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Michael Bialas

Michael Bialas

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Swing in the Ring: The Sweetback Sisters Are Looking For A Fight

Posted: 05/31/11 05:40 PM ET

Country's sweetest pair of honky-tonkin', rootin'-tootin' swing sisters have a few confessions to make.

They live nowhere near Nashville.

Their relationship has an occasional bittersweet side.

Hell, they're not even related.

They are the Sweetback Sisters, the freshest faces on the scene of Western swing who bring integrity, spark, spunk and a whole lot of retro activity to a classic sound that's found a second wind.

Actually, there's more to this sister act than singers Zara Bode and Emily Miller. The sextet includes four male musicians -- Stefan Amidon (drums, vocals), Ross Bellenoit (Telecaster), Jesse Milnes (guitar, fiddle) and Peter Bitenc (bass) -- possessing a flair for rockabilly that gives a jump-start to the sentimental heart.

Sweetback coverThey're all responsible for making their sophomore album, Looking For A Fight (released May 31 by Signature Sounds), stand out like a gleaming Wurlitzer jukebox during a '50s barroom brawl. They're currently touring the Northeast, with some dates scheduled in Europe, including the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, later this summer.

"There's a really nice juxtaposition with the band where we all come from these various musical backgrounds and come together to make -- yep! -- country music," Bode said by phone from Brooklyn, New York, where she currently lives in a home once inhabited by her grandmother. "But it's got little hints of our jazz or our rock, and I think people really dig that 'cause it gives it this modern sound but it's also a throwback to the origins of the music."

That's saying something for a San Francisco-born flower child who sounds more like Brittany Murphy than Audie Murphy. Growing up as a fan of big band swing and jazz from the '30s, '40s and '50s, the daughter of a former belly dancer and professional comic book artist (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) couldn't stomach a Nashville brand that was becoming more pop, less western. Unfamiliar with the genre's origins, she was one of those girls who said, "I listen to everything... except country!"

Asked about her honest admission, the bubbly Bode laughed. "I'm gonna regret making that quote someday (laughs), but so far I've been able to talk my way out of it."

And she continued to do just that. Bode, whose powerful alto takes the lead on the majority of vocals during Looking For A Fight, defends herself admirably, stating "I didn't know what was good for me, probably."

She reminisces about her Brooklyn grandmother, a huge Willie Nelson fan, and experiences flashbacks of seeing "a mirror in her purse that had Willie's face on it" and constantly hearing those tapes while driving through the city. Daddy and granddaddy loved Roger Miller, and you know kids almost never appreciate what their elders enjoy.

"With the creation of this new album, my dad said... he was like, 'I still remember the day you told you were starting a country band, and I laughed,' " Bode recalled him saying on a recent road trip. "And now he's the most proud papa you could ever meet."

With a background in musical theater (yet considering herself too alternative), an appreciation for Ethel Merman ("as overwhelming as her voice was") and an education from Pioneer Valley Performing Arts school in Hadley, Massachusetts (that Bellenoit also attended), Bode was turned on to classic country-western during a trip to Europe in 2005 with a world music group called Northern Harmony.

She met future Sweetbacks Miller and Amidon there, and the sisterhood was formed after the two girls spent hours together as half of the entire alto section. Singing Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" one night, "she instantly harmonized with me," Bode said of Miller, the daughter of well-traveled journalists who first established roots in Lawrence, Kansas.

During that European trip, Miller was offered a chance to move into a friend's home in Brooklyn -- about 10 blocks from Bode's house. That sealed the deal for two cowgirls who took every opportunity to perform together.

Bode chose the name of the group, discovering that the hobo expression "sweetback" is a person who samples the vagrant life. "It fit very well with the musician's life, you know," she explained.

If the Sweetbacks become America's Sweethearts, it's because they're devoted to the duo dynamic. Their inspiration was a group called the Davis Sisters, who weren't related either but were popular in the '40s and '50s and had a No. 1 hit, "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know."

Bode enthusiastically discussed the history of the group, even while a car alarm sounded outside her home. "There you go, a little taste of New York," she said, nonplussed.

She went on to recommend a Davis collection Memories for its snug harmonies and heralded the talents of Skeeter Davis, who briefly became an early '60s pop star with "The End of the World." Skeeter survived a 1953 auto accident that killed her singing partner, Betty Jack Davis, bringing a sad and premature ending to this class act. "The two girls are right there with each other ... like singing full voice," Bode said, seemingly in awe. "I don't know ... it's pretty great."

It's that passion for the past that gives an authentic touch to a group so young and promising that they appeared on A Prairie Home Companion's "People in Their Twenties" talent contest in April 2007.

They wear matching outfits chosen by Bode, who has done her homework to help ensure that their sound and look stays true to the spirit of traditional Western swingtime. Their nostalgic cover design (by Angela Miles of Carpe Diem Construction Co.) is too cool/old school, a pair of shapely legs, cowboy boots and fringed skirt, with a pair of boxing gloves hanging from one hand.

Sweetback Sisters
The Sweetback Sisters (from left): Stefan Amidon, Emily Miller, Jesse Milnes,
Zara Bode, Peter Bitenc and Ross Bellenoit.


The group and producer Devin Greenwood (whom Bode calls their "10-trick pony") used vintage recording equipment, including reels of tape and an old RCA 44 ribbon microphone for Looking For A Fight, the follow-up to 2009's Eric Merrill-produced Chicken Ain't Chicken. Close your eyes and get transported back in time while listening to covers of Patsy Cline's "Love Me, Honey, Do," Hazel Dickens' "Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There" or Sons of the Pioneers' "Cowboy Ham and Eggs."

The Cline number that opens the album grabs you by the balls right away and doesn't let go. It's a powerful interpretation -- not an imitation -- and Bode humbly hails the cherished country contralto, saying, "I definitely like and pick up some of her inflections here and there but always try and stay true to my voice. Because I know I couldn't hold a candle to her."

Bode was hooked after hearing the original version, titled "Love, Love, Love Me, Honey Do" that appears on the 1964 Decca compilation album That's How A Heartache Begins.

The Sweetback Sisters (and Brothers) aren't content to rely on other material, though, supplying seven original compositions to the record, including Bode's tender "Home," a Cline-like weeper written during a "I-need-to-get-this-out kind of moment."

So much sadness around me / No home, nobody to care sings Bode, whose classical guitar provides a touch of the "Dolly Parton lament" she was seeking.

Milnes, who was raised to play fiddle by his father Gerry, is the band's primary songwriter and penned the jaunty title track, while Bellenoit and Miller are also solid contributors.

Other than an occasional tiff when "dealing with business stuff," Bode, who calls herself "the mama of the band," believes the sisterly bond with Miller is as tight and harmonious as their splendid, blended voices. They do spend less time together, though, after Miller recently bought a house in West Virginia. "I'm pretty sure you can't take the city girl out of Emmy, even though she has an outhouse," Bode joked.

"We can get a little snippy," she admitted. "But we love each other so much, I doubt things would ever get too intense where we couldn't come out of it arm in arm."

Bode believes two or more women sharing the same mic is a rarity these days, especially in an era of "diva complexes."

That might be true, although family-value acts -- real or fictional -- such as the Avett Brothers, Punch Brothers, the Living Sisters and the Secret Sisters are making relatives relevant again.

With Looking For A Fight, the Sweetback Sisters could turn out to be the decade's Bring It Girls. Showing true grit and wit, they are a genuine blast from the past -- no matter how far back you want to go.

Extras, credits

• For a limited time, Signature Sounds is offering a free download of the title track from Looking For A Fight.

• Publicity photo by Gisel Florez.

 

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