Australian bluegrass artist Kristy Cox makes her home in Nashville for most of the year, but she always returns for the Tamworth Country Music Festival. I had a chance to talk to her while she was home, and even though she was quite under the weather she told me all about her new album, Ricochet, and other things.
The album feels like it’s a progression – like it’s more emotional and heartfelt. Not that your previous work wasn’t! But it did sound like a progression. I’m curious why you chose that song title, ‘Ricochet’, to be the title of the album?
I don’t really know. When I first heard the title of the song I thought, That would make a really good album title. I just kind of stuck with it. I didn’t even look at any of the other songs or any other titles. It just felt right – it felt like the album needed to be called Ricochet. [I thought,] this song is great, the title is great, and it feels like it’s going to be the title track of the album. I just never moved off it. I guess it was just a gut feeling that it would be a good album title.
And it’s memorable. One-word titles are great because there’s less likelihood of anyone forgetting it.
And I’ve never had a one-word title before. I’ve also never called an album after a song – it’s always been a line in a song or something like that.
Your previous album wasn’t actually that long ago – 2016 – so did you have much of a break between them or were you working on Ricochet pretty much from when you finished the last one?
We signed with a new label in America and they gave me three months’ notice on wanting a new album. We were due to release one anyway – I try to pump them out every two years – so this is our fifth album in ten years. We did record this on a much shorter time frame than we have any other albums. My new label in America is fantastic and my new label in Australia as well, and I think we were all just excited to get in the studio and get a new album out.
You are a songwriter fundamentally – and you co-wrote the songs on this album – but did you have songs ready to go or did you have to come up with some?
We didn’t have anything ready. It kind of crept up on us. I said to Jerry [Salley], my producer, ‘We’re going to record in September’, and he said, ‘Kristy, it’s June already’, and I said, ‘Yeah …’ So we [put our] heads down and bums up and got jiggy with it and did our best. I did only write three songs on this album. I think a lot of that is because of the short time frame, and also working with Jerry and being in Nashville, there’s just so many great songs that I didn’t have to write as many for this album as I normally would. I was lucky on that end.
I imagine there’s quite a selection process – yes, it is Nashville and there are songs around but that means that you still have to go through a few to find the ones you respond to.
Definitely. And there are songs that are great but that doesn’t mean they’re right for that album. ‘Smell the Smoke’, on this new album, was pitched to me for my first bluegrass album, which was ten years ago, and it’s been sitting on a shortlist for every single album [since], and it’s just never felt right – it never felt like it was the right song for that project. We have a whole bunch of songs that have been pitched to me over the last ten years that have made the shortlists but haven’t quite made the albums. Then you get new songs pitched to you as well, when people find out you’re getting back in the studio. So it is a really long process. And you want the album to tell a story and take the listener on a journey, so it’s about making sure you don’t have too much of the same melody types or subject types. Trying to make each song stand out on its own. That’s the way we work, anyway.
They do all sound like they belong together, and it’s not just because you’re singing them and have the same musicians playing on them. They sound like a complementary set.
That really is mine and Jerry’s goal with each album – we try to take the listeners on a journey and not have one song that makes people say, ‘Gee, that just doesn’t really fit.’ The one song that I was probably concerned about on this album was ‘Sweet English Rose’. It is completely different to everything else on the album, but I did write it about Australia and a part of our history that means a lot to me, so I really wanted to put it on the album. But by the time it was all finished and mixed it actually fit in quite well.
I had prepared a question about that song, because I’d thought it was atypical for
your work, but it is really distinctive and it fits in with storytelling tradition of country music. And you wrote that with Allan Caswell – is that a new songwriting relationship for you?
This is probably the third cut we have together. Allan and I had two cuts on Part of Me – we wrote ‘William Henry Johnson’ and … yep, I’ve got a memory blank on the other one. We wrote ‘Sweet English Rose’ around that time as well but it didn’t make the last album. It’s just a piece of Australian history that not a lot of people know about. I wanted to write a song about it. I was in Tasmania and I read in a plaque on the wharf there that Tasmania was one of the first places in the world to allow women to immigrate by themselves, without being married or coming with their parents. Basically they just had shiploads of women and girls coming to Tasmania by themselves – and I never knew that in school. I know that Australia is a pretty advanced country and we’re the first to do a lot, but I didn’t realise we were the first to allow women immigrants to immigrate by themselves, and I thought that was a really cool piece of Australian history that I wanted to write about. I took the idea to Allan because he knows how to write that heritage-style song and that’s the way I wanted it to sound.
And I didn’t know that either, so I’ve learnt something.
Isn’t that amazing, they just didn’t teach us that in school. If I didn’t read it on a wharf I would never have known.
You mentioned your new record company in the US, and that you have a new company here, which is Country Rocks. How did you come to be with them?
I’d been looking for a label in Australia for quite a few years. Obviously it’s getting harder and harder to service the market back here at home when my schedule’s getting so full and busy over in the States. I just really wanted to work with people who completely understood that I’m not a straight country act. I’m never going to be a straight country act. I don’t have the desire to play country rock music or country pop music. I play bluegrass – that’s who I am, that’s what I do and that’s what I love. And I just wanted to find a label that would give me the artistic freedom to do an album I want to do but then still have the passion behind it to put it to the marketplace like it is just a country album. A lot of labels look at me and say, ‘Well, she’s bluegrass – we can’t really do much with that. She doesn’t really fit the mould.’ And I wanted to find somebody who knew that I might not exactly fit the mould, but I can break the mould. And the team at Country Rocks are exactly that. They’re amazing, and I’m really blessed to be able to work with them.
Yes, bluegrass is a specific genre, but the pillars of good songwriting, great musicianship and great singing translate across to any audience, so I never listen to your music and think, That’s a bluegrass song – I think it’s a Kristy Cox song, and a broad audience could enjoy it. It sounds like Country Rocks understands that about your music as well – they’re not going to market it just to bluegrass audiences.
Yes, and that’s the exacting thing about it. I had back-to-back meetings for probably four years with many different labels and the most common thing that I heard was, ‘You’re great and you’ve won Golden Guitars, but we just don’t know what to do with you.’ Well, you kind of just have to do what you do with everybody else because the market’s already there – they already buy tickets to my shows, they already buy the albums, so it was just great to be able to work with Country Rocks where they can see that. They can see that I go to Tamworth and sell out theatres. Just because I’m a little bit different doesn’t mean that you can’t market me exactly the same as everybody else. So I’ve been really blessed that they have that same vision as me.
You’ve lived in Nashville for a while now – is there a sense in Nashville that there are difference ‘scenes’? There’s a bluegrass scene and people don’t stray outside it? Or is the city so big now that everything can blend together?
Bluegrass is definitely its own genre in America. There’s something like 1700 bluegrass festivals. It has its own Billboard chart. It’s very much its own thing. That being said, the Americana scene, you can float into that as well But the country music industry and the bluegrass industry in America are two very separate industries.
So is a lot of your time spent going to those festivals and playing shows in venues that are right for bluegrass?
Yes, pretty much. Almost every weekend I’m in the car somewhere, playing a bluegrass show to people who are there to see bluegrass, which is really cool. It’s different.
Are there any shows or festivals that stand out in your mind as being unusual or something that you didn’t expect?
No. I guess I’ve been going to America for so long and going to festivals for so long that I understand them. A lot of the bluegrass festivals are outdoor festivals – they’re not like Tamworth where the whole town gets involved. It’s at a particular park – like the Country Rocks festival in Sydney or CMC Rocks in Queensland, where the festival is at one site, and there’s bluegrass from sun-up to sundown.
Are you ever sick of getting in the car? Because those distances can be vast, I imagine.
No, not yet. I’ll keep you posted. So far I’m just enjoying learning about a new country.
It’s a new country but relatively new, because you’ve been working there for a while. You’re still young, but as an artist with an established career, what do you look for in the way of new challenges?
When it comes to my albums, my challenge is always to try to make an album that’s better than the last. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because you’ll put your whole heart and soul into something, and then in two years’ time you try to better it. It can be really hard to do and really nerve-wracking. Coming into Ricochet from Part of Me, Part of Me was such a personal album and I took some chances on that album – I definitely moved into more straight-ahead bluegrass and away from so many country influences, and I wasn’t sure how that was going to fit. And it went really well for me and had so many high standards for us to get to with Ricochet, but I think we managed to do it. From a performance side of it, I just want to make music and make a living out of playing the music that I love. Of course I have my goals of playing the Grand Ole Opry and I have my goals of having charting singles in Australia and in America. But really I play music because I love it and I just want to play music to new people and visit new places, and my goals are very much set around that.
You spend a lot of your year in the United States, and you do come back for Tamworth and other things, but it seems that you move quite seamlessly between the two countries. Do you feel that you’re at home in both places now?
Yes, definitely. Now that I’m married and I’ve got my little girl, I think home for me has become that isn’t a place, it’s the people that you’re with. And I’ve got such a great support network in both countries now that as much as I miss Australia and I miss our culture, and there’s no place like home, I’ve been able to adapt to the surroundings in America and understand that I’ve got support there. We own a house there now, so we’ve got a place of our own. It’s becoming a lot easier for me to call America my second home. It will never be my first home – Australia will always be my first home – but I definitely do call America home now as well.
Ricochet is out now through Mountain Fever/Country Rocks.