|Photo by: Provided|
Lead vocalists Emily Miller and Zara Bode of the old-timey country band The Sweetback Sisters are not actually sisters. And no, they are not actually from the country. But, their family-band approach to the classic Western style earns them their spurs.
Hailing from Brooklyn, N.Y., The Sweetback Sisters combine a throwback Americana aesthetic with serious musicianship and a wide range of influences to create an authentic sound that has both a retro spirit and contemporary attitude.
The swing-country act will start the latest leg of its North American tour at ARTS/West, 132 W. State St., at 8 p.m. Wednesday, and the Sisters are looking forward to making Athens their home for the night.
“We love coming to the Midwest,” Miller said. “They have a great appreciation for country music in the Midwest. Every region of America has its own flavor, and there’s something that really resonates about old-timey country music in Ohio. I don’t know exactly what it is, but we’ve always had really wonderful shows there.”
Even though the band was formed in New York, Miller said that finding other Western-minded musicians was not difficult, and that starting a country band in a big city isn’t as strange as it might sound.
“It sounds weirder than it feels,” she said. “There’s representation of every kind of person in New York. There’s a musical community for every kind of music you could ever imagine. And there’s a great country music scene in New York.”
The two “Sisters” met while performing together in a choir and lived only a few blocks away from each other when they decided to start a band with each sharing lead vocal duties. They were then joined by fiddler Jesse Milnes, percussionist Stefan Amidon, upright-bassist Peter Bitenc and electric guitarist Ross Bellenoit.
They released their first album Chicken Ain't Chicken in 2009 and followed it up in 2011 with Looking for a Fight, via the Americana label Signature Sounds. They came in second in a Prairie Home Companion talent show in 2007 and were featured on NPR’s Mountain Stage last year.
The sextet’s drawing power is in the band's patchwork of styles that comes as a result of the members’ diverse musical backgrounds.
Milnes grew up playing square dance music in West Virginia, Amidon and Bitenc studied jazz in college, Bellenoit studied classical guitar for 10 years, Bode has a background in musical theater and Miller was raised on a steady diet of classic country artists such as George Jones and Loretta Lynn.
“Everybody’s bringing their own influences to the table,” Miller said. “We use our favorite country groups from the ‘50s and ‘60s as a jumping-off point. We spend a lot of time trying to get that feel in our sound, but then we use our own playfulness to stray from that in what we hope are interesting ways.”
That playfulness is also a reoccurring theme in the band’s live shows, where spontaneity is an essential element of The Sweetback Sisters' spirited sets.
When the entire sound system shut off during their showcase at the SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas last month, the band switched gears and turned out an acoustic set, inviting the audience to stand directly in front of the stage so the band could sing the song right at them. It’s the energy of moments such as that one that the band tries to bring to every show they play.
“We’re consciously trying to entertain, but not in the kitschy sense of the word. We don’t have our white gloves on, doing tap-dance routines, but we really value the idea that people are coming out to see a show in order to enjoy themselves for a couple of hours, not necessarily to be given a lecture on the history of country music or something,” Miller said. “We try to keep things fun and exciting.”
The Sweetback Sisters already have an arsenal of new material, but they have not committed to any studio time just yet. For the moment, they are gearing up for the summer festival season and looking forward to kicking off the latest stretch of their tour in Athens.
“We’re excited to come to Athens,” Miller said. “We hit Athens on our either first or second tour ever and we played at Casa Cantina. We’re excited to be coming back through and we’re looking to rock out. So, I hope Athens wants to rock out too!”
Tickets are $5 for ARTS/West members and $15 for non-members, but there is a special price of $8 for students who buy tickets in advance at the venue or from calling (740) 592-4315. Students who purchase tickets in advance will need to present a valid student ID for admission. At the door, tickets will be $18.
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