For many contemporary rockabilly artists striving to recreate that originary 1950's moment, rockabilly is not only a specific musical sound, but an entire culture. And Kim Lenz is nothing if not traditional rockabilly. Her parents grew up in the 50's, introducing her as a youngster to many of the musicians that would later become incredibly influential in her development as an artist, from Roy Orbison to Jerry Lee Lewis to Carl Perkins. Her mother, a rodeo queen, grew up on an Oregon ranch. And her father spent his teenage years in Wichita, Kansas, where he "drove around in old cars with all his friends, listening to Wolfman Jack."
Lenz writes almost all of the material she performs. Even before she ever attended music school in Texas, she says, there was a working songwriter inside of her. "I've been playing guitar since I was a teenager, just strumming chords and all that. I bought a cheap canoe-paddle guitar when I was a kid. I played the piano when I was younger, too. When I first moved to LA, the only station that I could listen to at work played big band music. So I learned every standard ever written. I know the words to them all. And I love all the stuff that was written in the 30's and the 40's--all that great old-style songwriting.
"I spent so much time listening to music throughout my life, that when I started writing songs, it was a natural transition. I was writing songs before I really understood what the structure of a song should be. I already knew about bridges and chord changes because I just felt where they needed to go. I had heard so many songs. There are only so many patterns you can use."
Neither mired in the 50's, nor stuck in the 90's, Lenz tries to write traditional songs that will mean something to anyone, in any era. "For me," she comments, "songs should be timeless. They should be about strong feelings, like excitement. Let's dance. Let's drive fast. I'm mad at you. I love you. Those are the basic feelings that good songwriting will make you feel. And traditionally, rockabilly is very passionate music.
"My favorite song on the new record is 'Thinkin' About You.' It's about change in life, and giving up, and still being able to find love. It's a very simple song. It has fewer lyrics probably than any other song I've written."
Wally Hersom, bass player for Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, both recorded and produced Lenz's new album. Her connection with Hersom stretches back to her years living in LA, which also happened to be the Fly-Rite Boys' first years as a band. "Wally is known around the rockabilly scene, and around the world, as having one of the largest collections of vintage recording gear. He's also one of the most knowledgeable about vintage recording. I really wanted to record my album on vintage equipment, with someone who knew the sound we were after. What we're doing is so different from modern music. The bass drum isn't supposed to be really loud, for example, and it's very hard to get the right sound on the upright bass. Wally really did a wonderful job.
"Frank Laudo, the art director, also did a fantastic job. I wanted the cover to be a replication of Gene Vincent's album on Capitol: Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps. And it looks identical...the same fonts, everything. On the Gene Vincent album, the Blue Caps all have blue caps on. So we had the Jaguars wear blue scarves."
Her band is also one of the world's only female-led traditional rockabilly acts. And even though she doesn't call herself a feminist, Lenz admits that she has come up against her share of sexism in the music business. "I think that music is a lot about fantasy," she comments. "And people's fantasies really tend to gravitate towards traditional roles. So the idea of a powerful woman is still very scary to a lot of people.
"If you have a strong opinion about something, you must be a bitch. Whereas if you're a guy, you're just a guy who knows what he's doing. There's really still a double-standard. But I've been able to overcome a lot of this stuff, especially now that we're getting a little bit of a name for ourselves.
"Probably my biggest influence, as far as female singers go, is Janice Martin. I think she's just fantastic. And Barbara Pittman. And of course Wanda Jackson. But I'm trying to do what's unexpected. It's expected for women to sing country, or folk. And I want to get out there and tear it up and do the sassy side. I like to cover old rockabilly songs that were originally sung by men. Sometimes they have a whole different slant when a woman sings them. I'm not sure I could pull off 'I've Got a Rocket in My Pocket,' but I think I ought to write a female version--that'll shock 'em!"
Wherever you live, you can probably catch Kim Lenz and her Jaguars on tour in the upcoming months. They will play at Viva Las Vegas this weekend, and then hit the midwest and the east coast in a few weeks. A west coast tour is planned for June, and they will appear at the Denver Weekender in July. There is also a trip to Europe in the works for November.
--Lindsey Westbrook, the Hightone Newsletter.
The Hightone Bio
Female singers at the forefront of the rockabilly movement can be counted on one hand - Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin are probably the two most famous - but add to that list one red-hot (tressed) lady from Dallas who fronts one of the most-talked-about combos of that genre: Kim Lenz and her Jaguars.
Daughter of a rodeo queen, Kim Lenz became interested in rockabilly at an early age, influenced by the aforementioned Jackson and Martin - as well as Barbara Pittman - on the female side, and such honky-tonk standard-bearers as Johnny Carroll, Charlie Feathers, Johnny Horton, and Faron Young. Lenz grew up in Southern California, relocating to Dallas in 1994, and forming the band in 1996.
Since then, Kim Lenz and her Jaguars have taken off, becoming a buzz band not only in their native Texas, but all over the world-wide rockabilly circuit. Fans and critics alike rave about the band's live shows, sparked by Kim's energetic stage presence, powerful vocals, and drivin' rhythm guitar. Lenz is backed by one of the most solid bands on the road today. Lead guitarist Mike Lester, originally from Memphis, generates a pure vintage sound through his rig, Oklahoma-born Jake Erwin slaps his bass fiddle for all it's worth, and Texas native Robert Hamilton takes no prisoners on drums. A four-track E.P., released in 1996, further fueled the excitement. And in 1997, Kim Lenz was voted Best Female Vocalist by the Dallas Observer.
All of this has led up to the release of the band's self-titled debut album on HighTone Records' HMG label. To create a more authentic sound, the band enlisted the help of producer Wally Hersom, best-known as the bassist in Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys, who recorded the album totally live in the studio without any overdubs.
Kim's songs also separate this band from the rest of the pack. Their timeless lyrics are steeped in the style and structure of classic rockabilly. Lenz wrote nine of the album's 14 cuts, including "Saturday Jump," a tribute to The Comets (Bill Haley's former band), with whom they shared the bill at last year's Denver Rock n' Rhythm-Billy Weekender. The best of the cover tunes include "The Swing," originally written and performed by 1950's Dallas rockabilly pioneer Johnny Carroll, "Ten Cats Down," originally performed by The Miller Sisters, and "You Made A Hit," which first came out as a single on Sun Records by Ray Smith.