkey on your back and the writing being on the wall—but his set picked up energy as the rest of his (and Rose’s) band joined in. Tracks like “Heavy” and “Emily” had a rousing Whiskeytown-like intensity and a playful touch to them, suggesting that maybe Combs is just more at home in a group than he is in the stark, confessional mode. As his mom might say, he plays well with others.
While Combs was more than happy to play the role of Nashville stereotype, Caitlin Rose is often cast as some sort of “alternative” artist in the music press or at least as an outlier—She gets drunk! She knows JEFF The Brotherhood! She likes the Mountain Goats!—but she’s a traditionalist at heart. On record her vocals sound lithe and polished, giving each song a classical sheen, but in a live setting she wasn’t afraid to get a little shout-ey, investing songs like “No One To Call” and “Waitin’” with a rollicking, unhinged quality. On quieter songs, like the shotgun wedding narrative “Pink Champagne,” she let the pedal steel guitar do most of the talking, Spencer Cullum Jr.’s mournful tones filling the room. The guitar playing throughout the night was expressive and precise, like racing stripes on an old car.
At one point a fan in the crowd shouted, “You do you!” to Rose, and she laughed and said, “I’m getting a T-shirt soon that says, ‘I’m doing me.’” Rose doesn’t need a T-shirt to establish her individuality. Even while playing covers—like the two found on her record, “I Was Cruel” and “Dallas”—she manages to invest her personality in them, giving each song a warm but slightly aloof touch. She closed her set with a version of Buck Owens’s “I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail”, but she didn’t reveal the title before playing the song, telling us we’d figure it out. She was right: We did. Even when she was trying to be mean, Caitlin Rose couldn’t help but be polite.