by David Lappin
While Rome burned, Nero sang. Legend has it that the infamous emperor was found strumming his lyre and singing from the rooftop of his palace as flames consumed the city below. In the first track off Clint Roberts’ debut album, Rose Songs, he suggests that perhaps not much has changed since the days of unscrupulous ruling among ancient Rome’s politicians. In “Nero’s Waltz,” Roberts carries the Folk tradition of writing apropos, politically-charged songs. Roberts assumes the persona of an uncaring leader, indifferent to the destruction that he and his elite peers create. It’s a familiar story of haves and have-nots— in the style of a Dylan protest song and Father John Misty’s satirical, social commentary—yet Roberts makes the narrative his own, set to a rousing tune and driving rhythm. You almost forget what the song is about amidst the cheery melody, Bruce Hornsby-esque piano, and a searing guitar solo. The chorus sticks with you; the refrain, “Nero, strike a tune, I think I’ll dance” echoes long after the song’s conclusion.
The North Carolina native assures his position as a talented vocalist in “The Drifter,” the second track off Rose Songs. There are layers to his voice. And just as I pegged Roberts as a singer in the style of classic country, drawing comparisons to the likes of Johnny Cash and George Jones, his voice shimmers and bends in a direction unfamiliar to me. Lyrically, the song brings the album to moment of sincerity and maturity beyond Roberts’ years. He grapples with a relationship facing an impending doom, leaving Roberts with doubt and questions of his identity outside of the relationship. He asks, “What am I if I am not a drifter on a stage?” The ache of a harmonica comes in near the end of the song, and Roberts admits into a void, “I guess I’m no one.”
Nearly halfway through the album, I was surprised to hear the weightless, iconic opening bars of “Just Like Heaven.” Roberts gives the song a proper roots rock/country treatment with mandolin, steel guitar, and stunning vocals. I’m a sucker for covers that you wouldn’t expect to find on an album—think Sturgill Simpson recording Nirvana’s “In Bloom”—and Roberts’ rendition of The Cure’s megahit was a much-appreciated treat. There’s no sense in comparing it to the original record, but I will say this is a cover I will regularly listen to.
Clint Roberts pulled out all the stops in recording Rose Songs. Equipped with an ensemble of seasoned session players and produced by Nashville’s Grammy Award-winner Ben Fowler, the record is sleek and clean. Songs like “Nothing Left to Say” and “Medicine” show that Roberts feels right at home in a sound accessible not only to the folk and americana audience but to those inclined to enjoy more popular, modern country music. Radio airplay in Nashville for the young singer-songwriter certainly seems to be on the horizon.
Roberts reaches the height of his songwriting in “Amarillo.” The haunting folk song features its narrator in confession to the listener, admitting to fleeing at the altar, never to return. It’s a stark contrast to the preceding track, “Anabelle,” a lovely song lamenting the strain that life on the road as a musician puts on a relationship. In “Amarillo,” Roberts accesses his fine ability to locate the right details to use in songwriting. Acknowledging that he has fathered a child he will never meet, the narrator doesn’t shy away from owning who he has become, singing, “Will he grow to look like me? A lonesome, gnarled tree out in the sun.”
Roberts concludes the record on a bittersweet note. With pensive piano and a man’s longing for a lover who is miles and miles away, “Carolina Moon” could have easily fit somewhere in Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky. But still, the song is hopeful. And whether or not that hope stems from a foolish romantic’s naivety doesn’t really matter; like Rose Songs as a whole, the sentiment is sincere, regardless.
Rose Songs has something for everyone among an audience in the americana, country, and folk camps. If you prefer a pop-flavored, modern country song with a strong hook, you’ll likely find it here. On the other hand, if you’re a disgruntled traditionalist who insists that today’s country music isn’t really Country Music, then you’ll find comfort in the rich, timeless sound of Clint Roberts’ voice. Fans of gritter, folk artists like John Moreland and the late Justin Townes-Earle, will enjoy Roberts’ poignant songwriting.
A debut album tries to achieve a near impossible task: announce to the world that a new talent has arrived and that— even more difficult to achieve—they are worth listening to. The future success of Clint Roberts cannot be predicted; talent alone is a false forecast of fame. What I do know for certain is that Rose Songs is an impressive record. I also know that in the years to come, Roberts can look back, proudly, on the fact that while we shuddered in isolation and mourned what life was like before a global pandemic, he released into the world something good and beautiful. And what can we ask of an artist if not that?