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Music Review: Janis Martin – The Blanco Sessions

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In 1956, RCA Records dubbed singer Janis Martin “The Female Elvis,” a title bestowed with the apparent approval of the King himself and his manager, Col. Tom Parker. Billboard magazine named her Most Promising Female Singer that year. While only 15 years old, Martin was already a ten year veteran of the country music circuit, having begun her singing career at the age of five. But while a lover of the music of Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, Martin had grown tired of the slow ballads expected of her, especially when she heard the R&B records of Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker.

So, in March 1956, Martin recorded “Will You Willyum,” a hit matched in popularity by its B side, a Martin composition called “Drugstore Rock ‘n Roll.” With that 45, and a handful of follow-ups, Martin became a pioneer of what would become known as rockabilly music. In fact, alongside Wanda Jackson and then later Brenda Lee, Martin was one of only a few female rockers in a largely male domain.

For a few years, Martin rode high in the rockabilly saddle, appearing on major TV talk shows like The Today Show and The Tonight Show as well as American Bandstand. She was known as much for her provocative stage moves and blonde ponytail as her songs including “My Boy Elvis,” “Let’s Elope Baby,” and Roy Orbison’s “Oooby Dooby.” Then, she got pregnant by her first husband, and RCA dumped her in 1958. There were a few records to come, but a second husband forced her to leave the scene. Over the decades to come, Martin would have her rare public moments in the sun, especially in Europe where her son joined her on drums. But mostly she was seen as a footnote in the history of country/rockabilly music.

Then, in 1995, lifelong fan Rosie Flores (Screamin’ Sirens) sought Martin out and got her to work on a few collaborative projects. Flores ultimately produced a series of recording sessions for Martin in 2007, and the 11 basic tracks were completed just six months before Martin’s death from lung cancer on September 3, 2007, at the age of 67. At first unable to find a label interested in Martin’s final recordings, Flores went to to raise funds. Five years later, the completed project will be released on September 18 on indie Cow Island Music.

Flores deserves considerable credit for putting Martin in the perfect musical settings on The Blanco Sessions. Song titles like “Wham Bam Jam,” “Long White Cadillac,” and “Wild One (Real Wild Child)” should signal the tone of the 11 song set. From the opening honking saxes a la Boots Randolf kick off “As Long As I’m Movin’” to the juke joint blues of “”Roll Around Rockin’,” “Oh Lonesome Me,” and the wheezing harmonica of “Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine,”

The Blanco Sessions sounds like it was recorded in 1962, not 2012. The collection is Saturday night fun at the honky tonk played with simple, straight-forward good ole rock ‘n roll players. Well, there’s no shortage of what they used to call Country and Western. If Patsy Kline sang in a much lower register, she’d have done “Sweet Dreams” like Martin does. It’s hard not to hear the influence of The Everley Brothers on “I Believe What You Say.”

Sure, it’s very clear Martin was no spring chicken when she sang on The Blanco Sessions. While her phrasing and warm timbre are akin to her hit-making days, no one is going to mistake the age of the performer. However, Martin isn’t presenting songs reflecting the wisdom of a long life. Rather, she’s entertaining us with songs that should get you on the dance floor, hooting from your bar stool, or simply grinning and bouncing with the beat. If you want to explain what rockabilly is to someone young, here’s the album that defines the whole thing. Every track is performed by a singer who was there backed by a band who got it just right. Rockabilly will never die, especially if we honor its Mothers as well as its Dads.

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