The ‘Garage Country’ World of Aubrie Sellers
Or how a raw-edged, sweet-voicedcountry singer is shaking up a genre
“If you’re not pushing buttons, you’re just making something pleasant; it’s probably been done before, and it’s not making people feel anything.” So says post-country chanteuse Aubrie Sellers, and if you’ve not heard of her yet, sit tight, you will.
New City Blues, Sellers’ incendiary debut, initially released on Carnival/Thirty Tigers this past January, has been snapped up by Warner’s and was released anew with two bonus tracks in September. It’s indeed a button-pusher. Guitars growl and bark, sounding like 1950s Sears Silvertone amps on 11, honks and licks spurting up in the foreground while a Daniel Lanois-esque scrim of chorus and echo hangs as a backdrop, anchored in place by thunder drums. It’s like Luther Dickinson, The Edge, and Jon Bonham all played in the same band, and it’s far from “chillin’ to some Skynyrd and some ol’ Hank” fare. “Garage country,” Sellers calls it, the sometimes ever-soslight twang in her voice being the one long arm going all the way back to the Opry, and her lyrics that tell about being a 24-year-old woman in 2016 as adroitly as Loretta Lynn told the story of being a mother of three in 1967.
The record begins with a Western sunrise. A gauzy, Gretsch tremolo twang rises up over the horizon alone, pulling shadows across the dirt. It rises slowly. After 30 seconds, the picked notes give way to chords until the sound has as much to do with Radiohead as it does a 21st century spaghetti Western. Then, at the 45-second mark, in come the drums, and when they come, they rattle Gary Glitter’s hairpiece right off his head. Add bass guitar, shake well. In 60 seconds, what started as a quiet morning moment in the desert has become a barefisted call to arms, and then the voice hits. Like Texas honey.
Sittin’ at the corner of an old crossroad
Yella light red light green light go
I can’t hit the gas, can’t turn the wheel
Can’t go back and make a deal
The sun ain’t up, the moon’s gone away
Sure gets dark before the light of day!
It could be a song about love, about despair, or about this whole godforsaken country of ours. It’s two parts country, two parts rock & roll, two parts young woman’s diary, and two more parts rock & roll. And with a couple of “take a breather” tunes at points along the way, this aggression is perpetuated for the lion’s share of the record. Some people are going to get it, some aren’t, and that suits Sellers just fine.
If any or all of its elements were toned down toward industry standards a good 30 percent, you’d still have a breath of fresh air; as it is, it’s a gale. And you will be kissed by the storm. At the time of the interview, she had just gotten home from an eight-week tour of radio stations. By the time this goes to press, you will have heard of her. Record labels don’t send an artist on a two-month tour of radio stations for you to wind up not having heard of her. And if the hype weren’t justified, if Aubrie Sellers weren’t a raw-knuckled right cross to the whole pistol-packing country music genre, then cool matte-finish magazines wouldn’t put her on the cover either.
Sellers’ road to glory started four years ago, when she first packed her talent and her gear into a Yukon and hit the road, playing every hole in the wall that would have her. It fit her, that kind of life. She was used to it. The road has always been her home, and we’ll get to why that is in a bit.
The road has led her to this moment at The Post East coffee shop on Fatherland on a sunny autumn noontime, fresh from the photo shoot for this story. She is radiant in black from head to toe: black hair, eyes rimmed with kohl, black sweater top, black leather pants, black all the way down to her fingernails. In the midst of all this stark raven magic is a magnetic million-dollar smile that’s a deadringer for Mom’s. Sellers is Lee Ann Womack’s daughter.
Immediately, 50 percent of you are scoffing and thinking, “Well that explains all the attention, doesn’t it!” But everyone from Bobby Bare Jr. on down will tell you that good breeding is no golden ticket. In some ways, it makes it all just that much harder.
And this is why Sellers — going by that name — hit the road in her Yukon four years ago under her own flag, blithely anonymous. Nobody knew it was Lee Ann Womack’s daughter playing for scraps in some dive in Oklahoma. Or if they caught her opening for Marty Stuart, or Hayes Carll, or John Moreland, or Chris Stapleton, nobody ever said, “Hey, she’s good. I wonder whose daughter she is.” “People ask me, ‘Are you going to sing any of your mom’s songs?’ ” she muses, nursing a cup of water, “Uh, no!”
Often a solo acoustic act, these shows would only hint at the garage country she wanted to capture as a recording artist. “I’ve got a very traditional, sort of country sweet voice, and this very electric, driving music,” she says. “That’s not really been paired frequently — never in country, so people hear it for the first time and they don’t know what to do with it because it’s so raw to them, because they’re so used to hearing processed, over-produced tunes. All my influences, all my favorite records, are raw. And they’re older, because back then you couldn’t overdo things, Led Zep records and Steve Earle and George Jones — and Ralph Stanley is one of my favorite singers of all time. I think all of those people made really soulful records, and Buddy and Julie Miller, too.
“Two things that drove this record were the electric guitars and the drums,” she continues, “We all got in there in one room and recorded the bulk of it live together. There was an initial week, then another day later on that we went back in and did some more songs. And, of course, there was more than that, there was preproduction and us just getting in and messing around with guitar pedals and sounds. It was a process. I started recording three years ago and didn’t really stop working on it until two years after that and then started figuring out what to do with it.”
Sellers’ words hit as hard as the music. “Sit Here and Cry,” the new single, is honky-tonk-on-steroids, hammering out the futility of holding on to what’s gone. (“I’m gonna sit here and cry ‘til you come back!”) It’s her favorite track on the record. “It’s got some energy to it,” she says.
The headstrong boom-cha of “Liar Liar” lays a cad on the mat and spanks him senseless. “People Talking” goes after the very gossip hounds that got that cad in trouble to begin with. And “Magazines” targets the vacuousness of the celebrity culture. The raucous, pounding “Paper Doll” has more to do with The Sonics than anything on country radio.
There’s a sense of the rootlessness endemic to her generation, the displacement and uncertainty; the joy, the rage, and the seamy day-to-dayness that is a millennial woman’s lot in 2016 America. It’s maybe no more stark than on “Losing Ground.” “It’s a personal song about how I feel every day,” she says, “I wrote just to get it out. It was not one of those ‘craftsmanship’ songs, more like a journal or therapy. I didn’t know if anyone would get it or feel that way, but it turned out a lot of people connect with that song.
“I tell people there’s not a lot of happy songs,” she adds, stirring the straw in her water, the sun through the window setting a sparkle in her eyes against her jet black backdrop, “but they’re not unhappy songs either. It’s life. The way it is.”
And indeed there is enough tentative contentment here, too. “Something Special” describes a lady inviting her man to find some Zen delight in a frankly mundane evening with her: They can go down to the lake, or go to the coffee shop, or sit under the stars, just something they don’t do all the time. (“Stop and smell the roses / you know they go so fast.”) And “The Humming Song,” which eschews words in the chorus entirely to focus on the lost art of our age — melody. “That’s another one I wrote by myself,” she offers. “The atmosphere of that song is really important to me and to the record, because that’s another facet of me, that dreamy sound and the big melody that transports you to another place. I like that really aggressive dirty gritty sound, and I love that dreamy atmospheric sound. I love California steel, like Neil Young, or Bakersfield sound kind of steel. That’s very dreamy, very atmospheric, so I have some of that on ‘Losing Ground’ and ‘The Humming Song’ and it creates some of that mood.” To sweeten the deal melodically, the two bonus tracks are covers of golden classic tunes: the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and the Zombies’ “The Way I Feel Inside,” cut live in the studio. Considerably gentler fare, they’re not unlike a bubble bath after a hard day.
“I got my first guitar when I was 13, and that’s when I started playing and writing; but I didn’t consider myself a songwriter ’til I started writing for this album,” she says, “and then I couldn’t imagine not writing all my songs. When you’ve been playing your whole life, you want to know the songs are as true as you can make them. Who’s truer to my life than me?”
Sellers was born in Nashville 24 years ago, the scion of East Texas expats: traditionalist country powerhouse Lee Ann Womack and Jason Sellers of Ricky Skaggs’ band. She grew up on the tour bus, loving it. She was home-schooled by her mom on that bus, and she saw early on what life was like behind the curtain.
“I’ve always been introverted,” she says — although she comes across very personable — “and to have my mom occupied all the time working, I was off doing my own thing just observing all the time, and I noticed many times how people behaved when my mother was in the room and when she wasn’t. For instance, I would go to Donut Den all the time a long time ago, and there was a girl there who wasn’t very friendly. And then one time my mom went in and the girl acted like the nicest person in the whole world, and just experiencing that over and over again gave me a cynical view of people. Just seeing that happen a lot, growing up in the entertainment industry, there’s a lot of phoniness and a lot of people going head over heels for something and you’re like, why? I write about that a lot — ‘Magazines’ and ‘Paper Doll’ and ‘Liar Liar,’ they’re all about phoniness in different forms.”
And while all the glitz and schmooze didn’t make her terminally cynical, it did make her aware. And she learned. She learned that this was show biz — both show and biz. It taught her a lot about what to do, what not to do, and how important it was to find and work with the right group of people.
A few years ago, she struck up such a relationship with Grammy-nominee Adam Wright, with whom she cowrote seven of the album’s 16 tracks, and who contributes guitar, piano, ukulele, and harmonica. Other fingerprints on the songs belong to East Nashville favorite Mando Saenz, Neil Mason, Jessie Jo Dillon, Dani Flowers, Phillip and Amber White, Brent Cobb, and Aubrie’s father, Jason Sellers. Then again, a healthy handful of the tunes came from the pen of Sellers herself alone and without a net. There is nothing on the record that was pitched from an outside source, as is the way of this town. It’s all Sellers, sometimes with coconspirators, sometimes not.
The players on the record are heavy hitters: Glenn Worf on the bass, Fred Eltringham on the drums, Chris Coleman on guitars and keys, Josh Grange on pedal steel, Tim Marks on bass, Park Chisholm on guitar and banjo, and Jason Goforth on harp and the lap steel that lights up “In My Room” through a montage of pedals. Mom even chimes in on a backing vocal or two.
“A lot of the wacky guitar stuff is done by Chris,” Sellers notes. “He likes country music and understands it like I do, but he also understands the rock stuff, and he’s really willing to be bold and get ‘out there’ and try a bunch of stuff until something sticks. And Fred plays on a lot of records; he’s an incredible drummer, and when I told him I like ‘When the Levee Breaks’ and I like this live drum sound on a lot of these records — this kind of really trashy bold drums — he was totally able to do it and knew what I was talking about.” Sellers’s stepfather, Frank Liddell, produced the album. And before you even say it, this is not like anything he’s ever produced before, for a lot of the instrumental reasons we’ve already noted.
Sellers’ life is going to be on the road — like she’s well accustomed to — for a long time to come. She left on tour the day after the interview. She was destined to go to England among other places. After the new year, from January through to the end of March, she’s going to be out opening for Miranda Lambert, and many people who have not yet been exposed to her absolutely will be. Time will tell if 2017 is the Year of Aubrie; what is assured is that a lot of people right now believe it will be. Her acerbic and joyous sides will be on display in stadiums.
“Maybe my favorite line from the whole album is from ‘Like the Rain,’ and it says, ‘no flower grows on sunshine alone.’ I think that really sums up a lot of my writing,” she says.
As the sun through the coffee house window plays on Sellers’ face, there’s a feeling that the light is going to shine on her for a good while to come.