Josh Rouse is at the forefront of a movement some critics call “alternative country,” a label that Rouse himself disputes. He considers his music not so much alternative country as straightforward singing and good old-fashioned songwriting. “I don’t really hear any country in it at all,” he told Lauren McMenemy in Australia’s Advertiser. Nevertheless, starting with his 1998 debut release, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Rouse and his music have captured the imagination of audiences both in the United States and abroad.
Born in 1972 in Nebraska, Rouse grew up with his mother and stepfather, a construction worker who took jobs all over the American West, including points in California, Utah, and Wyoming, uprooting the family in the process. Searching for some stability, Rouse went to live with his father, a military man, when he was in his teens, moving first to Georgia, and then to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. Moving around a lot as a kid influenced the direction Rouse’s music would take when he reached adulthood. “It really shaped me as a person,” he told Kieran Grand in the Toronto Sun. “There’s an openness to the sound that I think I got from moving to, say, a big city in California to a Wyoming town of five or six hundred.”
Growing up, Rouse loved the music of the Smiths, the Cure, R.E.M., and similar 1980s bands; he also enjoyed 1970s artists like Fleetwood Mac and Carole King. Music was his passion from the beginning; his uncle taught him how to play the guitar, and in junior high he played trombone and violin. In high school he formed a punk rock band with some friends; this is when Rouse began to write his own songs. Although the band played only in the basement of one of its member’s houses, the experience gave Rouse a taste of what was to come.
After graduating from high school, Rouse went to Austin Peay University in Clarksville, Tennessee, but he soon moved on again, living for a time in Arizona, and then South Dakota. He finally settled in the Nashville area in 1996 because it was a place he felt he could develop musically; there were clubs in which he could perform and meet other musicians. As he later told Sophie Best in of the Melbourne, Australia’s Age, “Everyone outside of Nashville thinks of the industry of country music. But those people (commercial country artists) don’t play there. There’s a really cool live-music scene, a lot of good bands and some really good songwriters.”
The move paid off; in Nashville, Rouse met David Henry, a recording engineer and cellist who had worked with such notables as the Cowboy Junkies and Vic Chesnutt. In the spirit of his high school band, the two began to record in Henry’s home studio, just for the fun of playing music. Their work featured songs Rouse composed, accompanied by his guitar playing and easy-going vocals, drums, and Henry’s cello. The home recordings impressed scouts at the Rykodisc label enough to give Rouse to a contract for an album for the label’s Slow River imprint. Dressed Up Like Nebraska was released to critical acclaim in 1998.
The album’s success surprised Rouse, who cared little for commercial achievement and only wanted to make the best music he could. As he later remarked on the Rykodisc website, “As soon as I quit caring, a deal popped up.” Most importantly, the album allowed Rouse to quit his day job as a hotel valet parking attendant and devote all his time to writing and playing music.
Not long after the release of Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Rouse made friends with Kurt Wagner, the leader of the country music band Lambchop. This led to their collaboration on an album, Chester, released in 1999. The work was somewhat experimental, with Rouse setting Wagner’s lyrics to music, and singing them through a telephone.
Rouse’s second solo effort, the 2000 album Home, showcased his songwriting process, which involves little more than sitting down with his guitar and a tape recorder and simply letting the music flow. “I don’t really think about it too much,” he told Jon M. Gilbertson in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I don’t edit it. I usually think about it afterward and try to make the process as true as possible.”
In addition to his recording efforts, Rouse continued to play live music, touring with other artists such as David
Born Joshua Rouse in 1972 in Nebraska. Education: Attended Austin Peay University in Clarks ville, TN.
Released debut album, Dressed Up Like Nebraska, 1998; collaborated with Kurt Wagner on Chester, 1999; on the Slow River label (an imprint of Rykodisc), released Home, 2000, and Under Cold Blue Stars, 2002.
Addresses: Record componi;—Rykodisc, 2 Main St., Gloucester, MA 01930. Website— Josh Rouse Official Website: http://www.joshrouse.com.
Gray, Aimee Mann, Sun Volt, and Golden Smog. His music was also noticed by television producers, who chose his songs for television shows like Ed, Roswell, and Party of Five. Movie directors took notice as well, and his work was featured in several major motion pictures, including Hamlet and Vanilla Sky.
In 2002 Rouse released his third solo effort, Under Cold Blue Stars, a concept album whose songs tell the story of a couple (loosely modeled on Rouse’s parents) living in the Midwest in the 1950s. Rouse called it his best effort ever, partly because of the songs’ unifying theme, which emerged only as he was writing them. As he wrote, he found that the songs followed a theme, and he simply explored this direction. The result was the loose arc of a story that Rouse pieced together from personal narratives told by his parents, grandparents, and other relatives.
Under Cold Blue Stars features the production work of Roger Moutenot, an experienced engineer who has also worked with John Zorn, Lou Reed, and others. It was the first time that Rouse had worked with a producer other than David Henry, but the three of them found a good balance, and Henry, too, contributed both engineering expertise and cello. In addition to the straightforward sounds of his earlier work, Rouse and Moutenot and Henry added loops, along with processed strings and horns to overlay to Rouse’s singing and guitar playing.
When critics compared Under Cold Blue Stars favorably to the music of U2, Rouse said that although he did not consciously emulate the popular rock band, they were an early influence. He tries to create music that is uniquely his, in which the lyrics matter and the music doesn’t simply become sonic wallpaper. He told Sophie Best in Age that, in spite of a recording climate in which such bland background music is increasingly popular, “people are looking for real stuff, and maybe it’s opened the door for people like me.”
Dressed Up Like Nebraska, Slow River, 1998.
(With Kurt Wagner) Chester, Slow River, 1999.
(Contributor) Hamlet (soundtrack), Rykodisc, 2000.
Home, Slow River, 2000.
(Contributor) Vanilla Sky (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 2001.
Under Cold Blue Stars, Slow River, 2002.
Advertiser (Australia), August 15, 2002.
Age (Melbourne, Australia), August 16, 2002.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 28, 2002.
Toronto Star, July 21, 1998.
Toronto Sun, July 21, 1998.
“Josh Rouse,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (February 5, 2003).
“Josh Rouse Bio,” Rykodisc, http://www.rykodisc.com/RykoInternal/Features/343/bio.html (February 5, 2003).
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