After just the first few chords, it feels like the band Juanita Family And Friends are old friends. The Portland, Ore., sweethearts will perform at Hal & Mal's Restaurant on Wednesday, June 7. There's no better reason to skip Wednesday-night church than to attend this honky-tonk revival.
Lead singer Lana Rebel has a voice that is sweet and lonesome, Loretta Lynn with a side-helping of Iris Dement. The band is a tightly oiled machine. Song after song, the engine revs up and gets warmer. Its parts work separately and in total harmony: Dylan Reilly on bass, James Curley on guitar and mandolin, John Schier on the drums, and JT Halmfilst on the lap slide, guitar and backing vocals. They have crisscrossed the country, playing rock venues, roadhouses, parties, crawfish boils, festivals, rodeos, radio stations and street corners.
I asked Rebel how they capture the classic country/western sound, not being southerners themselves. She said they "try harder" at cultivating the sound, which is a hoot seeing as she and several members met while playing in a metal band. However, outsiders sometimes have the objective ear it takes to re-create a sound and spice it up with originality.
Juanita Family and Friends have originality in spades. With songs such as "Let's Get Drunk and Watch TV," "Burn Your House Down" and "Cocaine Eyes," you experience heartbreak, and it stings like a fresh wound. Their classic honky-tonk sound veers toward a little gospel and rock—with a psychedelic edge. Rebel has an easy demeanor even as she croons with a "restless heart," while the boys play with conviction. Rebel mesmerizes with her lilting voice and stories of performing at a rodeo where "cowgirls were ripping Wrangler patches off of cowboys' butts."
Other lyrics are more soulful: "You're going down with me / Come on down with me / I don't wanna face my losin' ways alone."
Rebel says they work hard to promote themselves. "I have an agenda," she says. "I want to make sure I don't have to go back to my day job, and I want to make sure the band doesn't have to go back to their day jobs either."
The hard work is paying off with some promising opportunities. They recently returned from touring in the UK and Ireland. Their first stop was London, where BBC radio invited them to record a session.
While they were across the pond, I asked Rebel to answer a few more questions.
Where are you right now, and where are you headed next?
Ireland. We're in Cork, staying with Phil from Los Langeros. We're going back to London tomorrow.
How was the BBC recording session?
It was the absolute coolest thing I've ever done. It aired May 30. The studio was amazing, and the engineers were like white wizards of rock 'n' roll. It was the most painless recording session imaginable, and the equipment is probably the nicest stuff we will ever see in our lives. It sounded great. We're all very excited about how it came out.
When hearing you guys perform, it does feel as though we're all old friends … so easy and comfortable. You seem to have a sixth sense with this style of music. What are some sources of inspiration and influences for your songwriting?
The most important influence on me was Willie Nelson. I saw him when I was a kid and my dad was working as a crew member for the filming of "Honeysuckle Rose" out in Texas. I've been in love ever since. Of course, I'd be nowhere without my Hank Williams. The first song I taught myself was "Your Cheatin' Heart," playing along to the record player. I also love Lefty Frizell. He has some of the greatest love songs—that's definitely a big influence on my songwriting.
Does the band collaborate on the arrangements, or is it just you?
Those guys will help me a bit with arrangements, for sure. But they are very respectful of my original vision for each song. They know me and my style well enough to help push each song to be the best we can get it to be.
Juanita Family and Friends play Hal & Mal's on Wednesday, June 7, at 8:30 p.m. Free. If you miss the show, check out their self-titled album at cdbaby.com/cd/juanitafamily.
Juanita Family and Friends are also on Myspace.