Caroline Rose’s debut album, America Religious, starts precisely as one might expect it to: lonesome and wandering somewhere — anywhere — in America. On the opening title track, a lone acoustic guitar ambles and slides about in the traditions of West Texas, the Black Hills, an abandoned mining town crumbling into the Pacific, and everywhere in between. And then, over the horizon, comes the chug-chug-chug of a freight train, our weary wanderer’s savior. The conductor is tipsy, sure, but the machine is running better than fine. The drums roll, the fiddle moans and the bass subtly bops every bump. It’s a beautiful thing, and it’s nothing less than pure Americana.
The journey continues, gaining speed, further into the depths of the American experience on the album’s second track, “This Is What Livin’ Feels Like.” Rose searches from New York City to Natchez Trace to New Orleans and up to Houston for an unnamable something, only to stumble upon that sometimes painful, sometimes awesome universal truth: That living is the roads in between, the search and all of those cigarettes. There is no defeat in this revelation, rather the song — and the album as a whole — gives the impression that this futile search is well worth it. This feeling, if you live openly and honestly, is the feeling of livin’.
“Notes Waking Home From Work” is an appropriately fragile acoustic ballad about the day-in-day-out struggles of a Mexican migrant worker. While the nontraditional, somewhat slanted lyrical structure displays hints of early Dylan protest ballads, notably “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” there is infinitely more Diaz than Dylan here. It’s a different kind of American story, and maybe not the kind you would expect to find. But it’s as American as any train song, if not more so.
And there’s more. From the dirty roadhouse blues of “Roll On” to the country-tinged loss and self-deception of “Honey, I’ll Be Fine,” and from the stripped-down sorrow of “Notes From a Bedroom Upstairs” to the spiritual confidence of “I Will Not Be Afraid,” Caroline Rose paints a mural of America that is honest and revealing. It is clear that America Religious is a well-researched project.
With the assistance of Burlington-based songwriter Jer Coons, who serves as the album’s coproducer and engineer, Caroline Rose has made one of the most confident and thoughtfully produced records to come out of Vermont in some time. Her voice and vision are bigger and clearer than many you’re likely to encounter in a largely self-contained area such as ours. And Rose’s sense and understanding of the grand thematic scheme of Americana is worth paying attention to, and applauding.