In quite an up-and-down year, a personal highlight has been meeting Liz Rose at the Country2Country Festival in the UK in March and asking her about Taylor Swift’s next album. “It’ll blow you away!” she assured me.
Rose was one of the key songwriters who helped Swift bring her stories to life: “White Horse”, “You Belong With Me”, “Fearless”, “Picture To Burn” (my fave!), “Tim McGraw” and the brilliant “Teardrops on my Guitar” are all Liz Rose co-writes. She also wrote “Girl Crush”, which she didn’t think much of initially. Boy was she wrong…
On her recently-released solo project Swimming Alone, Rose, so accustomed to “writing other people’s stories” as she tells audiences, sets ten of her own stories to music. Throughout the album’s 35 minutes, Rose’s voice hits each note – all comfortably in her range – and sounds mellifluous or funny when needed, a la Keira Knightley’s exquisite performance on the Begin Again soundtrack.
“Ex-Husbands” is a proper country song with a sort of Tom Waits-y beat. Its lyric is based on Rose’s life: indeed, two of her ex-husbands are now friends! One was a “real-life Marlboro Man”, another a “cowboy in a bar”; however, her “heart was busy making other plans”. The album’s final track, “My Apology”, has the narrator speaking more tenderly over a plucked acoustic guitar tuned down for extra emphasis: “To the hearts that I never should have touched when I knew I only did it for the rush” is a very nakedly emotional first line. I wonder where Taylor Swift got that ability from…
“Five & Dime” (“Everything you needed was inside those doors“) starts off with some great chords and tells a story of real life in small-town America. It’s a song you’d imagine Sheryl Crow could turn into a standout, and it’s the most fun “laundry list” song around – because it actually is a laundry list. No Silverado, Bud Lite nonsense here. The middle eight is gorgeous too, and the harmonies shimmer like a tune by Runaway June.
“Grocery Money”, about mothers (like Rose’s own) who struggle with odds stacked against them, is a hugely personal song that I cannot imagine anyone but Rose singing. “Chef Boyardee in a box and soda for the scotch” is a hell of a lyric. It’s a far cry from shopping for stuff at the Five & Dime: “I never thought twice about her sacrifice” is the kicker here. This is a modern country standard, and it’s only track one!
“Tulsa” is another song about her childhood (though she is Texan and not an Okie): “Little innocence slipped away,” she sighs as a guitar solo comes in. “Woodstock”, meanwhile, is a super stomper, produced brilliantly, which namechecks Crosby, Stills and Nash, and mentions smoking dope. It’s about the sadness of being “too young for Woodstock,” sung with Rose’s vocals double-tracked. The third verse mentions Vietnam; with fifty years’ distance, perhaps Rose is rewriting her own history now she knows about the politics as well as the free love.
“Letters From Prison”, sung with other voices like a campfire singalong, is a ditty that puts the words ‘his personal hell’ in a major key in triple time. It’s the prettiest song here, and is a contrast with “Yellow Room”, which seems to be the hit single (over 170,000 Spotify listens). That one is a gentle Swift-like song about a guy leaving “so soon…I miss seeing you sitting in the yellow room.” The characters feel real, even though we only have three minutes with them. “I guess I look for you in every man I’ve known,” Rose admits, really affected by the man she once knew.
“Sacred Ground” opens with an organ part and then introduces a Southern rock strum. The title track, which is a great metaphor, has her getting stoned and “always running away from home.” That’s how, she sings, “I learned how to survive.” Overall, the project is deeply personal and the lyrics expertly crafted, offering listeners a different side of Rose, who often assumes a more behind-the-scenes role as a cowriter.
Rose has her own publishing company to which Bailey and Seth Ennis, among others, are signed. For a new generation of Liz Roses, which includes RaeLynn, Lauren Alaina and Maren Morris, there can be no better guide. Long may she write, and help others write too!