With his signature blue yodel, Jimmie Rodgers became country music’s first superstar shortly before the Great Depression. But by the spring of 1933, the “Singing Brakeman” was close to death–though he was only 35, he’d been bedridden for years fighting tuberculosis. Knowing it would be his last session, he booked time at a studio in New York City, where he was attended to by a nurse and lay on a cot between takes. Just a few days later he died of a lung hemorrhage. His remains were taken by train back to his native Mississippi, and thousands of people gathered to watch the railroad car bearing his casket pass by. When his body was interred in Meridian, a parade of mourners from all over the country came to pay their respects.
More than 65 years later, in the summer of 1999, singer-songwriter Shelley Short–at the time a 19-year-old art student in Oregon–made her own visit to Rodgers’s grave. “He was unlike anything I’d ever heard,” says Short. “The sparseness of the music, the sound of his yodel. The idea that he was sick in bed and had to struggle to make his last records really struck me in a deep way.”
Short made the stop in Meridian as part of a two-month country-music pilgrimage that also took her to Hank Williams’s resting place in Alabama and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Though the musical style she’s developed since then can’t strictly be classified as country–it mixes elements of moonstruck honky-tonk, bleak old-timey folk, and introverted indie rock–her reedy, winsome voice summons the ghosts of Rodgers, Williams, and a host of other long gone singers. When Short moved to Chicago a year and a half ago, hardly anyone here knew who she was–her discography consisted of a CD-R she’d released herself and a proper album that’d gone out of print. But on Valentine’s Day the Portland label Hush Records will put out Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow), a collection of loping waltzes, nuanced love songs, and delicate ballads that ought to help fix her in plenty of people’s minds.
Short was born and raised in Portland, the second of two children, and music was a constant in her early life. “My dad had a huge record collection, which he’d play all the time–thousands of records,” she says. “He would stay up all night and play one song over and over. He would make me and my brother stay up and listen and memorize songs.” Although her father didn’t play music, “he had a piano in the house, drums, bass, trumpets, all these instruments. I think he just loved how they looked.” Short picked up trombone in middle school band and in tenth grade started playing bass in a punky two-piece called Bogadoy, named after her brother’s childhood imaginary friend. The next year her obsession with country music began. “Hank Thompson, Hank Williams, but especially Jimmie Rodgers,” she says. “I remember hearing the first song by him and thinking, ‘God, this is awesome.'”
While attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Short taught herself how to play guitar and sing. She went to work as an after-school art instructor after her graduation in 2001, and late that year a friend invited her to perform at a hoot night called the Holiday Hot Dog Rodeo. “But it was for singer-songwriters, and I didn’t have any songs of my own,” says Short. “So I sat down and wrote a couple. It was good to have an assignment or a deadline, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have ever done it.”
Soon Short was playing regular solo gigs and dallying with a few side projects, including a cabaret-country duo called the Dying Ember and the Americana outfit Nervous & the Kid. In 2002 she self-produced a solo CD-R called Your Story Has Touched My Heart (“It’s the kind of stuff I wouldn’t want anyone to hear now,” she says), and the next year started on a more ambitious production, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?, working on the cheap at friends’ studios in Oregon and New Mexico with the aid of her roommate (and former Decemberists drummer) Rachel Blumberg and multi-instrumentalist Adam Selzer, Blumberg’s bandmate in Norfolk & Western. It was released in early 2004 by the Tucson label Keep Recordings in an edition of 150 hand-signed copies.
Despite its tiny run, Dogies earned Short a rash of favorable online and zine reviews and a growing buzz in Portland. But she was getting restless in Oregon. “Portland is really comfortable and it would’ve been easy to stay there forever. So I started to think, if I don’t leave now, I’m never gonna leave,” she says. Her decision to come to Chicago was fairly arbitrary: “When you’re from Portland they only tell you about the west coast and the east coast. . . . No one ever talks about the midwest. So I knew nothing about Chicago, but I was curious.”
In September 2004, Short and a friend packed up their belongings, boarded a train, and headed for Illinois. Short settled in Roscoe Village, where she discovered that her neighbor Jamie Carter–now her regular drummer–had a modest studio in his attic. “We got together, but we weren’t going to make a record per se,” Short says. “It was all very casual.” But after Carter moved to Pilsen and set up a proper studio in May 2005, the sessions got serious. Short’s band became a four-piece with the addition of upright bassist Andy Rader, whom she’d met when she saw his band Can-Ky-Ree at the Hideout, and violinist Tiffany Kowalski (Bright Eyes, Head of Femur), referred by mutual friend M. Ward. By the end of that summer Captain Wild Horse was in the can.
The new album hits hard for such gentle music. Short wrings every drop of emotion from story-songs like “Goodbye Old Morning” and “Like Anything, It’s Small” and delivers lovesick meditations like “Pullin’ Pullin'” and “Wild Wild Horses” with almost painful tenderness. But she isn’t sure how best to describe her sound. “I think I would have to say folk–I suppose that’s vague enough,” she says, laughing. “If you say country it kinda throws people off, even though my songs are pretty country sounding.”
Captain has already received glowing reviews in No Depression, Magnet, and Giant. And though Short’s first local gig, at the Hideout in December 2004, was a disaster (“There was only one person there,” she says), she’s recently reached large and receptive audiences opening for the likes of Colin Meloy and Edith Frost. After her Empty Bottle show on Saturday she’ll embark on a short tour–her first–playing seven shows across the midwest and east coast.
Short says she isn’t in a hurry to “make it,” though–she’s working full-time as a nanny and would rather let her musical career grow at its own pace. “But whatever happens, I definitely feel like I’ll always be playing music,” she says. “It’ll be a part of my life, no matter what.”
Mi & L’au, Shelley Short, In the Country
When: Sat 2/4, 10 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
More: See Critic’s Choice on Mi & L’au and In the Country
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.