By Larry Stephens
Rockabilly is alive and well with the Sweetback Sisters. Rockabilly, swing, honky-tonk – three faces of the same band – is an old and exciting sub-genre of country music. The beginning is usually traced back to Sun Records with such notable singers as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johhny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison.
Emily Miller (lead vocals, fiddle and guitar) grew up in a family band playing traditional American music in Hong Kong (not many in country music can boast of that background) and she’s active in harmony singing workshops around the country. Zara Bode (lead vocals and guitar) has acting experience and works doing vocal background recordings when not touring with the Sisters.
Peter Bitenc has been playing upright bass in bands since he was fifteen and is active in several bands in addition to the Sisters, playing jazz, rock and bluegrass. Ross Bellenoit (electic guitar and harmony) studied classical and jazz guitar and has been associated with Bob Dylan and John Carter Cash. Stefan Amidon (drums and bass vocals) does a great job on the drums (I love to pick on monotonous drum players!) and has a degree in jazz performance. He, like the others, has been active in a number of bands in addition to the Sisters. Jesse Milnes rounds out the band. He plays fiddle, guitar and sings harmony and is the only member whose upbringing has overtones of country life. He was raised and lives in West Virginia.
They may not be recognized names in the national country music scene and they may have eclectic backgrounds and tastes, but they know their way with a country song. If you like the sounds of traditional hony tonk and country swing music, you’ll be keeping this CD handy for a long time.
Half the songs were penned by the band. The title song includes some good harmony singing and some trading of lyrics as well as a great walking bass line on the chorus. I can just see the smoky bar with the band on the dim lit stage. Then they throw in some variation with “Cowboy Ham and Eggs.” I’m not a huge fan of novelty songs but this one is more than that. Written by Tim Spencer, it was sung in the movies by none other than Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers (titled “Come And Get It” there). Tim spent many years as one of the Pioneers and appeared with friend Leonard Sly (better known to the world as Roy Rogers) before the Pioneers were formed. The Sisters are pretty faithful to the Pioneers’ version and listening takes me back to post-World War II days. This is a gem that they found somewhere.
While rockabilly-centric, the band keeps things interesting by demonstrating they can be balladeers, too. They include a great treatment of the late Hazel Dickens‘ “Don’t Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There” (originally released by Hazel and Alice Gerrard, Hazel & Alice, 1973). It’s the familiar story of the wronged woman who now haunts the honky-tonk but the harmony of Zara and Emily makes it a compelling number. “Home,” (written by Zara) is a song of loss and sadness. I like the way they do the song here, minimal backup, quiet and reflective, but I suspect, if it’s ever covered, you’ll hear more of a Patsy Cline treatment of the song.
If you want to put the “rock” in rockabilly, what better than a song written by Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne, better known as The Traveling Wilburys. The Sisters do more than justice to it – they rock it! But on “The Mystery of You,” with guest Andy Keenan on the steel guitar, they give us an upbeat, middle-of-the-road country song.
This is a talented group and an excellent CD. If you like traditional country you’ll like what they do.