By Brad Lopez
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The separation left Chambers at loose ends, but she didn't stay that way for long. She'd been writing songs since her early teens, and she assembled the best of them on The Captain. In many ways, the disc was an extension of the Dead Ringer Band; Nash produced the album, and he and Bill played guitar and contributed background harmonies. Still, Chambers, who's blessed with a voice that's girlish but powerful, is clearly in charge, and she shows remarkable assurance even when copping to her youth on the lead cut, "Cry Like a Baby." As she put it, "I don't have answers for every single question/But that's okay, 'cause I'm just a kid."
The Captain was so striking a debut that it earned an American release, and the gorgeous title number played a central role in an episode of The Sopranos; it also can be heard on Pepper and Eggs, a tie-in to the HBO series. Barricades, which Nash also produced, is arguably even better, and not only because of guest appearances by artists such as Lucinda Williams -- whose performance at a concert Chambers saw at age twelve made the youngster decide to become a songwriter. ("I actually haven't told her that," Chambers reveals, "but she probably knows she's one of my biggest influences. Every time I see her, I follow her around like a puppy.") More important are the tunes, which cover more musical and emotional ground than those that preceded them. "Barricades & Brickwalls" is amped-up country at its most raucous; "A Little Bit Lonesome" is a worthy homage to Hank Williams Sr. (Bill's favorite); and "Ignorance" is a heartfelt and angry confessional keyed to the inspirational couplet "If you're not pissed off at the world/Then you're just not paying attention."
Unfortunately, U.S. country radio was equally as negligent, ignoring some of the year's finest sounds largely because of pigeonholing. The moment Chambers was identified as alt-country, she was doomed from an airplay perspective. Even so, she has no complaints.
6:45 p.m. Friday, June
Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride
"It's amazing to me when I go to America and tour, and we play to all these alternative-country fans who know who Lucinda Williams is, and they know who John Prine is, and they know who Fred Eaglesmith is," she says. "I do a lot of covers in my show, and they're usually by artists like that. So when I start a John Prine song and people start clapping, that's strange to me, because here in Australia, people really only know of John Prine because I cover his songs.
"It's hard to get country music on the radio in Australia, too, because we don't have any commercial mainstream country stations," she continues. "The country thing over here has a lot more support from live touring, where you don't really have to be on the radio and you can still draw people to shows. So I've been really lucky to break through with a couple of songs on mainstream pop radio here. I don't think an artist like me could ever get to the level in America that I'm at here in Australia. But it's exciting that I can go to America, where I don't get played on commercial radio, and I still get people to come out to my shows. That's something that surprises me every time."
After Chambers completes her current sweep through the States, she'll concentrate on completing a new album that's already got a healthy air of risk about it: "I can feel myself stepping out of the boundaries a bit," she says. Thus far, she's finished nine songs, several with the help of Talon's father. "He only started songwriting since we started writing together," she says, "but it's working out really well. My biggest problem with co-writing is that songwriting, for me, is such a personal thing. I expose a lot of myself in songs, so I find it really hard to sit down with somebody else and do that. I think the reason it's working with Cori is because I'm comfortable doing that in front of him."
In other words, Chambers is launching another family affair -- and Talon could be the next to join. For the first three months of his life, he could be calmed instantly when Chambers sang "Across the Great Divide," a Kate Wolf composition she learned from a Nanci Griffith disc, and while the ditty's magic has since worn off ("Maybe I gave it too much of a flogging," Chambers speculates), he remains captivated by songs in general. According to his mum, "Every time I get the guitar out, he comes over and starts strumming on it himself, so I think there's a bit of music there. I was hoping he was going to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I don't think that's going to happen." After a burst of laughter, she adds, "He's going to be a music bum like the rest of us."
Get ready for some more sleepless nights.