By Raymond Simon
The Philadelphia Folk Festival is about as far from a honky-tonk as you can get. There are no sawdust-covered floors on the campgrounds in Schwenksville, and the air won’t be thick with the tang of tobacco smoke and the odor of stale beer.
But when the Sweetback Sisters take to the stage at Old Pool Farm on Friday, August 20, you can bet that couples will be two-stepping and swinging to the band’s rollicking mix of old-time country and Western swing.
This summer marks the 49th anniversary of the venerable folk institution, but it will be the 6-piece band’s debut at the festival and they’re clearly excited. “It’s our first time,” says Emily Miller, who sings and plays fiddle. “We met folks from there at a conference in Tennessee, and we hit it off.”
Miller and her band-mates-drummer Stefan Amidon; guitarist Ross Bellenoit; vocalist Zara Bode; bassist Bridget Kearney; and fiddler and guitarist Jesse Milnes-admire the Philadelphia Folk Festival’s blend of tradition and innovation. “A lot of what goes on there isn’t exactly folk or traditional but people with those influences who are doing their own thing,” she explains, pointing to this year’s line-up, which includes artists as diverse as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Taj Mahal, and Jeff Tweedy.
The Sweetback Sisters’ approach to early country and honky-tonk is a mixture of respect and affection. On stage, Miller and Bode wear matching dresses and sing in close harmony, evoking earlier duos like the Davis Sisters, who had a number-one hit in 1953 with “I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know” (and who weren’t siblings). And the band’s first full-length album, Chicken Ain’t Chicken, released by Signature Sounds Recordings in 2009, leans heavily on material written or performed by redoubtable country giants like Ray Price, Bob Wills, and Buck Owens. Miller cheerfully admits, “We cut our teeth on classic country and learned how to figure out our sound by playing those tunes.”
Pallid vinyl collectors expecting note-for-note recreations of old chestnuts will be sorely disappointed though, because the Sweetback Sisters don’t let their respect for tradition prevent them from taking a fresh approach to the material.
Consider the band’s take on the Roger Miller ditty, “My Uncle Used to Love Me but She Died.” Miller, who penned “King of the Road,” is generally classified as a country star, but his blend of nonsensical lyrics, vocalese, and tunes you can whistle suggests he’s really uncategorizable. His version of the song is quick, aggressive, and sounds more like garage rock than mainstream country. In the Sweetback Sisters’ cover, Amidon slows the beat way down and Bellenoit adds funky guitar. The lyrics still make no sense, but the song is transformed from a novelty tune into something altogether more mysterious and sexy.
“Zara is a longtime Roger Miller fan,” Emily says, adding that the band now includes several of his numbers in its set list. Still, she acknowledges that the band really stretched out with this particular song: “We took it to a very different place. It makes everybody laugh and dance.”
Perhaps the Sweetback Sisters are able to pull off such a radical cover because each band member brings a different perspective to the music. “Our backgrounds affect the band greatly, and not only in our choice of material,” Miller says. “Three members of the band trained at jazz conservatories and they all got jazz performance degrees. They add some heavy, very trained musical ideas, both chordal and rhythmic, to the mix.”
That’s an understatement. Miller and Milnes are folkies who grew up playing and singing traditional songs; Bode sang in a capella groups during high school and studied musical theater in college. The remaining band members have formidable chops. Amidon graduated from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Kearney studied at The New England Conservatory. Bellenoit is no slouch himself. After completing a jazz performance major at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Bellenoit toured with Amos Lee, who was opening for both Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan.
The Sweetback Sisters’ music isn’t all about chord changes though. In fact, the best way to appreciate the humor of songs like “I Want to Be a Real Cowboy Girl” or the heartbreak of “They Say Virginia Is for Lovers” is to hear the band in concert. “Playing live is great!” Miller enthuses. “There is just an energy from playing off one another. I totally admire my band-mates. At every show, Ross will play a new solo or Zara will sing in a way that’s totally fresh.”
This sweetheart of the rodeo claims that all of the band’s shows on its current tour of California are turning into crazy dance parties. Let’s hope that the Sweetback Sisters have that same effect on the audience this August when they play at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.