f you call yourself a country band in Boston, you won't get any work. But get an upright bass, call yourself rockabilly, and the kids are alright with it. That's the secret for The Stumbleweeds, whose CD "Pickin' and Sinnin'" was just released on Rawk.
There are some rockabilly numbers in their repertoire - enough for them to get booked at the Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender - but the band's overall sound - especially on their CD - is considerably closer to traditional country than that tag would imply.
In fact, what it resembles most is the hillbilly boogie stylings of artists such as The Maddox Brothers and Rose. "(Our music) is in-between," says vocalist Lynnette Lenker. "We can walk the tightrope between two worlds. We can call ourselves country or rockabilly. We're not lying either way."
Like the Maddox group, The Stumbleweeds feature a female vocalist with a backing quartet. They don't actually feature any Maddox material. "I find Rose Maddox really hard to sing," says Lenker. "Everything is so high. You can notch a song down a key or two, but something is lost. I'm more comfortable with Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn."
Lenker, like the other Stumbleweeds, is a veteran of the local music scene. She spent years with The Country Bumpkins, a group that was a little bit like watching "Hee-Haw" - some good music surrounded by a lot of cornball comedy. The Stumbleweeds pretty much confine the comedy to some humorous songs. "(The Bumpkins) had a 10-year run. It fizzled out. Our drummer got nabbed by the Amazing Crowns. A little time went by. I wanted to sing and play. I started thinking of who I could play with. "
The first recruit was bass player Mike Feudale. "He was one of the rockabilly guys on the scene. He knew (pedal steel player) Chris (DeBarge)."
Feudale and DeBarge, whose stage names are respectively Hot Carl and Red Soares, also continue to play together in another local band called The Speed Devils. The first two guitar players were both lost to other bands, and then current member Tom Umberger joined. He had worked with Kim Lenz.
The band started out in typical fashion, doing no originals. "I just picked country and rockabilly songs I liked," says Lenker. "The Bumpkins were built on duets. We had to find songs that fit both voices. I tried to find someone who could harmonize, but it didn't work out. Eventually, Chris said he'd like to do some singing," so the band added some duets to its repertoire.
Then came a pleasant surprise - the guys could write songs. The CD features eight numbers written by them (as well as one original by a friend). "I think people take you a little more seriously when you have originals. When you only do covers, you don't even take yourself seriously. I have no talent for writing. The three men in the band turned out to be pretty good writers. For myself, it makes me feel I have more right to actually put the band out there when we have our own songs." This also explains why the album seems more country than rockabilly.
"For a CD, we wanted to put more originals on it. The guys tend to write more country."
Lenker, a native of the Boston area, got into country music through the back door. "My uncle loved George Jones, so I was aware of it. But when you're a teenager you say 'whatever'. The thing that got me from Alice Cooper and David Bowie to country was Michael Nesmith. I was a big Monkees fan. I was in love with Michael Nesmith. As I got older, I bought his (country rock) albums. He did songs by Patsy Cline, George Jones, etc., and I started buying those people. Then I'd see all these cool reissues. The Collins Kids. Who are they? Wanda Jackson That looks interesting. I was buying a lot, and people started giving me music."
The realities of the music business are less exciting. "It's tough being any kind of band in Boston because there are so many bands of all kinds (and so many fewer clubs than there used to be). Even when The Bumpkins started, there was a larger scene than there is now. Because of my connections having played for so long, we can get into some clubs on that basis."
"The aim is to get out of town. We had to raise money playing gigs to put out the CD. I didn't want to get a record company until we had stuff in order. We're very much looking for a real label now." Rawk Records, which has also put out an album by The Speed Devils, has a new distribution deal with Hep-Cat that should get the disc into some stores outside of Boston.
The Stumbleweeds are rockabilly enough to go over well at Viva Las Vegas - "We got asked back for next year on the main stage" - and country enough to open for George Jones, which they are slated to do later this year.
They also have to balance real lives with their music. Lenker, who has two young children and a part-time job, says "We're all older and we want to make the leap to doing this for real. Everyday I try to make time to do a couple of things for the band."
Photo by Katy Flock