Originally from South Australia, bluegrass artist Kristy Cox has made her home in Nashville for the past few years, originally with a songwriting deal. She has continued to write songs, and has also continued to release music while returning to Australia for the Tamworth Country Music Festival and tours, and winning Golden Guitar awards.
Cox’s sixth album, No Headlights, was released at the end of February, and she managed to fit in the recording around another very important commitment in her life.
‘We did the band tracks when I was 40 weeks pregnant,’ says Cox. ‘A week before [second child] Ryman was born. I didn’t even know if I was going to get into the studio to do them, to be honest. Jerry [Salley, the album’s producer] was all teed up to sing the guide tracks just in case I couldn’t get in there.
‘Ryman was six or seven weeks old [during recording] and you definitely have to retrain those muscles. It’s like not going to the gym and then trying to run a run a mile. Hang on, no, you need baby steps into it. And I didn’t give myself as many baby steps as I probably should have, so I definitely made it a lot harder on myself.
‘But I was just so excited, I wanted to get in there and get the album done,’ she says, laughing. ‘I said, “Right, baby’s out – album time!”‘
Jerry Salley has been Cox’s producer for all six of Cox’s albums. She says of him, ‘Jerry does a really good job of getting the best out of me. I don’t think I would be the artist that I am today without him, that’s for sure. He challenges me. He knows what I’m capable of more than what I know what I’m capable of. So he will throw me songs and say you need to do this, or he’ll say, “You need to sing a trill”, and I’ll say, “I can’t do that.” And there’s been times where I’ve literally walked out of the studio in tears because he’s said, “You need to do it”, and I’ve said, “I can’t do that.” “Yes, you can.” “No, I can’t.”
‘For me that’s what you want in a producer. That’s what you’re paying them for. I don’t want to be in a studio with somebody that’s happy to just say, “Yeah, great. Sounds good. Next!” I want to be challenged. I want to grow with every album that I do. And Jerry has done a really great job. This is our sixth album together so he’s done a really good job of taking me from this naive 22-year-old girl and guiding me to be able to sing the way that I’m trying to sing now. There’s no way I could be singing songs the way I am today without him mentoring me from the word go. He’s amazing and I guess he’s like my safety blanket now. As much as he does push me and we do have some friction, I couldn’t imagine being in the studio without him at the same time.’
Cox goes on to say that Salley is like her second father, as well as godfather to her son. ‘He definitely is a part of that family. So I’m a lucky girl that he took me under his wing.’
Given that Cox has had so many album releases, it seems reasonable to ask her if there’s anything she knows now that she wishes she’d known on album one.
‘I wish that I would sing the songs live more before I go into the studio,’ she says. ‘However, that hasn’t changed – I’m still learning the songs in the studio! I still haven’t nailed that down yet.
‘I guess I’ve definitely discovered how important it is to have a good mix of songs – not to have a whole album of break-up songs or a whole album full of sappy love songs. To make sure that you’ve got some light and shade and different feels and styles so that people don’t end up hitting skip. And that’s my goal with every album if I don’t want anyone to hit skip.’
Cox says that she is conscious of her audience at all times. ‘I definitely don’t pick songs or write songs that are too far out of who I am,’ she says, ‘because I know that who I am is what my audience knows. And that’s pretty easy because I am who I am. I don’t have a Kristy Cox stage persona and then really I’m shy. I am what you see. That’s easy for me, I guess. I know a lot of artists have one person that’s on stage and then they’re a completely different person behind closed doors. But I’m just trying to stay true to myself and when I’m picking songs or writing songs generally, if I don’t think I’m ever going to perform it live on stage I don’t record it. If I don’t like it enough to want to perform it live then don’t record it.’
Cox says that there have been songs that she’s recorded in the past that have made her think, I never want to perform that on stage.
‘And that’s where I kind of started to change with Ricochet, my last album,’ she says. ‘That was my goal with Ricochet: I want to be able to get on stage and perform every single song that I’ve recorded live.
‘]Fourth album] Part of Me had incredible songs on it, but there were so many on there that I either couldn’t do live because vocally in a live setting I’d never be able to get away with it. They’re so high to sing that in a studio I could do it because I was warmed up and I got to have three or four takes at it. But in a live setting you’ve only got to make one boo-boo, so I would steer away from a couple of those songs and say, “I’m not comfortable enough to do them live.”
‘The other thing is that the more that you sing a song, it’s kind of like a memory pattern in your vocal range, they get easier to do. So a song like “Yesterday’s Heartache” [from No Headlights] in the studio, that was a real struggle for me. I did only have a seven-week-old baby and I just had a C section and I was in pain, but it was vocally really challenging for me. But now that I’ve been performing it live, it just comes naturally. So one day I would like to go out on the road with my new songs, learn how to sing them and then go into the studio,’ she says with a laugh.
In terms of staying true to herself on stage and off, Cox explains further: ‘I am a South Australian girl who likes to drink Farmers Union iced coffee and eat Cadbury chocolate and I have two kids and I go to church when I remember.
‘I try not to make anything up,’ she says with a laugh. ‘I had one person say to me, “You know, you always put a gospel song on your albums. You’re Australian. That’s really strange for Australians to put a gospel song on their album.” Well, I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness so to me that’s not really that strange. I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but that’s how I was raised.’
One song that might be classified as a song about faith on No Headlights is ‘Every Day Man’. Of it, Cox says, ‘To me it struck a chord because it reminded me of my granddad and my dad and my uncles and all these amazing men that we have in the world that get up and go to work and work hard and do the right thing by their neighbour and do the right thing for their family, and love their wife and their children. And so many of them that might not have their name up in lights, but we couldn’t live without them. You know what I mean? That song is amazing because it highlights these men that we really couldn’t do without. So I guess it was kind of my manpower anthem, which you don’t hear a lot of any more.’
The album certainly achieves that balance of light and shade that Cox strives for, and also makes the most of her considerable talents as a performer and writer. While bluegrass doesn’t have the same prominence in Australia as other styles of country music, it has a significant audience in Europe, where Cox has been touring for the past ten years and is scheduled to tour this year (travel restrictions permitting, obviously). She will also, hopefully, be in Australia later in the year to play for old fans and new admirers.
No Headlights is out now through Mountain Fever Records/Red Rebel Music.
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