Alt-country star is on top, Down Under

Kasey Chambers, a gifted singer-songwriter, burns up the charts in her native Australia, but in the U.S., she doesn't get airplay.

Pop Music

April 07, 2002|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,Special to the Sun

HOLLYWOOD -- Kasey Chambers is the ultimate in cool on the cover of her new album Barricades & Brickwalls. Staring seductively at the camera as she walks down the street dangling a guitar in hand, she looks like the maverick love child of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams.

The Australian singer-songwriter brings the character and independence of that pairing to the album's defiant title track -- a rowdy, feminist declaration that runs counter to all the helpless waif songs in pop music.

No matter what obstacles you put in front of her, Chambers vows in the blistering country-rock tune, she's going to get her way. You can tie her down on the railroad track and let that freight train loose, but she still boasts that "I'll be damned if you're not my man / Before the sun goes down."

Like Williams and Earle, she's part of the alt-country world that mixes traditional and modern sensibilities, and she's gifted enough to earn the cheers of critics and her role models.

Williams, the literary-minded songwriter who guests on one track of Barricades & Brickwalls, calls Chambers her favorite new artist. Earle, who is a Nashville rebel in the tradition of Willie and Waylon, says Chambers is the best female singer he's heard in "a long, long time."

Critics -- in magazines from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair -- invariably compare Chambers to other great alt-country figures such as Emmylou Harris and the late Gram Parsons, who inspired the whole "No Depression" country-rock movement that includes Ryan Adams, Wilco and the Old 97's.

Like Parsons, Chambers knows country music isn't a straitjacket, but a form to be manipulated -- as the Village Voice's review of Barricades noted.

In the album's "A Little Bit Lonesome," she writes a song in the classic Hank Williams heartbreak style. It's so authentic you have to check the album credits to be sure it isn't an old Williams song. Then she sings Parsons' "Still Feeling Blue" with a spirit that makes it her own.

Doesn't fit the formats

Chambers' music, however, isn't just about homage, even if her vocal tone sometimes seems shaped by the same Southern mountain range as a young Dolly Parton's. Her "Nullarbor Song" is a sweet, folk-accented salute to the vast desert region in Australia where she lived for years; "Falling Into You" and "On a Bad Day" are confessional country-pop tunes. There's even a rare entry into social commentary on "Ignorance," a bonus track on the album.

It's the kind of musical vision that comes instinctively from blending musical styles rather than trying to flow with the commercial currents of the day, and it's an approach that has made Chambers a major star back home. Both her albums have gone to No. 1 on the pop charts in Australia. She's likely to be a star in this country too, but on a more limited scale.

In the cold reality of today's record business, there is often a glass ceiling for artists whose music doesn't fit into one of the mass radio formats, whose exposure offers the quickest path to the top of the charts. It's the same barrier that has kept many of Chambers' influences, from Parsons to Lucinda Williams, from seeing their commercial success even come close to their critical acclaim.

Will it be any different for Chambers?

Jeff Pollack, one of the nation's leading programming consultants for radio and television stations, says it's a stiff challenge.

"There's nothing more frustrating than to see great new artists run up against this format issue because when you hear someone as good as Kasey Chambers or Chris Isaak or Lyle Lovett or Ryan Adams, you want everyone to be able to hear them," he says.

One song has a chance

You can learn a lot about how pop stars aren't born equal by looking at just two nights over the last 18 months at the Roxy in West Hollywood.

Two gifted young singer-songwriters had industry taste makers on their feet cheering at separate showcase performances, and both women went on to become stars. But the vastly different size of the artists' success says a lot about how the boundaries of stardom vary depending on your genre of music.

One was Alicia Keys, who was showcased at the Roxy last May with a musical style that incorporates ideal elements for today's pop-marketplace sounds, including hip-hop, soul and pop, that are adored by Top 40 radio programmers. Thanks to that airplay and strategic TV appearances, Keys' debut album has sold more than 4.5 million copies in the United States and earned her five awards, including best new artist, at last month's Grammys.

The other was Chambers, who played the club in the summer of 2000. It was clear that her classic-minded, country-driven style would be considered too raw and rockish for country stations that lean toward a slick, pop-minded approach.

Chambers, 25, has become a star in this country only with critics and the handful of radio stations whose play lists are aimed at adventurous listeners. The result is that her debut album, The Captain, has sold only about 65,000 copies in the United States.

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