Li’l Mo & The Monicats – Hardly a passing fancy
Monica Passin’s father, she says, is one of the great mambo dancers of all time; that’s how he met her mother. She fondly remembers singing Sarah Vaughan to his Billy Eckstine as a child, and, as an adult, spent four years listening to nothing but Ella Fitzgerald.
This is not typically how one arrives at the music of George Jones, Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, but it does explain the buoyant and flexible phrasing on Li’l Mo’s two self-released CDs, the new Hearts In My Dream and 1996’s self-titled outing.
Passin says her first exposure to country music came while waitressing and mixing sound at a New York bar called Home, then home to the neo-rockabilly set. “If you like somebody, then you find out who they were listening to,” she says. “You keep going backwards, and you’re bound to end up at the Carter Family at some point.”
Later, a friend suggested she buy a George Jones record. “And that was it,” Passin says with a shimmering laugh. “That is the epiphany right there. I got George Jones Salutes Hank Williams  and it was all over. Two years in my apartment, studying it. It was like falling into something that I was supposed to do, but I never would have known.”
Her zip code has not, in Passin’s view, been a barrier to country music. “I really believe that I latched onto a lot of [roots] music because I am from an extremely urban environment,” she says, “and it just makes you feel like you’re not in an urban environment. It sounds like fresh air.”
Passin calls her music honky-tonk, thereby avoiding the connotations of contemporary country music and simultaneously spanning the range of styles at her disposal. Both albums move easily from rockabilly to traditional country to torch; both mix her original songs seamlessly with classics, and it is an index of her writing skills that one must check the credits to separate old from new.
Though she regularly writes and sings about affairs of the heart, Passin does so with a glimmer of hope and a dollop of humor. Her friends in the comedy duo Y’All sing backup on a couple tracks; banjo legend Tony Trischka also helps out.
And so, yes, she has the heartwrench of honky-tonk down cold, especially on sassy numbers such as “The Great Indoors” and “It Just Doesn’t Add Up”. But Passin, like Kitty Wells, is hardly a honky-tonk angel.
“Nobody has really picked up on the fact that I never sing about drinking,” she laughs. “I don’t like to drink, so I just can’t be true to that subject matter. There’s a lot more to country music that I think is universal.”