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On the morning before the first birthday of her firstborn, Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers slept late, and with good reason. The previous evening, her son Talon lived up to his rather fierce name by fighting a mostly successful battle against slumber. "He's actually done quite well lately," Chambers says in an unexpectedly chipper voice, "but he spent the night before last at his nana's -- my Mum's -- and I think she might have spoiled him. But that's what nanas are for."
Although this story makes Talon's family seem fairly typical, it's been anything but since Chambers went over the top in the land Down Under. Her first two albums -- 1999's The Captain and 2002's Barricades & Brickwalls -- earned deserved critical huzzahs, platinum sales and a batch of fabulous prizes. In late May, at an awards ceremony staged by the Australasian Performing Right Association (the equivalent of stateside organizations such as ASCAP or BMI), Chambers's "Not Pretty Enough" was declared to be both the year's best song and the "most performed Australian work" of 2002. "I was really surprised," Chambers notes of her victory over the likes of clothing-optional chanteuse Kylie Minogue. "And I hope to hell it happens again."
Of course, popularity on this scale has kept Chambers on tour for much of Talon's life, and instead of leaving him in the care of others, she and her partner, Cori Hopper, have opted to take him along. That doesn't make for the most normal routine, either, but compared to the circumstances under which Chambers was reared, it's Ozzie and Harriet material. She spent most of her first nine years living with her parents, Bill and Diane Chambers, and older brother, Nash, on the Nullarbor Plain, a vast and virtually treeless expanse where Bill made a living of sorts hunting for foxes. It was an austere and isolated way to come of age, but one also marked by rare and addictive beauty. As Chambers sings in "Nullarbor Song," a highlight of Barricades, "If I'm not here in the morning/I'll cry a river of tears/I'll learn to live in a new town/But my heart is staying here."
6:45 p.m. Friday, June
Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Telluride
There are advantages to a less-primitive existence. "We had to hunt for our food, so I feel lucky that I can go down to the store and buy normal baby food for Talon," Chambers acknowledges with a laugh. "I think I'm a bit luckier now in a certain way than when I was growing up, but the fact that I was exposed to such a different lifestyle -- well, I was pretty lucky to have had that as well."
The end of the family's lengthy camping trip was brought about not by a sudden desire for ordinariness, but by a leap into another odd career: show business. Bill and Diane were musicians with a love of American country and folk music, among other things, and in 1986, they began gigging in public again. Soon, Kasey and Nash joined them in what was dubbed the Dead Ringer Band. The chemistry was as natural as natural could be. "My mum didn't sing -- she played bass -- but my dad and my brother and I did. And there was just a way that our three voices blended that I don't think I've blended with since."
Ensembles with members connected by blood are a tradition when it comes to C&W in this country (think of the Carter Family), but in Australia, "it was unique, and still is, really," Chambers notes. "You often have, maybe, a brother or two brothers in a band. But as far as having a mum, dad and two kids, I don't know of any time that's happened here before. People were just kind of fascinated with the fact that two kids went out on the road with their parents and played in a band."
Indeed, the Dead Ringers quickly won a following, not to mention a slew of industry plaudits; for example, Bill's "Things Aren't the Same on the Land," recorded by Slim Dusty, was named the best song of 1992 by the Country Music Association of Australia. However, acclaim couldn't keep Bill and Diane together. Chambers was on the cusp of her twenties when they split up their marriage and the band -- a pair of shocks that left her shaken but not shattered.
"It was definitely a traumatic time," she says. "But Nash and I were old enough to realize that a marriage breaking up didn't necessarily mean the family would break up. I think it's a lot harder when you're young; you blame yourself. But we never really went through that, because we were old enough to know that they were better off being apart. They weren't happy together, and if you're not happy, why stay at it? That helped me to get through, because I saw the logic of what was happening. Looking back on it now, they're definitely much better friends now than they've ever been; they kind of rose above everything, even though they went through some hard times. They still manage to come out on the road with me -- both of them -- and they enjoy each other's company, and neither of them regrets their marriage. I admire them for that."
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.
"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.