Josie and the Hepcats
Few acts of rebellion are as defining as imposing one's music of choice on others. But while most youths who carry out such assaults use current, cutting-edge sounds as their weapons, rockabilly artist Josie Kreuzer waged one such sonic war with music from the past. "I worked at Tower Records when I was teenager," she recalls. "When we got to work the register, we got to pick out our own music--and one of my favorite things to do was taunt the Jane's Addiction kids with truck-driving songs and Tammy Wynette and the Collins Kids. I loved doing that. I'm just a troublemaker at heart."
Despite the passage of time, the twenty-something Kreuzer remains a menace to anyone who has not yet succumbed to the charms of rockabilly and classic country. She's spent most of the past decade purveying the sonic stylings of the Fifties, and she's currently at the top of her game. Her live shows have received raves across the country, as has her latest, self-produced CD, Hot Rod Girl. Chock-full of hillbilly rockers and roadhouse heartbreakers, the disc is sure to please lovers of vintage rock and all things pomped, pegged and poodle-skirted. Equally impressive is the fact that Kreuzer penned nearly all the songs on the platter--a rare feat in rockabilly recording circles--and released it on her own label, SheDevil Records.
Given this last accomplishment, it makes perfect sense that one of Kreuzer's heroes is another female record-company CEO, albeit one who operates in an entirely different genre: Ani DiFranco. "Ani is amazing," Kreuzer says with a hint of awe in her voice. "She's like a goddess to me because of what she's done. To be able to get to the level she's on is unheard of. To get that kind of press, you usually have to be on a major label and have them pushing behind you. But she's been able to do all that by herself, and that, to me, is amazing. I really respect her, and that's one of the things that motivate me--because it can be done.
"For my first record," she continues, "I wanted to do everything myself, because I had this whole idea in my head of how I wanted it to be, and I didn't want anybody to tell me what to do because their money was behind it. So I designed the whole thing, did all the producing and the mixing down. And I'm going to keep doing my records this way." She adds, "SheDevil is a tribute to women in music, and if I ever were to do anything with any other bands, I probably would choose other women artists."
Kreuzer began immersing herself in rockabilly when she moved to New Orleans (the setting for her Tower Records stint). She soon discovered an affinity for many of rockabilly's unheralded outfits, including the aforementioned Collins Kids, an early-Fifties combo fronted by teen siblings Lorrie and Larry Collins. "Hearing them was the turning point in what I was going to do," she divulges. "I had listened to the mainstream rockabilly: Elvis and Bill Haley, and the stuff you hear on the oldies stations. But then I started getting into the Collins Kids. They still rock; they're great."
A few years of honing her guitar chops later, Kreuzer relocated to Southern California, where she put together an all-girl hipster act, Whistle Bait. Named for a Collins Kids ditty, the band quickly earned a following in Los Angeles. But in 1993, after a run of almost three years, the group called it quits following a gig at L.A.'s House of Blues on the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. The breakup seemed to put the kibosh on a scheduled stop at England's Hemsby Festival, arguably the planet's most revered roots-music event, but rather than cancel, Kreuzer teamed up with the Ricardos, a British band, and put on a show herself. With the approval of the Hemsby crowd still ringing in her ears, she returned to the states and launched a solo career in which country is as important as rockabilly.
"What I've listened to the most is Hank Williams and Elvis Presley's Sun Sessions stuff," she notes. "But I also love Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin. And Tammy Wynette. I was sitting in my motel room when I heard she had died, and I dragged out my Tammy Wynette-George Jones tape and sat there playing some of those songs. I have been a fan of hers for a long time. Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette--when they sing, it brings tears to your eyes. They're two of the greatest country-weeper songstresses."
"Long Dark Night" and "Dead Man Walking," two bright moments on Hot Rod, reveal that Kreuzer, too, is adept at tearjerkers. Nonetheless, her music isn't often likened to that of precursors like Cline and Wynette. "People say I sound like a female Hank Williams, and I've also heard them say I'm a female version of Wayne Hancock," she comments. "The thing you have to realize is, there are very few people to compare me to because there were so few rockabilly women."
In other respects, Kreuzer and her mates (guitarist Adam Payne and stand-up bassist Davey Ketchum) are quite a traditional group. "We're traveling the old-style way: three pieces, no drums, and lots of finger-picking," enthuses Kreuzer, who chunks out her rhythm chords on a 1952 Kay acoustic. "A lot of people believe that you have to have drums to rock, and in some cases it might be true, depending on what kind of music you're playing. But for hardcore honky-tonk and rockabilly, if you have a good enough bass player, you can do it, as long as you have that slap going in there.
"The greatest thing about breaking it down like this," Kreuzer says of performing sans skins, "is that you hear a lot of things you normally wouldn't hear when you have the drums behind you. And you work off each other a little more, because you can't rely on that backbeat. It's really a compliment when people come up after a show and say, 'I didn't even realize you didn't have drums until after the first set.' But do you know what the biggest plus of them all is? Without a drummer, we travel very light, in a small vehicle with lots of space in the car. And we all make more money."
These days, Kreuzer isn't the only rockabilly woman on the road. As she acknowledges, "There's me, Kim Lenz, Rosie Flores, L'il Mo & the Monicats and Ruthie & the Wranglers, and there are bands overseas like the Ranch Girls." She adds, "Some people want to think that there's all this competition between us. But I support everybody, because since there are so few of us, we have to count on each other."
Could this mean that there might be a Lilith Fair for blue suede belles someday soon? "That's a good idea," Kreuzer says. "Someone should do that!" And she's just the woman for the job.
Josie Kreuzer, with DJ Kurt Ohlen. 10 p.m. Wednesday, April 29, 9th Avenue West, 99 West 9th Avenue, $5, 455-8408.
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