The most surprising thing to Melissa Carper about her newfound success might be all the emails she has to send. A month before the release of her new solo album, Carper was still getting used to the non-musical work required of her, now that the 50-year-old indie singer-songwriter has waded into the big-time music industry. Her latest album, Ramblin’ Soul, is her first to receive a nationwide release (via Thirty Tigers). Rolling Stone named it one of the year’s best country albums and it’s shot up the Americana radio charts, introducing the musician, who’s been playing for nearly four decades, to the daily realities of being a recording artist in 2022.
At the time Rolling Stone spoke with Carper, she was coordinating music video shoots, searching for a manager, communicating with members of her newly expanded team, and connecting all sorts of dots on her album rollout. “I feel like I’ve almost been baptized into the music business this past year,” says Carper, a Nebraska native who now lives in Bastrop, Texas, with partner (and bandmate) Rebecca Patek.
After releasing Daddy’s Country Gold, produced by Andrija Tokic and Dennis Crouch, in 2021, Carper slowly started building a small but passionate audience. The album arrived like a relic from a long ago time, with the vocalist-bassist sounding like a cross between Patsy Cline and Iris DeMent while delivering come-ons about milking goats. Musicians, especially, took notice: Chris Scruggs, John Cowan of New Grass Revival, and members of the touring band for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, including JD McPherson, all became fans.
All of this came as a surprise to Carper, who got her feet wet on the live stage at just 12 years old, playing four-hour gigs at Elks Lodges and in local bars in Nebraska with her family band. Together, they covered everything from Hank Williams to Eighties country-pop. As a child, Carper was fond of singing Sylvia’s 1982 radio hit “Nobody.”
As she got older, she started writing songs too, and when she finally got around to recording her first proper country record (she had self-released a raw collection of blues tunes in 2015), her goal was to pair what she had been performing for years with a world-class group of musicians. She recruited Scruggs, pianist Jeff Taylor (The Time Jumpers), Lloyd Green on pedal steel, and other A-listers. “I had no expectations,” she says of Daddy’s Country Gold, “absolutely no expectations, for how it would do.”
But the reception for the album inspired Carper to record more. She still had an immense backlog of songs from her years of gigging and writing and she set about assembling them for Ramblin’ Soul. This time, Carper expanded upon the mid-century country-jazz stylings of Daddy’s Country Gold, incorporating gospel, western swing, and soul.
When she told Tokic, who returned to produce with Crouch, that she wanted to lean more into classic R&B sounds for Ramblin’ Soul, Tokic’s eyes lit up. “I was like, ‘Easy,’” says Tokic, who’s known for modernizing those classic sounds on albums by Alabama Shakes and Benjamin Booker.
Neither Carper nor her collaborators wince when they hear words like “classic,” “throwback,” and “retro” being used to describe Carper’s music. It’s a compliment to them. “It’s just what seems like normal to us,” as Tokic puts it. “Melissa is not out there pandering to anything. She is what she is, and she sounds how she sounds, and she does it because she wants to do it.”
Carper, for her part, finds power in using decades-old styles as a backdrop for narratives and melodies that feel more contemporary. “I realize I’m obviously not doing anything that progressive, stylistically,” she says. “But I’m also not doing anything intentionally. It’s just what comes out.”
If Daddy’s Country Gold was a primer, then Ramblin’ Soul is a more fleshed-out representation of Carper as a vocalist, arranger, and songwriter. There are the bluesy leanings of “1980 Dodge Van,” a cover of Brennen Leigh’s gorgeous ballad “Hanging On to You,” and the mid-century crooning of “From What I Recall.”
The album’s centerpiece is the piano ballad “Ain’t a Day Goes By,” which Carper wrote years ago about the passing of her dog Betty. Betty had been by her side as Carper suffered a series of personal losses and crises. Her parents both died within a year, and she had come to feel as though she’d lost a brother struggling with schizophrenia, too. Then her dog died.
“Betty’s death finally forced me to deal with grief that I had been stifling,” Carper writes in a follow-up email. “I feel like [her] death sort of pushed the grief over the edge. In the past I had used alcohol to numb myself with this kind of loss, but I knew I couldn’t keep that up.” Writing the song, she says, helped her process what she’d been bottling up.
But while the grief may finally be out in the open to confront, Carper has yet to fully feel comfortable as an artist releasing music under her own name. She has reservations about standing onstage by herself and in being a front person, without the safety net and familiar comfort that comes with being a member of a group.
“That’s why it’s taken me this long to even make a solo album, because I’m not that comfortable as the leader in a band,” she says. “It’s definitely something that’s challenging for me, and I’m trying to meet the challenge and overcome my discomfort.” After using up many of her old songs on Daddy’s Country Gold and Ramblin’ Soul, Carper has already written an entire new album’s worth of material. She’s excited to start making her third record — even if that means more emails to send.
While she may be surprised by the business realities she’s now staring down, she’s also refreshingly honest in talking about them. Two of the songs on her album are suggestions from a new sync company she started working with: The company wanted her to record Odetta’s “Hit or Miss” and also include a song “about freedom and individuality,” which resulted in the lovely “I Do What I Wanna.”
None of that bothers Carper, but the larger picture does present her with some decisions to make. After decades of playing music as part of a local community, does Carper want to deal with what’s required to raise one’s national profile? Carper mentions a recent in-depth story about her in the Austin Chronicle that asked, “Her version of authentic revivalism seems primed for broad attention. The only question: if Carper herself is ready for that attention.”
“When I got to that sentence, I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know.” Carper says. “Is this what I want to be doing? Am I ready for it?’”