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Rodeo Serenade describes it’s sound as “Honky-Tonkabilly Swing.” It reflects a time in the 1950’s when country music collided with rhythm-and-blues to forge rockabilly and early rock n’roll. Characterized by high-energy shows, a swingin’ rhythm section, vintage guitar twang, and larger-than-life vocals, Rodeo Serenade compels listeners to get to their feet and twist, hop, jive and stroll. Drawing on influences from Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr., and just about every artist to record at Sun Records in the 1950’s, Rodeo Serenade brings to life an era of music full of raw energy and good feelings. Rodeo Serenade has been a regular force in the music scene in central Pennsylvania and has been one of the favorites among swing dance and social dance groups dedicated to keeping the tradition of dancehalls alive. “Their music just compels us to our feet!” says swing dance devotee Amber Merrill.
The band’s sound is driven by the dynamic and authentic voice of Kristi Jean. Kristi grew up riding shotgun in a pickup truck driving the small-town roads of Howe, Texas with the AM radio tuned to traditional country music. She absorbed the sounds of her mother and father’s music and the rural influences that surrounded her. An independent spirit, Kristi tried to reject her country roots and ventured towards rock n’ roll, musical theatre, and even a bit of opera. She paid her way through college belting rock-n-roll tunes in bars, honky-tonks, bowling alleys and dancehalls across the mid-west, trying desperately to hide her Texas twang and accent. Yet, her voice couldn’t escape those dusty back roads and the music from the AM radio that permeated her childhood. She finally returned to those roots when she starred as Patsy Cline in a production of the musical “Always…Patsy Cline.” Following that experience, Kristi said “I discovered how Patsy Cline, and other women of the 1950’s who were rooted in traditional country, wanted to push the boundaries of traditional country into the rebellious and dynamic music of rockabilly and early rock and roll.” There certainly is a grit and growl in those early
rockabilly tunes, but there is also a bit of that country tradition that can’t help but rear its head. Rodeo Serenade guitarist Steve Branstetter says “we always tell Kristi that her ‘Texas’ is showing in those vocal swoops and phrasings…and when she can’t help but say “y’all” or “I’m fixin’ to..” It’s that “Texas” in Kristi’s voice, however, that gives the band its authenticity and character. Her roots aside, one fan summarized Kristi’s influence on the band’s sound this way: “that girl can flat out sing her ass off…”
The rest of the band members each brings their own musical history to further build the character of Rodeo Serenade. Drummer Kyle Haust holds a master of music degree from Penn State University and is the principal percussionist for the Nittany Valley Symphony. He regularly performs with jazz bands, in theatre pit orchestras, and in a range of other musical contexts. Playing the “honky-tonkabilly swing” style with Rodeo Serenade represents a refreshing change-of-pace for Kyle and affords him a chance to “let it all hang out.” Kyle has a strong sense of the message and feel of the songs, and finds ways to give a unique heartbeat to each; from subtle “stirring the soup” rhythms with brushes to hard-rockin’ “Wipeout” themed drum solos in a stunning revival of Janis Martin’s “Bang Bang,” Kyle has the technique and sensibility to cover all the bases.
Kyle’s rhythm section partner, bassist Phil Burlingame, cut his teeth playing in rock and jazz bands throughout Northern Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh. Like Kyle, Phil has extensive experience playing jazz and musical theatre. Phil is also a Western Swing aficionado with a great appreciation for Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Thompson, and many of the other swing groups that set the stage for the birth of rockabilly music. Bucking tradition for music of 1950’s era, Phil foregoes the standard upright or “doghouse” bass in favor of the electric bass, reflecting the developing honky-tonk and popular music genres in the later 1950s and early 1960s. Despite the (relatively) modern technology, Phil approaches the Rodeo Serenade repertoire with a more traditional mindset; walking, grooving and supplying the band with a rock-solid foundation.
With roots planted firmly in folk and jazz, rhythm guitarist and back-up vocalist Susan Burlingame has performed in several combos, choirs, ensembles, and musical theatre productions over the years. For years Susan considered herself mostly a ‘coffee house’ singer who strummed a little acoustic guitar. Recently, however, Susan made the shift to playing in a “rock band” – occasionally even strumming an electric guitar. Susan brings her background in vocal groups to bear in her dead-on harmonies that complement Kristi’s vocals and adds yet another unique dimension to Rodeo Serenade’s sound. During the shows, Susan shows off her jazz-infused lead vocals on a few Wanda Jackson, Carl Perkins or Bob Wills covers.
Lead guitarist Steve Branstetter grew up in Boulder, Colorado listening to his father’s Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Chet Atkins, and Doc Watson vinyl records. Steve recalls the Saturday night tradition of the family gathering around the TV to watch “Hee Haw”, where he first saw many of those singers he was listening to on record. While his friends were blasting Van Halen and AC/DC, Steve was wearing out an old 1950’s compilation album with Elvis’ “Hound Dog,” Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty-Flight Rock” and Gene Vincent’s “Bee-Bop-A-Lula.” His love affair with the guitar started in earnest with after yearning (in vain) for the orange Gretsch 6120 Duane Eddy was holding on the cover of his “Have Twangy Guitar will Travel” album. Since then, Steve has sought to emulate his honky-tonk and rockabilly heroes through his dedication to the traditional style and tone of those twanging guitars. Bringing elements of jump blues, western-swing, and a repertoire of what he describes as “stolen licks” from Don Rich (Buck Owens), Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent), and Scotty Moore (Elvis), Steve adds an enthusiast’s vibe to Rodeo Serenade’s authentic feel.
Others have begun to recognize Rodeo Serenade’s dedication to the traditions of their 1950’s country and rockabilly influences: Jim Price of 105.9FM Qwik Rock Radio said “Rodeo Serenade plays a feisty mixture of roots sounds, spanning early rock’n’roll to roots country, honky-tonk, Texas swing and more. They capture the sound, mood and even some of the look of that 1950s era when rock’n’roll was born. They trigger dancing several times during their sets; Rodeo Serenade was a lot of fun, and I hope to see them perform again soon! ” Pennsylvania Musician Magazine said of the band’s CD, ‘American Roots:’ “Rodeo Serenade sounds quite at home with their vintage roots specialty, and listeners will quickly sense the group’s enthusiasm for this era throughout the CD…fans of vintage rock n’ roll, honky-tonk and Sun Records rockabilly should savor Rodeo Serenade’s American Roots.
similar artists at Roots & Blues
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