Doug Wallen from the Hartford Courant previewed their show in Hartford this week:
A modern band inspired by the country vocal groups of yore, the Sweetback Sisters would be rare, even if co-founders Zara Bode and Emily Miller hadn't met while singing world music in Germany. While on the road as part of the Vermont-based choir Northern Harmonies, the pair found themselves singing Hank Williams songs at late-night after-parties.
"So we start singing together," recounts Miller, "and got a gig and decided we were a band."
Then along came the other players: multi-instrumentalist Jesse Milnes, drummer Stefan Amidon, guitarist Ross Bellenoit, and upright bassist Bridget Kearney. (Miller plays fiddle, while Bode plays ukulele.) Split among Brooklyn, Philadelphia and western Massachusetts, the six-piece looked to Skeeter Davis' one-time act the Davis Sisters for inspiration when it came to choosing a name. Likewise, the Sweetback Sisters' vintage country swing was soon firmly in place, so much so that original songs only came later.
"We started out doing mostly old country songs," Miller explains. "My mom had taught me that sort of singing growing up. We got our sound together on old songs before integrating our own."
Written by various members of the Sweetback Sisters, the 13 songs on "Chicken Ain't Chicken," (Signature Sounds, 2009) feel as if they were forged decades prior. They are lean yet roiling numbers lifted by homespun instruments and ever-present harmonies. Bode and Miller often sing lead, but Amidon, who was also along for the world-music choir tour, lends his low bass vocals as a counterpoint on the bluesy "My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died." And Milnes imparts his high squeak to the playful track "Chicken." The album feels like the product of a seasoned ensemble, despite being recorded in one week to accommodate the members' various school schedules.
Citing "old-time country and traditional Appalachian music" as the two elements united in the band's sound, Miller acknowledges that more and more young bands are discovering the warm, crisp sounds of times long past. The Sweetback Sisters have come across their fair share of kindred spirits on the road, but not every act could pull off the rascally wit heard on such songs as the booze-soaked kiss-off "You're Gone Again."
"We spent a lot of time deciding how much goofiness to include on the album," Miller admits. "By the end, a lot made it in."
The Sweetback Sisters plus Wild-Wood play the Iron Horse Thursday, February 11th at 7PM. Tickets here or at the door.