Keep On Rockin', Baby

Guitarist Shannon Curfman brings something new to the teen craze. It's called talent.

They say girls mature faster than boys. Shannon Curfman, however, is maturing faster than everyone. At fourteen, she's doing her schoolwork on the road while touring behind her major-label debut, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions. Her turns in the spotlight haven't come in the school auditorium but on Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. In many ways, Curfman's rock-and-roll fantasies have become reality: She's just finished a few weeks as the opening act for John Mellencamp and counts Sting, Santana, Sammy Hagar and Melissa Etheridge as friends and play-time partners.

"Being on stage and seeing people singing your lyrics and humming your tunes -- it's a big thrill," Curfman says from her tour-bus telephone, as cool in conversation as she is on disc. "And opening for Mellencamp, we played domes, and there was this continuous rumble, with the crowd clapping and the whole stage shaking while we were playing. It was amazing."

Curfman, a native of Fargo, North Dakota, is currently enjoying an equally amazing media buzz, the kind recently generated by the plethora of underaged bubblegummers now clogging America's consciousness -- and airwaves. And given the way that record companies have been raiding the junior highs for new talent, Curfman's age could be her best asset. It hasn't hurt Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson or Mandy Moore, teens who have turned youth and a budding sexuality into steamy Sound Scan tallies. But Curfman, who sports a sugar-cookie face of her own, has earned her sales numbers with the one thing those women seem to lack: musical talent. She's gained her status not with back flips and bare midriffs, but with old-before-her-years singing, songwriting and guitar riffs. And she makes it clear that these are the only tools she'll employ for success.

"Oh, gosh, no, that's not my thing at all," Curfman says when asked if she's considered adopting the come-on antics of her older teenaged associates. "Britney Spears isn't a peer of mine, because we do completely different kinds of music. Britney Spears is pop. What I do is rock." And she does so for a simple reason. "Britney Spears talks about Madonna being her big influence," Curfman says, "and that comes through in her music. Christina Aguilera talks about Mariah Carey being her influence, and you can hear that in her music. For me it was different: I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin."

Curfman also spent time listening to Hendrix, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye and other rock and soul legends, and those influences appear throughout Loud Guitars. Her debut is a flash of perfect-for-FM stuff, smart but accessible rock that helped make Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge household names. The disc features funky, blue-eyed blues ("Few and Far Between," "If You Change Your Mind," "Love Me Like That"), up-from-the-Delta rockers ("No Riders," "Playing With Fire") and hard-candy ballads such as "I Don't Make Promises I Can't Break" and "Never Enough." Curfman handles most of the guitar solos on these songs herself.

Loud Guitarsalso packs a few higher-caliber numbers, the sort of blues-based anthems that freshened the airwaves in the '70s and early '80s. "True Friends" is full-on rock thunder, what could pass for a Black Crowes outtake with the band fronted by the apparent long-lost kid sister of the Robinson brothers. A fresh cover of the Band's "The Weight" is another arena fist-raiser that would make the Van Zant clan proud. The tune's slash-and-groan guitars are matched by Curfman's astoundingly assured badass vocal swagger. It smokes, even if Curfman is too young to legally do the same. What's just as impressive about these amplified blasts (and much of the album) is that despite her youth, Curfman echoes her musical heroes without ever aping them -- a trick many artists two and three times her age never master.

The fact that Curfman is no rock rookie explains some of this achievement. According to her mother, Mary Curfman (who is now touring with her daughter), Shannon was singing at age two. She sang in every school choir, suffered through dressing up for pageants just to get in the talent slots, and frequently raided her parents' record stash for rock numbers to croon. By the time she was ten, she was performing solo shows at festivals around Fargo. When she was just eleven, the Curfmans took their daughter to see blues-rock guitarist Jeff Healey and hung around after the show to meet him. Shannon treated the guitarist to her version of Robert Johnson's "Malted Milk," and Healey was so impressed that he invited her to perform with his band the next night. Curfman stole the show and was never the same. "It completely changed my perspective of what is possible," she says. "When you're eleven, your train of thought isn't to have a band and play gigs. This made me open to the idea that maybe I could actually have a band now instead of waiting until I'm eighteen. I just couldn't wait seven more years."

"The next day," her mother recalls, "Shannon told me, 'Mom, I don't want to do the acoustic thing anymore. I want a full band.'" She put a few together, doing festivals around a four-state area surrounding North Dakota. At twelve, the elder Curfman recalls, Shannon went for the club circuit after a local act gave up their longtime regular gig at a Fargo nightspot. "Shannon called the club owner," Mary recalls, "and asked him, 'What are you gonna do with that night?' He told her she could have it." Curfman later got in touch with another Fargo legend, blues whiz kid Jonny Lang, who aided her with sage advice and some guitar instruction. (Lang also appears on Curfman's new release.)

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