The Sweetback Sisters

Honky-tonk for the modern cowboy and girl
The rollicking country swing of the Sweetback Sisters is as infectious as it is heartbreaking. Their charismatic charm harkens back to the golden era of both the silver screen cowgirl and the ersatz cowboy stars of local UHF TV kiddie shows. That whimsical exterior is wrapped around a core of deeply felt love for traditional country music styles and a palpable joy in playing and singing together.

The Sweetback Sisters debut album Chicken Ain’t Chicken mixes country classics and a handful of new songs all topped with a healthy dash of winking irreverence and freewheeling enthusiasm. While Zara Bode and Emily Miller stand out front with their matching dresses and seamless harmonies, they are quick to point out that the Sweetback Sisters are a band, made all the richer by the contributions of drummer Stefan Amidon, Ross “Rolling Thunder” Bellenoit on Telecaster and vocals, guitarist and fiddler Jesse Milnes, and newcomer Bridget Kearney on bass (previous bassist Joseph Dejarnette is featured throughout Chicken Ain’t Chicken).

Chicken Ain’t Chicken is a sincere ode to the classic styles that inspired the Sweetback Sisters, with an ample dose of their own personality and off-kilter sense of humor. The band’s sterling musicianship insures that even the most ridiculous moments are tightly executed and musically inventive. “When he’s not ripping solos on the Telecaster,” Miller explains, “Ross (who toured with Amos Lee opening for Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello in the fall of 2007) is comping in a way that sets the tone for the whole band. Stefan has been playing drums all his life, and beyond his general savoir faire he also has a great sensitivity to lyrics and form." While several of the members have jazz training, an equal number have a solid background in playing folk and traditional music. “We definitely err on the side of modernity at times, but Jesse’s foundation in old-time square dance music keeps the band from getting too heady and out of touch,” Miller concludes.

As for the front women, Bode and Miller’s harmonies have the power to make a new song – such as Kristin Andreassen’s bittersweet “They Say Virginia Is For Lovers” – seem as timeless as any classic country lament. Conversely, the wit and swagger of the band can take a tried-and-true standard to some interesting new places. Just check the backwoods funk take on Roger Miller’s paradoxical “My Uncle Used To Love Me But She Died,” which gives Chicken Ain’t Chicken its title. Milnes’ own “You’re Gone (Again),” a brisk tale of ill-fated romance, is a compelling indication that the Sweetback wit can be applied as handily to composition as it can to arrangements and performances.

Much of the spark that ignites the Sweetback Sisters’ flame comes from Bode and Miller’s distinct (and distinctly different) upbringings. “I’m very new to traditional country music,” Bode observes. “But where I do not have the familiarity with those traditions that Emily does, our varying approaches are what make the pairing unique. She brings the roots, and I bring the retro.”

“When my mom was my age,” Miller picks up, “she played in an awesome all-girl band in San Francisco called the Any Old Time String Band. She knows hundreds of great songs and taught me most of my favorites.” The child of journalists, Miller hails originally from Lawrence, Kansas, but grew up around the world, spending most of her early childhood in Hong Kong, along with stints in Toronto and Chicago. “My earliest performing experience came in Hong Kong,” she recalls, “with the Miller Family Band: Dad on banjo, my brother on guitar, Mom on fiddle, me on fiddlesticks, and everyone singing. We kind of had a corner on the wholesome American singing family market in the area, so we ended up playing a lot of TV programs, shopping malls, and little festivals. We sang many rousing renditions of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ – they love that song in Hong Kong.”

Growing up in San Francisco, Bode had nearly the opposite experience. “I hate to admit this,” she says, embarrassed, “but I was one of those kids that said ‘I listen to everything…except country!” Turned off initially by the slick predictability of modern country music, Bode had more than enough other music in her life. “My parents met in a Moroccan band,” she explains. “My mother was a belly dancer, and my father just wanted to woo her, so he learned how to play the bendir and qarqabas." There were other household musical influences as well. "My mother is Hispanic so there was also lots of salsa and old Cuban music around. My great uncle Paquito Pastor was a great influence, he's an incredible pianist and arranger, played with everyone from Tito Puente to David Bryne." A move to Northampton, Massachusetts – where her father, a professional comic book artist, worked full-time drawing for The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – led to Zara's enrollment in a performing arts school. There she began acting in musicals and plays, which allowed her to sing in a variety of contexts and styles. "But," Bode says, "my heart has always been in big band swing."

The two surrogate sisters met in the fall of 2005 on tour with a world music choir in Europe. The repertoire included everything from Bulgarian and South African music to selections from the republic of Georgia, to a mass by Pierre de la Rue. “At some point during this world music blitz,” Miller recalls, “Zara and I discovered a mutual love for Hank Williams songs, and sang a few together at concert after-parties. “I had sung with many people before,” Bode continues, “but never did it feel like this." Fortunately, when the tour ended they didn’t have to say goodbye. "The stars aligned and Emily ended up moving to Brooklyn just a few blocks away from me. Nearly everyday we'd walk to each other’s houses and sing songs.”

The Sisters quickly landed a gig and recruited a handful of talented friends to play it with them. The newly-formed band’s first EP, entitled “Bang!” was originally recorded as a demo for booking more gigs in the city, but it opened bigger doors along the way. In April 2007, those tracks earned them a spot on A Prairie Home Companion’s People in Their Twenties talent contest.

Following that appearance, the band members drifted on to other pursuits. Yet the pull of the Sweetback Sisters – the good times, good music, and laid-back vibe that comes with playing with old friends – kept tugging them back together. With a renewed commitment to perform together more extensively, they began recording Chicken Ain’t Chicken with Boston-based producer and multi-instrumentalist Eric Merrill, who recorded an album of duets featuring Emily and her mother, Val Mindel. "The EP was fun," Miller says, "but I think on Chicken Ain't Chicken we managed to move beyond ‘fun’ to something with a touch of gravitas, but still with some absurdity at the core.”

“The six of us all have very diverse musical influences,” Bode reflects, “but there’s always been something old-school about the Sweetback Sisters. Although we’ve definitely taken some modern liberties with the fashion and sounds, we all have a bona-fide respect for that era and style of American music. We do tend to rock from time to time, but you never lose that intimacy Emmy and I started it with—the genuine love of singing with one another.” That affection – for the music and for each other – is at the heart of Chicken Ain’t Chicken, and in every note of music the Sweetback Sisters make together.

“There’s something fundamental about country music that keeps people listening,” Miller concludes. “It doesn’t try to get into complicated emotional territory—it’s mostly about pretty basic things that people think about every day: loving your mother, hating that guy who cheated on you, eating fried chicken. No one ever gets tired of that, do they?”

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