Kalie Shorr, Year’s Best Reviewed Country Upstart, Plots First Headline Tour (Exclusive)Variety — Chris Willman
Kalie Shorr had the year’s most acclaimed album from a freshman country artist, with the critically heralded “Open Book.” Now, after several years of being featured as an upstart on CMT or CMA package tours — and more than a few appearances on the Opry — she’s about to head out on her first real tour of her own, starting with a hometown show Jan. 31 at Nashville’s Exit/In and continuing with gigs at spots like New York’s Mercury Lounge March 16.
Shorr was most recently seen as the opening act on LeAnn Rimes’ Christmas tour and, in Nashville, opening for Keith Urban, Stevie Nicks and Jason Isbell at the city’s signature outdoor New Year’s Eve event. There, in contrast to the more intimate rooms she’s about to play, Shorr performed in front of a crowd estimated by officials at over 200,000 revelers… although, in fairness and humility, she’ll admit “there might have only been 100,000” at the time she took the stage. Still, Shorr says, sipping champagne with Nicole Kidman was a heady and gratifying end to the rough year bracingly documented in the highly autobiographical “Open Book” album, which came out in October.
That highly-independent-in-every-way album was a staple of country-cognoscenti critics’ lists at the end of 2019. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica had it on his all-genre top 10, calling it “the sort of gut-wrenching album made by someone who understands how vital and detailed country music can be, and who is faithful to its heritage (including its lineage of resistance). Everyone in Nashville is likely hoping to sandpaper her into something just a little bit less confrontational; fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.” The Guardian wrote, “Astonishingly, she addresses her past with mordant wit and vast reserves of empathy — plus gigantic hooks worthy of Nashville-era Taylor Swift, pop-punk icons Paramore and ‘Jagged Little Pill’-era Alanis.” Variety included it in lists of the year’s best country albums as well as overall best, touting her as already having become one of the best contemporary songwriters the genre has to offer.
But she’s calling the tour the “Too Much to Say” tour, as opposed to the “Open Book” tour. “I was hearing that people thought it was actually going to be a book tour,” she laughs. She’ll be playing the object of her acclaim from top to bottom, as well as singles that put her on the map earlier, like 2016’s “Fight Like a Girl,” and a few choice covers that may veer outside the country realm, like My Chemical Romance’s “Teenagers.” (“They’re one of my favorite bands and they got back together this year, so we’re like, let’s celebrate!”)
“Open Book” might as accurately have been called “Open Newspaper,” since the stories she told in it were veritably freshly ripped from the headlines of her life, which included not just the usual stuff of a traumatic breakup — though there was that — but her sister dying of a heroin overdose early in 2019, something that’s referenced or alluded to in more than one track. In the midst of singing openly about depression in the midst of some highly commercial-sounding work, Shorr also either celebrates or laments having resorted to tequila as a tonic — something that’s not highly out of the ordinary for a 25-year-old country artist, but which does make some of this album’s material less suitable for, say, Radio Disney, which has given a lot of airplay to her less combustible singles and EPs and brought her on to co-host a show on Radio Disney Country a year ago.
“There’s this very dichotomous component to my music,” Shorr says. “And I was trying to be intentional about reconciling that, individually, sonically, just in how I talk. I do have somewhat of a younger fan base, but not nearly as young as I think I originally thought. And I was putting this pressure on myself to have this squeaky clean, America’s sweetheart kind of energy. But America’s sweetheart has not gone through nearly as much as s— as I have.
“So when I decided to put ‘FU Forever’ on the album [a song that does, in the end, use the phrase that appears only as an acronym in the title], that was a huge moment in where I was willing to go. Because I had to be like, ‘Okay, if we do this, I can’t go back – I can’t be that again.’ But the head of Radio Disney, that’s his favorite song on the album. He’s like, ‘I can’t play it, but I love it so much!’ And I don’t want to be putting stuff out like that just for shock value. People see through that. But I don’t think that being a role model is about not swearing or not drinking tequila. At the end of the day, that song is about pulling myself out of an abusive relationship and taking a step back and seeing what it was. And that’s something that I think young girls should hear, you know — maybe once they’re a little older, and maybe not like an 8-year-old, but a 15-year-old girl hearing that song, I don’t think that hurts her. ‘Oh, stay with him’ – that’s being a bad role model, letting people treat you like s—.”
She adds, “For my parents, I don’t think ‘FU Forever’ is necessarily their favorite, but they also know the ins and outs of my breakup, so they’re like, ‘You’re not wrong.’”
“Open Book” has been a completely independent project, despite the suitably commercial sheen to its sonics. What would have been different if she’d been signed to a major label?
“For starters, it wouldn’t have come out for another year and a half,” she laughs. (Nashville insiders will get where she’s coming from on that one.) “Even now, I think people now in Nashville on the gatekeeper level don’t fully understand the album. I think people like it but don’t really know what to do with it. And I love that. That’s kind of your goal as an artist, I think, is to throw people off for a little bit. But I think that it would have gotten watered down a lot. I think ‘FU Forever’ wouldn’t have gotten put on there. I think it wouldn’t have been as well received by people outside the country sphere. I think they would have turned down the guitars in the mix. They might not have let me skateboard in a music video,” she laughs.
Radio airplay isn’t necessarily the goal. “I think some people talk about country music like country radio is the genre and Kacey Musgraves is the subgenre, but it’s actually the opposite. Country radio is so sonically similar and topically similar that that’sthe subgenre of country. Kacey Musgraves is country, and then country radio has its own (niche) over there.”
She’s as much in the outspoken-punky-pop lineage of Avril Lavigne and Alanis Morissette as she is of Swift and Miranda Lambert, but don’t doubt her country cred just because she emigrated from the Northeast to Nashville to make her stand.
“Remember the Jeff Foxworthy ‘You might be a redneck’ jokes? My family was a Jeff Foxworthy joke. And so people are like, ‘Why do you sing country music if you’re from Maine?’ My mother lives in Portland, Maine, but my dad is in norther Maine. People just have idea that Maine is like all people in khakis and polos. Like, I lived in the woods, too. I have literally stolen a tractor and driven it down the main street of my hometown. I remember when I first heard (Gretchen Wilson’s) ‘Redneck Woman’ — I was like, ‘Oh my God. I feel seen!’”
Shorr’s tour dates so far:
Jan. 31 – Nashville, Tenn. – Exit/In
Feb. 20 – Los Angeles, Calif. – Hotel Cafe
Feb. 21 – Las Vegas, Nev. – Stoney’s Rockin Country
March 14 – Stamford, Conn. – Palace Theatre
March 15 – Uncasville, Conn. – Mohegan Sun – Wolf Den
March 16 – New York, N.Y. – The Mercury Lounge
May 15 – Sault Ste Marie, Mich. – Kewadin Casino
May 16 – Sault Ste Marie, Mich. – Kewadin Casino
More dates to be added