Unsung Heroes of Americana Music: The Return of The Sweethearts of the Rodeo
During the 60’s Southern California’s Manhattan Beach was not known for its country music. But, along with the surf culture that formed in earnest in the 50’s, music was as constant a pre-occupation as baseball or football was to the youth of other towns. Early in the 60’s surf bands would compete in what was termed Battle of the Bands. Dick Dale and The Ventures ruled the day. In 1963 with the British Invasion that swept The Beatles ashore in America, most of the bleach blond hair-dos and Huarache sandals transformed into long-haired mods& rockers and bands like The Crossfires(known as The Turtles) reigned supreme.
In the late 60’s the area became known for its influential musical figures who came up from the sun-scorched newly blacktop streets and the sandy beach strands of the coastal town. On a warm summer night in 1966 young teenagers could roam the streets and find The Doors in a back alley garage working out their unique sound. Most notably, The Beach Boys, who began in neighboring Hawthorne, were the areas mythical figures and local heroes. Talk to any surfer at the time and one of them would inevitably tell of surfing with drummer Dennis Wilson at some early morning hour just north of Manhattan Beach Pier.
But, country music was frowned on by the youth of the town as terminally unhip redneck music. That is until 1968. That was the year when Dylan, The Band and The Byrds pushed back at the establishment-hating counter-culture with more conventional country-tinged landmark albums like Nashville Skyline, Music from Big Pink and the enigmatic Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds which included country enthusiast and creative force, Gram Parsons.
Manhattan Beach teen sisters, Janis and Kristine Oliver, must have been listening closely when The Byrds released their classic album. The girls had been singing together all of their lives. At school and community functions, it was not unusual to find one or both of them singing the folk songs of Simon & Garfunkel or Judy Collins. But, The Byrds anti-psychedelic, straight up hard-core country sound, with Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons at the helm, changed the sisters’ musical direction. Soon their sweet harmony vocals were turning toward sounds that bore more resemblance to The Everly or Louvin Brothers than to The Strawberry Alarm Clock.
In the early 70’s Janis met pedal steel player, JB Crabtree, who found himself with the same country leanings and no outlets for his distinctive talent. They were joined by John Lowe Fowler on stand-up bass. It wouldn’t be long until Janis, Kristin, John and J.B. took the name of the classic Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
For their first regular gigs they played Straw Hat Pizza on Pacific Coast Highway. By 1974, they were packing the place four nights a week. Their sweet country sound anchored by JB Crabtree’s soaring pedal steel could be heard while orders of pizza were called out from the restaurant’s P.A. The sound they had discovered earlier had become hip in the intervening years evolving into a hybrid known as ‘country-rock.’
By 1976, The Sweethearts had outgrown their regular venue. Fortunately, a local music promoter opened a Troubadour-like club in neighboring Redondo Beach called The Sweetwater. They became the resident band for the new venue. It wasn’t long until the Sweetwater became part of the touring circuit for country, rock and blues acts booking into the Troubadour and North Hollywood’s Palomino Club. The young band became an opening act for such legendary performer as Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. But, it was when Vince Gill came through with a bluegrass band that life changed for the band. Janis married Gill in 1980 and moved to Nashville in 1983. When it became clear to the sisters that music wasn’t through with them yet, Kristine moved to Nashville and the Sweethearts were reborn as a country sister-singing duo.
Their first recordings arrived in Nashville just in time to include them in the class of 1985’s New Traditionalist Movement which included Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell. For an all too brief eight years Nashville seemed to come to its senses with a stream of music Steve Earle called ‘the great credibility scare of the late 80’s.’ It was a period of unlikely mainstream country that would produce artists like Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, The Desert Rose Band, The O’Kanes and K.D. Lang. During this time the sisters charted seven top 10 singles including “Satisfy You”, “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town” and “Chains of Gold.”
By the early 90’s the New Traditionalists had run their course and as unassumingly as they came into fashion, the artists faded in the woodwork of independent and self-made record labels with no major radio outlets for their work to be heard. The Sweethearts continued to tour and released three critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful albums on the Sugar Hill label in the early 90’s. Not long after her divorce from Vince Gill, Janis decided to focus on her interest in horses and to spend more time raising her daughter. Kristine followed suit.
Now, 16 years after they hung up their musical saddles, The Sweethearts of the Rodeo have re-mounted this horse called music. Today they join the many of the major artists of the late 80’s New Traditionalist Movement(Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett) who find themselves veterans of Americana music. Their new release, Restless, finds them back in good form with a stellar roster of session musicians including Al Perkins on pedal steel, Kenny Vaughn on lead guitar, Richard Bennett on fiddle and bass player and co-producer, Dave Pomeroy. The album retains the sisters close harmony vocal work with a harder edge than their former albums. While it’s clear the years have been good to the sisters, today it’s their confidence and authoritative stage presence that shows they’ve gained more skill than they may have lost in fame. With Janis co-writing seven of the songs, the material is consistently strong with the musicians and production providing undercurrents and echoes of their original country-rock origins. The title song, “Restless,” is a song that would make Wanda Jackson want to get up and dance. “Gone to Kentucky” delivers renewed fire and is immediately playable on Americana radio outlets. The best element of their first new album since 1996’s Beautiful Lies, is how well it fits into today’s Americana music, as though the scene was created for them. Like their peers in the New Traditionalist Movement of the 80’s, The Sweethearts of the Rodeo emerge as pioneers of the form. It seems the times have caught up with the Sweethearts. The soundscape created here is much warmer than their earlier hits with clean acoustic leanings, graceful pedal steel work and the distinctive guitar of Kenny Vaughn. But, it’s the sisters warm out-front vocals, filled with character and country soul, that gives the album it’s timeless ambience.
With an eye toward touring the sisters are looking at a third chapter in their legendary career that has taken them from the Pacific rim to the American’s deep south, The Sweethearts of the Rodeo are reclaiming their fame. With the release of Restless the line of fine energetic country-rock they began to create during their childhood in that unlikely South Bay town of Manhattan Beach continues to form bright, original and timeless music. Long may they ride!
(This article originally appeared in Turnstyled Junkpiled)