Carrie Rodriguez was cracking up at the very idea, realizing how preposterous this pairing might seem to a perfect stranger.
"The fact that I'm a Mexican-American fiddle player that was living in New York and Ben's from Belfast and lives in Minneapolis and we're making a country record makes it weird enough as it is," Rodriguez said of the new album of duets she recorded with Romantica lead singer Ben Kyle.
Of course, Rodriguez is more than just a fiddle player. A brown-eyed beauty from deep in the heart of Texas, this sweetheart of the rock 'n' rodeo crowd also is a classically trained violinist, seasoned solo performer and gifted and generous collaborator who has worked with the likes of Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo, Lyle Lovett and John Prine.
The album, We Still Love Our Country (Ninth Street Opus), is an eight-song, 30-minute side project -- and a tender love letter to the Americana musicians she embraces -- that Rodriguez made last year at her record company's studio in Berkeley, Calif. Though already available to purchase at Kyle's website, its official release date is February 1.
Filled with country classics such as Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" and John Prine's "Unwed Fathers," the record also includes two originals, Kyle's opening "Your Lonely Heart" and a Rodriguez-Kyle mood-swinger, "Fire Alarm." Romantica's Luke Jacobs, Rodriguez's recent touring partner, adds pedal steel. Longtime Bonnie Raitt drummer (and one-time Beach Boy) Ricky Fataar (aka the "quiet one," Stig O'Hara, in The Rutles' fabulous spoofs) and Rodriguez band members Hans Holzen (guitar) and Kyle Kegerreis (bass) also provide valuable contributions.
The record was conceived after some pleasurable touring experiences with Romantica, a group Rodriguez admires because "they're like Minneapolis rockers who are playing sensitive folk songs," she said. "From the first gig I ever did with them, I wanted to get up and start singing with them. ... Those moments, too, when we would sing things like "Big Kiss" together or a Merle Haggard song ("I Started Loving You Again" from Rodriguez's 2010 Love And Circumstance) were so, so special with Ben. I thought our voices had something really special together." (Rodriguez, right, with Kyle in Denver in 2009.)
Taking the show overseas, Rodriguez also discovered that "Europeans especially have a huge appreciation for old country music. In some ways, I think Europeans are more familiar with those songs than Americans are. So, you sing a Townes Van Zandt tune or an old Louvin Brothers song, and they all know it and are so happy that you're playing it."
While speaking softly but carrying a big violin bow, Rodriguez, 32, remains as fiery as the fiddle she plays. She was insistent about her plan to "make a record of country songs ... good ol' country songs and then not be afraid to be country with it."
"I think lately it's almost people are afraid to be too country," she explained over the phone from Austin, Texas, returning to the land she loves after living almost 10 years in Brooklyn, N.Y. "People say something's too Americana and this and that and it's not gonna do that well. But it was fun to go, 'You know what, we're gonna make a country album of real good country songs.' "
Taking a rare break from an endless road schedule, Rodriguez visited her family over the holidays, then began enjoying some domesticated free time "hanging out in my slippers" and cooking soup in her garage apartment in the old Hyde Park neighborhood, where she has lived officially since March 2010 after going through a divorce from musician Javier Vercher.
"I've said goodbye to New York. I feel good about it," she said about her move back home. "The last five or six (years), I've been on the road so much, I might be there for just a few days a month, and it's a lot of rent to pay when you're not living there. ... And I made a lot of changes, went through some personal changes and it was a good opportunity to try something completely different. And Austin's been good so far."
Rodriguez has started writing for her first album of original songs since 2008's splendid She Ain't Me, though there are no immediate plans to record it.
"I'm still trying to figure out what all these songs mean and where they would fit," Rodriguez said. "They're kinda all over the place right now. So it's a little early to tell, but I'm sure enjoying having the peace of mind to be writing."
Having the ability to juggle several projects at once, Rodriguez is the ultimate team player, a versatile musician whose other instruments include tenor guitar and mandobird. She has been performing duets since establishing her career with "Wild Thing" songwriter Chip Taylor in 2001, whom she credits for helping her learn how to sing. Both complimentary and complementary, Rodriguez is a giving partner. Just not in that way.
"I've never been in love with a duet partner," she said. "I can't really even imagine what that's like. Probably really intense. Maybe not always good. Yeah, it could really be rough (laughs). But I will say it does ... it sure makes a difference if you are in love and you're experiencing all those intense emotions, it's really easy to sing about it. It's definitely ... and I will say that's something I drew from when we were singing these songs (from the new album)."
While wondering if one of her favorite duos of the past -- Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons -- every hooked up romantically, Rodriguez considered the fate of famous country couples who took their relationship to another level. "Johnny and June, that had a happy ending, but all the rest of them didn't. Right?"
However, Rodriguez and Kyle relied on Harris and the late Parsons for a dose of inspiration when they sang together, and the album fittingly concludes with a heart-wrenching version of "Love Hurts."
"I thought about them more than anyone else when I was choosing songs, when I was figuring out how to sing them; they're just so connected to all of those songs," Rodriguez said. "For example, the Louvin Brothers tune, 'My Baby's Gone,' I heard Emmylou do a version of that with Rodney Crowell ... they're so connected to all of those tunes. ... 'If I Needed You,' it's hard not to think of Emmylou Harris singing that. So, in a way, it was like their presence was part of choosing all these songs because we wanted to pay homage to them and all the great duets they sing together."
While developing as a solid solo performer with her own touring band that includes Holzen and Kegerreis, Rodriguez continues to display her versatility by playing with a wide range of musicians. (See a review of her 2008 concert date with Escovedo and 2010's Acoustic Brotherhood Tour with Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys that included Rodriguez's stop in Boulder, left.)
She just started what she called "a strange project" with Blues Traveler, co-writing songs in an Austin studio with the entire band while the tapes roll. "I've never done anything like that before. To have your writing session be recorded is a little unusual to me," she said. "Who knows if it'll be a little love connection or not."
Blues Traveler lead singer John Popper contacted Rodriguez through her manager, saying how much he loved her song "Never Gonna Be Your Bride" off her debut solo album, 2006's Seven Angels on a Bicycle.
The collaborative process seems natural to Rodriguez, though. A passionate singer who loves the harmonious work of Iron And Wine's Sam Beam, C-Rod continues to work on her game. After developing those instincts by first singing duets with Taylor, her extraordinary fiddle playing led to gigs either as an opening act (Williams, Prine) or a major supporting player (Escovedo).
She's hoping the professional relationship that began with Escovedo in 2008 continues to grow. "(We've) talked about writing together," she said. "He's pretty busy. But that's on my wish list for the next month or two. ... Some of these songs I'm writing are leaning towards more rock than what I've done before and he would be perfect to guide me with that."
That initial tour with Escovedo was "one of my biggest learning experiences on the road," Rodriguez said. "It brought all of these new things out of me in terms of my violin playing.
"Things that I kinda hadn't done since I was a classical musician. Like the way he ... the energy that he wants you to bring to a solo is a higher level of energy than I think I sometimes do for myself. Like it took him to sort of push me into a little bit of a deeper, wilder place. And he would say, 'Yeah I want you to draw from Bela Bartok, Stravinsky, not from just the fiddle groove.' "
As if Rodriguez isn't busy enough in 2011, preparing to co-headline "An Acoustic Cafe Evening Tour" in February with Mary Gauthier and Erin McKeown before traveling to Europe for a series of March dates playing violin in one of Bill Frisell's jazz ensembles, her workload keeps increasing. She's particularly looking forward to spending some time in June teaching at Mark O'Connor's Fiddle Camp at Eastern Tennessee University.
Asked if there is one performer or group at the top of her wish list, Rodriguez, sounding like a shy but devoted follower timidly waiting in line for an autograph, said, "Well, there is a band -- I don't know these guys -- Calexico (Joey Burns and John Convertino), I've never met any of the guys in the band. But I love their aesthetic and I think it would be so much fun to get to work with them somehow. If I could open up for them; I would love to play fiddle in their band. I just love what they do and the moods and the soundscapes that they create. ... Oooh, there's also a beautiful duet ("Slowness") with Pieta Brown on the last Calexico record (Carried to Dust). One of my favorite tunes."
In the meantime, Rodriguez plans to continue working with Romantica (she sings and plays fiddle on their upcoming record). Not satisfied being relegated to just one role, she said, "I think the more variety that I can do with music, the better. Just in terms of keeping a career going for a long time."
All the while longing for it to be in perfect harmony.
• Concert photos by Michael Bialas.
• Publicity photo by Sarah Wilson.