During the 60s Southern California’s Manhattan Beach was not known for its country music. But, along with the obvious surf culture, music was as constant a pre-occupation as baseball was to the youth of other towns. Early in the 60’s surf bands would compete in what became termed Battle of the Bands. Dick Dale and The Ventures ruled the day. When The Beatles came to America, most of the bleach blond hair-dos turned to long-haired mods and bands like The Crossfires(who would later be known as The Turtles) ruled the day.
In the late 60’s the area became known for its influential musical figures who emerged from the sun scorched streets and sandy beach strands of the coastal town. Most notably, The Beach Boys, who began in nearby Hawthorne, were the areas mythical figures. 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. On a warm summer night in 1966, The Doors could be found in a back alley garage working out their unique sound.
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 landmark albums like Nashville Skyline, Music from Big Pink and the enigmatic Sweethearts of the Rodeo.
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 unusal 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 George Jones or The 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. It wouldn’t be long until Janis, Kristin and J.B. took the name of the classic Byrds album, Sweethearts 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 six years earlier had become hip in the intervening years due to a spill over influence from the famous Los Angeles club The Troubadour where The Eagles first met and went on to popularize the hybrid music that was 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. They became the resident band for the new venue. It wasn’t long until 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.
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 8 years Nashville seemed to come to its senses with 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 artist like Dwight Yokum, 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. 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 that will lead to inevitable comparisons to the Everly Brothers. 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. 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 sound-scape 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!