Every September, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion festival is strung out along State Street, which separates Bristol, Va., from Bristol, Tenn. Last fall, singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez performed at the festival in the Cameo, an old movie theater on the Virginia side. She wore a black jacket over a turquoise top; red lipstick brightened her heart-shaped face; and a fiddle was tucked under her chin.
It had been four years since the former Texas teen prodigy released an album of original songs, but she had just recorded a new one and was eager to play the new songs in public, even though that album, "Give Me All You Got," would not be released until January. She was right to be proud of the songs, for they displayed a new rhythmic muscle and a darker lyric viewpoint.
Especially impressive was "Devil in Mind," a song she had written with her former duo partner, Chip Taylor. The new tune began with slashing chords from Luke Jacobs' acoustic guitar and an eerie drone from Rodriguez's fiddle. In her chiming soprano, she sang about a wary encounter with a strange man she suspected of devilish intentions.
In other songs, she confessed to devilish intentions of her own.
"I'm not an innocent / I am older than my looks," the 34-year-old Rodriguez sang on another Taylor song, "Cut Me Now," about facing a partner with steely determination and daring him to break it off. In "Brooklyn," she sang about the city in which she once lived and to the marriage she left behind. All the new songs revealed a scarred but toughened singer-songwriter.
"The older you get, the more heartache you have to go through," Rodriguez says, "and I've definitely had my share since 2006. I've gone through a divorce; I went through dark periods and came out on the other side.
"Cut Me Now," she says, "could be taken several ways, but I hear it as a song of absolute strength. Knowing yourself well enough to know when it's time to end something and knowing that when it's over, you'll be okay. I can see where reading the lyrics could seem a little weird, but I don't mind making a listener feel a little uncomfortable. That's what art should do sometimes. One time in an interview, my friend Bill Frisell said he liked how music can be so dangerous, but it still doesn't hurt anybody. I loved that; I've taken that to heart -- not just in songwriting but also in performances. Sometimes I take insane fiddle solos that don't always land so well, but I love going for it."
Frisell, the noted jazz guitarist, played on two albums Taylor and Rodriguez cut together and also on Rodriguez's 2006 debut solo album, "Seven Angels on a Bicycle." Rodriguez occasionally plays in Frisell's band and works with his longtime producer, Lee Townsend. Her first project with Townsend was the 2010 album "Love and Circumstance," her interpretations of songs by Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, Richard Thompson, Buddy Miller and her father, noted Texas singer-songwriter David Rodriguez.
"I got into songwriting in such a funny way," Rodriguez says. "I wasn't seeking it out. In fact, when I was younger, it never occurred to me that I'd write songs. When you have a parent who's a very good songwriter, you somehow decide it's not something you want or are able to do. Chip had to really twist my arm to start writing with him. But I also realized that if one of the great songwriters of our time was asking me to write songs with him, I'd be a fool if I didn't take advantage of it."
After getting signed by a major label, Rodriguez began working with songwriters Gary Louris and Dan Wilson. "It all happened so fast," she says, "and I was writing with people who had so much experience. It left me reeling. What is my true voice? What do I contribute? Every songwriter's a little different than every other songwriter, and I wasn't sure what made me different."
She came to realize that she liked songs with few words and a lot of emotion, songs that were different from her father's dense, political material. She learned that as a former classical violin student at Oberlin, she still liked the instrumental give-and-take of an ensemble. She also liked the combination of loss and hope in the same song, as on the new album's "Sad Joy," about a relative who remained upbeat despite a debilitating disease.
"I just love the way dark and light go together," Rodriguez says. "In some ways, that's what that song 'Sad Joy' is all about. I'm becoming so much more aware of those things as I get older. I'll take a few gray hairs if I can learn things like that."
One could hear the benefits of those experiences at the Bristol festival, during the gorgeous slow waltz "Get Back in Love" as Rodriguez crooned that no matter how bad things get, "it only takes a slow jukebox dance to get back in love." And on "I Don't Mind Waiting," an old-fashioned song that proclaims the best things in life are worth waiting for. For this singer-songwriter, that waiting is over.