20th Century Rockabilly Meets 21st Century Woman
Take the warm, honeyed tones of a Wanda Jackson ballad. Combine them with the lusty power of Barbara Pittman. Add a liberal helping of Janis Martin’s gritty vocal, and sprinkle generously with the raw, rebellious sounds of rockabilly poster boys Gene Vincent and Billy Lee Riley. The result? A cocktail of rockabilly royalty named Kim Lenz.
by Denise Daliege-Pierce
Music has always been a part of Kim Lenz’s life. The offspring of a father who tuned into Wolfman Jack’s radio show and a mother who enjoyed listening to classic country crooners, Kim Lenz was exposed to an eclectic mix of music styles. During her formative years, she sang in choirs and played some guitar and piano, but a lack of support from her family dampened any hopes Kim had of performing.
Years later, music would once again seductively weave its way into Kim’s life—and this time, she would heed its siren call. At the age of 20, Kim Lenz moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in music copyright and publishing. California was ground zero for the burgeoning West Coast rockabilly scene, and Kim attended shows at The Palomino and King King, immersing herself in the music of Big Sandy, Dave & Deke and The Paladins. The rockabilly bug had bitten—hard—but it would take a marriage and a move to Texas before the musician inside of Kim Lenz would emerge.
The University of North Texas would be the catalyst to Kim Lenz’s rockabilly coming out party. Renowned for its jazz program, UNT was where Kim—who was working towards a degree in psychology—recruited members for her first band, Rocket Rocket. “I guess I was 26 or 27. There was seven of us and, I think, only five people showed up,” Kim reminisced during a recent telephone interview, describing the group’s first gig at a local coffeehouse. “I think I sang ‘Cool Love’ and ‘The KGB (Made a Man Out of Me)’.”
Despite the meager turnout, Kim was euphoric. “I couldn’t sleep that night—for a couple of nights—like I had been given heroin or something, and was really addicted to it,” she confided.
Although Rocket Rocket disbanded after a handful of shows, Kim was not dissuaded from performing. “All I wanted to do was get a gig at Bar of Soap,” she laughed, referring to a combination laundry mat/bar that featured live music. Her goal achieved, Kim—after some trial and error—had a new backing band, The Jaguars, and the quartet began performing in earnest. “I started writing music, and I liked that,” she remarked. “A lot of the joy that I felt on stage is I can’t believe people are letting me do this. I do it for the love of the music. Money, I think, can be a hindrance to creativity.”
In 1997, the group, with an assist from roots music mainstay Deke Dickerson, released an EP on the tiny Wormtone Records label. It wasn’t long before Larry Sloven, co-founder of Hightone Records, came calling—literally—and Kim Lenz and The Jaguars were on their way to becoming flag bearers of rockabilly music’s revival. Wally Hersom, then bassist for Big Sandy’s Fly-Rite Boys, took to the producer’s chair for Kim’s first Hightone release, 1998’s Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars; The One and Only quickly followed in 1999. The albums were a tribute to Kim’s ability as a songstress—“[On] all of my records, I write most of the songs,” she told me—but they also placed a firm spotlight on some obscure rockabilly gems, such as The Miller Sisters’ “Ten Cats Down”. “I think it was on a Sun Records compilation I had,” Kim replied when asked how she discovered the oft-forgotten tune.
Kim’s sophomore effort continued her tradition of combining fresh rockabilly songs with homages to her music mentors. The album would also provide a unique link to Gene Vincent—more so than any reworking of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” or “Dance to the Bop” ever could—courtesy of Don Carter.
Don Carter’s name may be unfamiliar to some, but his body of work certainly isn’t. The man behind Ronnie Dawson’s “Rockin’ Bones” also penned a pair of songs that Gene Vincent intended to record; one was “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go”, the instantly recognizable classic. The other, “If You Don’t Like My Peaches (Don’t Shake My Tree)”, for reasons unclear, never received the studio treatment… until some forty-plus years later, when Carter offered the neglected number to Kim Lenz. “Don Carter lived in Dallas,” Kim recalled. “I got into contact with him through a mutual friend. I met him, and he was such a sweetheart. We were just kinda, like, ‘Try it’. [It was] such a cool honor to do a song written for Gene.”
After two successful albums, in 2000, Kim stepped off of the stage to undertake an entirely new project: motherhood. Was trading her microphone for a diaper bag a difficult decision to make? “You know, the timing was right,” she responded. “I just spent three-and-a-half to four years on the road; did 200 shows a year—pretty much did everything I could do. I didn’t have a goal of making mainstream music; I didn’t have a goal of breaking out. My goal was to make rockabilly music. I was just burned out. “I think I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll have a kid. I’ll just strap it to my back and I’ll live my life’,” Kim divulged. “Well, it didn’t happen that way. [During the pregnancy] I got really sick—had to cancel my last two tours. I just laid around.”
As her son grew, so did Kim’s free time—and with that, her re-emergence into the rockabilly scene. Hightone released a greatest hits collection, Up to My Old Tricks Again, in 2005, and Kim Lenz made the occasional compilation album contribution. “I recorded for Bloodshot [Records]; I did ‘Cool Love’ [for the album Hard-Headed Woman: A Celebration of Wanda Jackson] and ‘Down on the Farm’ for the kids record [The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides].” Kim also resumed performing on a limited basis, appearing at a Spanish rockabilly festival in alternating years and making one-off performances in the States. “I never really gave it up,” Kim acknowledged. “Now, the challenge for me is, I’ve never been very good at balance. I go one way or the other way.”
Balancing motherhood and music wasn’t a success for some of her predecessors. Sparkle Moore had recorded a handful of tracks for Fraternity Records in the mid-1950s before walking away from the music business to raise a family. The budding career of one of Kim’s musical influences, Janis Martin, suffered a similar fate. “Janis got pregnant, and then she was never really able to come back,” Kim remarked. “I think that’s definitely a hindrance unless you can balance.”
Rockabilly’s renaissance during the 1980s and 1990s encouraged some of the genre’s pioneers to return to the stage. Janis was one of them. “The Female Elvis”, prior to her death in 2007, had returned to performing on the rockabilly festival circuit, and was planning to record a new album. According to Kim, Janis, despite her years, hadn’t lost a step. “[Janis had] such an amazing, strong voice,” she enthused. “Seeing original artist from the fifties can be hit and miss. Her voice was amazing. She just has [sic] such an amazingly true, warm voice. She never lost it.”
Kim remembers performing with Janis at 1999’s Viva Las Vegas event. “The promoter put a band together for her—amazing musicians; all the best,” she recollected. “They want the band to learn the song exactly on the record. She wanted to get up there and rock.” Janis, disappointed that the musicians were not tearing up the stage in true rockabilly spirit, admonished the group. “You guys aren’t rockin’,” she told them. “She had that wild streak in her,” laughed Kim.
Hightone Records had folded. With her son now in school, Kim, having re-relocated to Los Angeles some years earlier, decided to return to doing what she loved best: making music. She formed Open Ranch Studios in her home, with the intention of recording music for television and film scores. What soon emerged was a new album, 2009’s It’s All True!. The disc, released on Kim’s newly formed Riley Records label, features the singer’s distinctive voice and usual mix of material both old and new; it’s also the first album that Kim herself has produced.
Kim described the reasons for the change. “So many costs with a label…you have so many costs; not really have any control, either. I talked to a few people at some smaller labels. Labels are, pretty much, dinosaurs—they’re really not necessary. I wanted to have total control. [With previous albums] there was too much time pressure. There are some songs I’m really proud of; other songs, I didn’t get to finesse them as much as I wanted to.”
As a producer, Kim Lenz dedicated herself to crafting the perfect album, much as she did to penning the ultimate toe-tapping rockabilly number. She took a year to record the vocals, and received a helping hand from a few friends: Fly-Rite Boy Carl Sonny Leyland played piano on the disc, while respected roots musician Billy Horton mixed the record.
Another colleague to lend his talents to the project was Kim’s longtime friend, the versatile Big Sandy. Known for his distinctive mellow voice and ability to perform a variety of music styles—from western swing to rhythm and blues to rockabilly—Big Sandy had provided songs for and produced The One and Only, and played several roles in the completion of It’s All True!. He was session guitarist for the majority of the album, and contributed the song, “He’s All Mine”, a duet to which he also supplied his vocal skills.
Kim Lenz has the utmost respect for Big Sandy. “He is just a consummate musician; professional—such an amazing songwriter,” she marveled. The pair seemed to share a certain synergy, too. While living in Dallas, Kim, armed with a songbook containing a few partially written tunes, joined Big Sandy at a diner. In quick order, he turned the works in progress into completed songs. The finished products received Kim’s approval.
“He’s such an inspiration,” praised Kim. “He lives and breathes it [music]. He lives it. He’s on the road all the time. I think, more than anything, he’s an inspiration to me. If I have a problem….He’s my mentor. There’s nobody else like him. He’s kept it up all these years.
“Each song is such a great work of art,” she continued. “A lot of bands that people think are rockabilly aren’t. It’s all about bowling, flames and cherries—really boring stuff. Big Sandy brings real songwriting to his stuff….He can do anything, rootswise. Thank God for Big Sandy.”
Kim’s approach to It’s All True! was different from the one she perceived Hightone Records had taken with her previous albums. “What I wanted it to be was not what I thought was good enough, but good,”, she commented. “If you’re gonna make something good or something you’re proud of, you need that tenacity….When I’m done, I want to be able to listen to and enjoy it.”
The music industry continues to evolve. The days of popping into the local record store to snare the latest vinyl album or cassette or CD are rapidly dwindling. The advent of the internet and digital media have made music of all categories and cultures more accessible—and more economical. It’s a change that hasn’t been lost to Kim. “There’s a new paradigm happening in the music industry,” she stated. “You buy one or two songs off of iTunes. It’s different selling. Nobody really knows what the new paradigm is.”
Kim Lenz appears prepared to tackle the challenge of marketing her own work in such a tumultuous environment. “There wasn’t a record label that I would give up ownership of the record [to]. I got a really good U.S. distributor.
“The rockabilly crowd is amazing,” she raved. “Once they like you, they like you forever.”
“I learned a lot of lessons,” the singer admitted. “I really do appreciate now a lot of what Hightone did…I really love owning it [the record] and having all the control to myself. Nowadays, if you’re a subgenre musician, you really have to write, play your own instrument; do your own P.R.”
With inexpensive marketing tools such as YouTube and Facebook readily available—and the increased costs of fuel and other assorted travel expenses—the once necessary task of touring in support of an album has become less than profitable. “People don’t realize what it takes to get there for that one-hour performance,” Kim lamented.
Recording a new album may not have been Kim’s initial intention for her studio digs, but it achieved the desired result: the use of her music on television. True Blood, the popular vampire-themed HBO show, has utilized Kim’s material before. “The first time they used one of my songs in True Blood was Season One on the first show,” she related. “I didn’t know anything about the show at that point, and didn’t even have HBO. Since Hightone Records had sold to Shout Factory and nobody there seemed to have my contact info, I was never notified of the use. So, it started playing back east earlier than where I live, in L.A., and I started getting e-mail messages, phone calls and MySpace messages. I called up the cable company, had them turn on HBO and watched Sookie listening to ‘Dang Good Stuff’ out of her iPod. That was cool. The second time they used one of my songs was in the season finale of Season Two. This time, they used a song off my new record, ‘Zombie For Your Love’, which I own, so they contacted me directly for licensing. This was also very exciting, because I didn’t have another label or publishing company deciding about my music.”
Recording for one’s own label can be a costly investment. Even with the distinction of having her music featured in a television series, Kim Lenz has not fully recouped the costs associated with the making of It’s All True!. Nonetheless, making the album has not caused any regrets. “All those recording costs—it costs money to do it right. We’re not living the high life—we’re doing what we love to do. I don’t get wrapped up in the moneymaking part of it. If they wanna have subgenre music, the fans have to be part of it.”
“I think,” continued Kim, “what I’m gonna do next is start working on one song at a time; really start crafting one song at a time. I’m really, really proud of the record. I really don’t have any sour grapes.”
Although Wanda Jackson’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 cemented her status as “The Queen of Rockabilly”, women rockabilly artists are, in general, an unknown commodity. Connoisseurs of the genre can rattle off a nearly endless list of male rockabilly performers, but most would be hard-pressed to name even a smattering of their female counterparts. It’s a conundrum that I’ve never quite understood. I asked Kim if she felt that women’s contributions to rockabilly music have been overlooked. “That’s a complicated question. Back in the fifties, few women were given the chance. Women were supposed to stay home and have babies. A few women were brave enough; brazen enough. That’s just how it was. It’s so titillating—they [the fans] would love it. I don’t understand why there aren’t more women doing it.”
Being a musician of the female gender presents another unique set of problems. “There’s benefits, and there’s a good side and bad side,” Kim disclosed. While the band welcomes publicity, a becoming photo of Kim appearing in a magazine would raise a rare complaint. There’s also the occasional misconception to deal with. “Sometime, sound guys don’t think I know what I’m talking about, and I do,” the singer bemoaned.
Our discussion returned to rockabilly’s founding mothers. “Most roots music, the women were pretty tame. There was Rose Maddox and someone here and there, but women weren’t allowed to get in your face,” Kim added.
Women’s roles in rockabilly—in all styles of music—have grown. The days of record companies shunning a pregnant Janis Martin or reducing Barbara Pittman’s recordings to little more than a wallflower, hovering on the edges of the Elvis Presley/Carl Perkins crowd, are gone. Society’s standards may have changed, but thank goodness the raw sound and so-dirty-you-need-a-shower emotion evoked by rockabilly music haven’t. Kim Lenz is living proof of rockabilly’s continued ability to connect one generation of performers and fans to another. “I feel so appreciative of all the great people I’ve gotten to perform with, and the fan base,” she shared. “I feel about the luckiest person in the world to do what I love. I’m really glad that you and others are keeping roots music alive.”
And Kim Lenz is one of them.
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