"The whole concept of just being able to take your guitar wherever and make money and play and sing and tell your stories for people, that’s the basis of my musical existence that always drew me in,” Rorey Carroll says while sitting in Bongo East in a pretty wrap-around dress munching on a Rice Krispies Treat. “But I’m more inspired playing with a band, because it’s fun and it’s communal, and I just like rocking out. It’s more fun. But the troubadour thing is definitely very ingrained in me.”
Carroll’s most recent album, Love is an Outlaw, is as strong as any record from our scene in the past year, a seamlessly put together mélange of guitars, keys, pedal steel, strings, a drummer gifted with subtlety — and right where it should be in the mix sits Carroll’s matter-of-fact voice, betraying a tough intimacy with a dash of “don’t fuck with me.” The voice of a friend who has to take you aside and privately tell you something. With no dull spots and only a couple of overtly country songs buried in the back, it’s a lush and rootsy indie record.
There are a lot of train songs here, even when trains are not mentioned. People populating Carroll’s lyrics are often in motion, looking for love, drugs, the blues, and better people to hang their hearts on. Plenty of stars write and play plenty of songs about riding the rails in boxcars, drifting from town to town like Woody Guthrie, doing the hobo thang, and the only thing all these artists have in common is they’ve never ridden any dang rails in any dang boxcars, ever. Well, Carroll really did it. Seriously. For a bloody long time, too!
In her early 20s she forsook a comfortable middle class life in Chicago, hopped a boxcar and lived the life of a nomad with a guitar for years, cadging food, avoiding the railroad dicks, busking on street corners, and taking part-time jobs in whatever town she would wind up in, earn a little money, pack in the job, and hit the rails again bound for another vista. She survived like smart people do, and today she’s a comely, intelligent 34-year-old with ginger hair, a bright smile, and a healthy face, betraying only hints of her travels.
She landed in East Nashville and stayed put. Her songs caught on in the clubs, and drew the attention of Todd Snider, the bulldog mayor of the East Side. “I kept hearing about this girl who was a troubadour, a songwriter with a life story, and she opened for me a couple of times,” Snider says. “I saw her get a standing ovation, and then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to make a label. I thought, ‘I gotta get in on this action,’ ” he adds and laughs. “But actually, I talked to Chad, who is the piano player in the Hard Working Americans, and I’m like, dude, let’s help this girl put out a record, so we went out and got a financier guy, she built a team, we went out, and she toured with me.”
“Being on the road with Todd has taught me so much about the art of performing,” Carroll says, still working on her Rice Krispies Treat. “He’s shown me a lot of different ways of delivery and how to be on stage. It was kind of strange how natural he was to be my mentor. But it fit.” She wound up on Snider’s Lo- Hi record label, and began to catch on with a wide swath of people.
Ironically, her nomad life has returned, only this time she sees it from a tour van. “I only want it if it’s good, and not just good enough,” she sings on Love is an Outlaw, and it’s a maxim for her. Todd Snider as a mentor isn’t just good enough. Her songs aren’t just good enough. They’re really good.