With the Saddle-Ites,Cari Lee established herself as one of the big names on the new hillbilly and rockabilly scene. If that wasn’t enough, she found time to play the part of the late Rose Maddox in a musical and saw her talent exposed to a new audience. The band is now well recognized. Just have a look at the variety of venues they play: from rockabilly festivals to the Grand Ole Opry, opening for Brooks & Dunn and Social Distortion. Recently she proved she was more than an hillbilly singer (which is already great) and issued a fantastic Rhythm’n’blues album that received rave reviews, for good reasons.

Fred "Virgil" Turgis

Let’s start with the beginning, what kind of stuff did you listen to as a kid??
As a young child, my mom used to play a lot of different kinds of music. Everything from Credence Clearwater to B.B. King. But I also used to listen to a syndicated radio show called “The Doctor Demento Show”. Dr. Demento was a guy who was a huge record collector who had a special affection for unusual and obscure songs with a novelty or comedic twist. That’s when I first heard Julia Lee sing “Last Call For Alcohol” and Nervous Norvus sing “Ape Call”. This guy played everything from pre-war blues to Wierd Al Yankovic. As a 10 year old, it was very entertaining and I think if the show were still in syndication - I’d be listening to it today. When I started Jr. High, I got into punk rock and really dug bands like The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie and The Banshees, Blondie, Agent Orange. From there, I developed an interest in Rocksteady, Blue Beat, and early Ska.

Did you grow up in a musical family?
No, not at all. My sisters and I used to sing traditional folk tunes with my mom for fun - but that was it. We really didn’t have enough money to put into music lessons or instruments and as a kid, what I really wanted to do was dance and act. So, while there were always records playing in the house, singing and playing instruments was never something that anyone focused on seriously. It was just fun.

How did you discover hillbilly, rockabilly, blues and all that stuff??
I think I’m still discovering those styles of music. There’s so much of it out there and I’m always learning a ton of things from other collectors and music enthusiasts. The more I learn, the more I realize that I can never learn enough. So, I don’t know that there was one specific occasion for me, but there were several events that led to my interest in American roots music. When I was a kid, I discovered a box of 45’s that my mom listened to when she was a teenager. It was all 50’s pop tunes, but it was cool to be able to hear what my mom was listening to back then. When I was in high school, I was listening to a lot of Rocksteady and 60’s Ska from independent labels like Studio 1. But it wasn’t until my late teens when I started to find the link between some of the early Jamaican Rocksteady and the American Doo Wop styles.

Do you have a precise memory of a record that made you think “That’s the kind of stuff I want to listen to!!?
Oh yeah! It was when I was 19 and I was listening to a radio station that played only stuff from the 1950’s. It was another syndicated show (what is it with me and syndicated radio shows?) - anyway because it wasn’t a commercial radio show, they could play whatever they wanted as opposed to the average oldies radio station that played “Downtown” and “Georgie Girl” one too many times. This radio show played “This Little Girl’s Gone Rockin” by Ruth Brown and I went nuts. They didn’t announce who the artist was and I was so desperate to find out that I didn’t turn off the radio for days because I was hoping to get the DJ to play the song again and announce who the artist was. They finally played “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and announced that it was Ruth Brown and I wrote her name down on a scrap of paper and began my hunt for her music. I went from record store to record store asking if they had anything by Ruth Brown and they all looked at me like I had just come from Mars. None of the major music retailers seemed to know who Ruth Brown was - but they all seemed eager to push Madonna. Sad really. I finally found a mom and pop record store who knew who she was. They didn’t have anything in stock, but they ordered 3 different reissued 45’s for me and I was in heaven!

You said you started singing at the relatively late age of 26. What was the thing that decided you to become a singer??
I still don’t know if I’ve decided to become a singer. I think I might just stay with being a professional goof off. HA! Really though, this all kind of just started with me learning to play rhythm guitar and making up a couple of songs. The next thing you know we’re at a jam session and I’m asked to sing a song or two - it was all just in fun but when I was approached by a promoter who asked if I could work up 3 sets of material for the club that he was booking, a few of us realized that we could make the fun last a little longer. So, I guess when it stops being fun, I’ll stop playing music.

Was writing your own songs a natural move for you?
I love to write. I like writing everything from short stories, research papers, all kinds of stuff. But song writing is a little different. It’s a process that I plan to continue to learn a lot about.  It almost feels as if it’s another language and it’s the musician’s job to act as a translator for the listener.  I enjoy working out vocal melodies with chord structures and arranging songs so that each instrument involved has an opportunity to ‘speak’. And we do a lot of collaboration within the band and get input from the producer. Right now I’m having a great time writing songs with Steve Merritt and Danny Santos for the next album. Both Danny and Steve are so creative and talented.

When you started, and maybe still now, did you have songwriters or singers that influenced you??
Well, I love a wide range of music and there are characteristics of different vocal styles and writing styles that I like a lot. I dig everything from Fats Waller, Cats And The Fiddle, and Django Reinhardt to Wynona Carr, Hank Penny and Rose Maddox.

You’ve played the part of Rose Maddox in a musical, how did you get involved in that project?
I heard about that role through Steve, who was playing guitar for a theater production of “The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas”. Steve and Mitch Polzack and Brendan Gluek (From the band The Royal Deuces) were asked to audition for different roles that the a director had been trying to cast for a few years. The director and creator of Maddox Brothers & Rose production was having a very difficult time finding the right musicians who fit the right characters of The Maddox family. Steve decided that he didn’t want to audition, but he encouraged me to audition for the role of Rose Maddox. I auditioned and was cast as Rose Maddox. It was such a great experience.

Did you make a special preparation for that, did you meet people who knew her?
The director, Michael Grice, had done a lot of preparation before casting the parts. He had consulted Don Maddox about a lot of the different aspects of the script and casting. Once word got out that the production was in rehearsals, I started getting emails and phone calls from people who had seen them perform or knew some of the different family members personally or had played with them. I’ve heard some fantastic stories about the family and their interactions with each other both on and off stage. One of the biggest helps to me in terms of character research was a man named Glenn Mueller who is related to the Maddox family through marriage. He gave me a lot of inside information about the family and about Rose in particular. He also sent me a bunch of photographs that he had taken of some of their live performances back in the 1940’s. I was able to meet Don Maddox and sing “George’s Playhouse Boogie” with him and I was able to meet Kitty Maddox, Fred Maddox’s widow and some of Fred’s children and grandchildren. They told me all kinds of crazy stories about their dad and “Aunt Rose”. Don was an amazing guy. He was just blown away at the thought of people being interested in them as a family and in their music. He’s in his 80’s and owns a ranch out in Oregon. He plays a lot of fiddle competitions these days.

About the singing in that play, did you try to “imitate” her (I mean the voice but also gimmicks like her characteristic laughs) or did you stick to your own style?
I tried to ‘be Rose’ as much as I could, but there isn’t a whole lot of film footage out there to study and some of the stories that I’d hear about her performances and stage presence were conflicting. For instance, I was told by one person that she was constantly dancing and I heard from another guy who told me that she never moved from the vocal mic and stood perfectly still. So, I listened to the Arhoolie CD of their live radio performances and Glenn Mueller burned me a CD of some of the live recordings that he was able to capture back in the 40’s and 50’s. I studied a lot of her vocal characteristics and tried to replicate them and we put in a lot of their trademark shouts, and hollers. A lot of the stuff that you’d hear on their recordings were also in the production. You know, things like, “Stop it, you’re driving me sane!” and “That’s My Brother”.

You’ve played at the Grand Ole Opry, right? It must have been really impressive to play in such a mythical place??
It was a blast?! Jean Sheppard was due to be on that night and I wanted to camp out in front of her dressing room. She was ill that day and couldn’t do the show. I think we were all a bit tense at first, but it seemed that the minute we got there we were warmly welcomed. Everyone had such a humble attitude. The promoter’s assistant took us on a complete tour of the place and we discovered that despite any celebrity status, everyone had the exact same dressing rooms and accomodations. There was none of this “I won a country music award so I want only green M&Ms and imported water.”  Nobody had rock star attitudes and everyone was just as respectful to little guys like us as they were to Vince Gill or other big-wig Nashville Stars.
The biggest thing for me was to be able to stand on the Ryman Circle. I know it might be a bit silly and sentimental, but to stand on this small piece of what used to be part of the original Ryman stage, knowing that was where Patsy Cline, Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, and so many others stood to perform was an amazing feeling.

Let’s talk about “Scorched”. Is this a longtime project you had ? Some tunes like “Nobody loves you like me” or “I’m a pilgrim traveler” on “The Road Less Traveled” were a first move toward rhythm’n’blues.
I’d wanted to do a rhythm and blues influenced album for about 3 years and we had decided to go ahead and put a couple of songs on The Road Less Traveled album after discussing whether or not it would be appropriate for a Hillbilly Bop album. We figured, if Elvis could take an Arthur Crudup song and release it in his own style and Moon Mullican can do a Tiny Bradshaw tune in his own style - well, why not have The Saddle-ites do Wynona Carr and Etta James in their own style?! We started putting material together for the Scorched album shortly after releasing The Road Less Traveled. We had decided that we ought to keep the Saddle-ites separate from the Scorched project so that there wouldn’t be any confusion as to the style of music that The Saddle-ites play as opposed to the style of music that this solo album would be. We put together some R&B musicians here in the San Francisco area and did a couple of recordings for an El Toro Records compliation. Then, maybe a year later we talked with Billy Horton about producing the solo album out in Austin. He brought together some fantastic musicians and we called them The Contenders.

It’s a non singer question, so it may sound stupid, but did you have to approach your way of singing differently for this album?
Well I don’t think that’s a stupid question at all. Yes, I did make an effort to approach the vocal style differently than I would approach the tunes that The Saddle-ites do. I think that there are different elements that make different songs work in a particular genre. Even from song to song within the Scorched album the approach had to be different. The song “How Come” was originally done by Anita O’Day with Gene Krupa’s band and that had to have a much smoother vocal swing to it than the Tiny Topsy tune, “You Shock Me”, which needed to be a lot more gutsy in vocal approach. It was a lot of fun to be able to do something completely different from what I normally do.

Both “The Road Less Traveled” and “Scorched” were produced by Billy Horton. What can you say about him? What does he bring to your sound?
Billy has a way of bringing out the very best in everyone he works with. I have so much respect for him and his knowlege of music. “The Road Less Traveled” was a very different album than “Scorched” and he approached the two albums with a completely different mindset. He gets very involved in each project that he does. He doesn’t just push the buttons and say, “Ok play!” He takes the time to listen to the arrangements, makes suggestions, recommendations, additions and changes according to what he thinks is most suitable for each and every song. When we went out to record “Scorched” - he was teaching himself how to play the saxaphone just so that he could communicate with horn players about session work. That’s pretty dedicated.  Billy’s got a vast knowlege of music in general and has a great handle on all of the different musical styles along with the instrumentation and recording equipment and techniques that will bring out the best of whatever genre he records.

Have you heard about the wonderful guitar player called Steve Merritt, he’s really good
Oooohhhh that guy!!! He’s pretty easy on the eyes too! HA! Steve is my best friend, my mentor, and the thorn in my side! :-) Seriously, though - if it weren’t for him and his encouragement and motivation, I wouldn’t be performing at all and I’d really be missing out on a lot.

The liner notes of Marti Brom’s latest album state “Marti’s dress custome made by Cari Lee Merritt”. Can you tell us more about that?
Marti and I always seem to get ourselves into trouble when we’re together - it’s fun trouble though. We talked once about the fact that it was a good thing that we live on different coasts because all hell would probably break loose if we lived closer to each other and all the while we’d be laughing our tails off at the whole fiasco that we’ve unintentionally created. Marti is a fantastic woman and I adore her to pieces. I made the dress for her a few years ago as a gift. I rarely make designs for other people, I’m certainly not a professional by any means.

Do you make your own stage suits too?
I make a lot of my own stage wear mainly out of necessity. I can’t pay $1200 for a vintage Nudie suit, as much as I’d like to. If I could afford something like that, I’d be afraid to wear it on stage. Vintage clothing is...well..vintage. It’s old - zippers break, seams rip, and stains happen. I want to wear something that I can have fun in and not worry about damaging. So I make a lot of my own stagewear and if it gets damaged then I have a good excuse to make something new.
Right now I’ve got a new challenge on my hands though. Our booking agent is asking us to retire our western wear and create a look that’s a little more “uptown”. I guess we’ll see what I can come up with. Uptown Hillbillies?! That’ll be interesting. HA!

We could have seen pictures of your young daughter on stage with you. Does she sing like her mother?
Yeah, that little girl has definitely got the bug! She likes to sing and started on the piano at age 4. She’s moved on to guitar now, but I think what she really likes to do is perform in general. She’s been in a few plays and she loves acting. But she also loves basketball, video games, and science. We’re trying to expose her to a lot of different things to see what sticks and let her take the lead in what interests her. Right now it’s singing, next week it may be chess. In any event I hope that she knows that nothing is impossible for her to achieve and that whatever she wants to do, we’ll be right beside her. 

What is the future for Cari Lee? Another Saddle-Ites album or a Contenders one?
We’ve got another Saddle-ites album that we’re preparing to record and that will include songs sung by Danny Santos as well as duets. I’m looking forward to that. We’re planning another European tour and in the mean time we’re continuing to have fun playing music with each other.

A last word?
Oh, I’m sure you’ve heard quite enough out of me. Thanks so much for talking with me. I’ve read your previous issues and I think Jumpin’ From 6 To 6 is so well put together. Everything from the layout to the photos and the informative articles, reviews and interviews are so well done. Thank you for letting me be a part of it.


  Cari Lee & The Saddle-Ites- Brought to you via Saddle-Ites
Their latest release to date. On this one they take their hillbilly and bring it to town. The result is a mainly swinging album of western bop with some incursions in early Rock'n'Roll ala Comets/Saddlemen, Honky Tonk and Boogie, produced by the expert hands of Billy Horton. Bassist Danny Santos sings duets with Cari lee and lead on a couple of tune. Add Steve Merritt 's guitar skill and guests like Bobby Trimble, Dave Biller, Bobby Horton and Jonathan Doyle (Four Charms) and you have a lot of good reason to buy this cd.
    Cari Lee & The Contenders- Scorched
Backed by a solid team of musicians from Austin (Bonta, Damien Llanes, Ryan Gould) and produced by Billy Horton this album shows another side of Cari Lee's talent. Hot Rhythm'n'Blues, Blues, Jazz and pre-Rock'n'rRoll are on the program of this platter with both solid originals and covers from Mike Pedicin and Annita O' Day.