This is what it's like to interview a hyphy rapper: You descend into the bowels of some West Oakland garret, where you find a twelve-man entourage sucking on Phillies cigars and peeling back dollar bills. As you listen to the artist prattle on about his hard-knock life and his Ford Falcon, you're frequently interrupted by people trying to hawk their own albums, sell you Ecstasy, or get your number and MySpace address "for networking purposes." When he's tired of talking to you, the artist pops in a CD, whereupon teeth-chattering bass beats and the crackle of gunfire induce momentary paralysis.
This is what it's like to interview an old-timey country singer: You slip into Oakland's Uptown nightclub, where middle-aged dance instructors ply you with rum-punch and try to get you to do the Lindy hop. As you listen to the artist -- a pretty, platinum-blond in a snazzy dress and impossibly high-heeled shoes -- discuss her day job and her psychology classes, you're frequently interrupted by the Uptown's owner boasting about the solid oak barstools and mahogany furniture he extracted from the Old Spaghetti Factory. When the band strikes up, you hear a Judy Garland-ish tremolo swaddled in Dixieland guitar, all mingling with the slap of someone's rubber-soled Keds fox-trotting across the dancefloor; meanwhile, you're blinded by several shades of bone-blond and pillarbox-red hair that don't exist in nature.
Welcome to the magical '50s-era wonderland of Alameda-based country singer Cari Lee and her band, the Saddle-ites. With the body of Daisy Duke and the sweetness of Shirley Temple, Cari Lee lives in a completely different time zone than the rest of the world, furnishing her home with vintage crockery, autographed publicity photos of the Maddox Brothers and Rose (a musical inspiration), and a rhinestone brooch and cross that belonged to Dale Evans. Her songs promote the kinds of relationships popular half a century ago: People fall in love swiftly and cleanly, with a lot of boogie-woogie guitar lines in the background, and basslines that clop along at a fast enough clip to defuse the emotional tone.
Bottom line: It's as if the last five decades never happened. Cari Lee appeals to a particular Americana subculture that comprises several disparate scenes -- rockabilly, psychobilly, alt.country, old-timey, zydeco, and West Coast swing -- but remains small and intimate. "It's a very underground scene, so a whole lot of the general population doesn't really know it exists," the singer confesses. That seems to suit her just fine.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Cari Lee sits with husband and guitar player Steve Merritt and their daughter Evie, holed up together in Andrew Jaeger's House of Seafood & Jazz in the heart of San Francisco's North Beach. Evie -- who is eleven, and looks like her mother despite sporting Manic Panic-green hair -- is reading a mystery novel for an impending book report. Cari Lee smiles radiantly as her band takes the stage, kicking off with a cheeky song called "Don't Make a Cheater of Me." When a bus rattles by and momentarily drowns out the music, she quips, "Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to introduce you to our percussion section, the San Francisco MUNI Metro."
Cari Lee is clearly in her natural habitat: a small, New Orleans-style jazz club where the audience will laugh at her jokes and bob their heads to sultry Patsy Cline covers and lyrics that chide a bad boyfriend who Better stop that tom-cattin' around. It's a welcome relief from the previous week's gig at Shoreline Amphitheatre, where the Saddle-ites opened for pop-country giants Brooks and Dunn. "That was surreal," she recalls. "There were hot air balloons floating by with the names 'Brooks and Dunn' printed on them. They were selling everything from toe rings to T-shirts to hard rock guitars to $5 hot dogs and $6.50 Budweiser. Brooks and Dunn came out with tractor trailers and fireworks." The whole spectacle was a little mortifying; she felt uneasily like a tiny cog in "a well-oiled machine."
It was actually a fluke that Cari Lee ended up in the rural bop and boogie racket at all, given that she grew up hating country. "It has no guts," she says. "I've never been a fan of pop music anyway; a lot of it is just palatable, as opposed to music that really makes you feel something." Growing up in Boulder Creek and the Santa Cruz Mountains, her family didn't have a lot of money, so she bought most of her clothes at thrift stores, dressing in punk rocker and vintage styles. She listened to Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Sex Pistols, and attended all-ages shows at a place called (seriously) the Culture Club. She glued her hair into Liberty spikes and dyed it various psychedelic colors -- the bluest blues, the reddest reds. Cari Lee eventually gravitated to rocksteady and Jamaican ska, and in her later teenage years, started drawing correlations between Jamaican styles and American doo-wop.
"I used to listen to a lot of syndicated radio, and when I was nineteen, I started listening to a station called the Nifty 1050 AM," the singer recalls. "They didn't play the typical stuff that you hear on '50s radio stations now, like 'On Broadway' or 'Dock of the Bay' -- they played a mixture of pop tunes and a lot of obscure stuff. I heard [R&B diva] Ruth Brown play a song that I absolutely loved, and I went to record store after record store looking for this song. Nobody knew what I was talking about."
Eventually, she met people who did, including avid record collector (and future husband) Steve at a Swedish American Music Hall big band show in the early '90s. The two cultivated a romance from their mutual passion for pulp crime novels, B-movies, and old-timey artists like Fats Waller and Ruth Brown. They married when Cari Lee was 24, wherein Steve started moonlighting in a rockabilly band called the Stillmen and taught her how to play guitar on the side. The couple started haunting weekly jam sessions at SF's Club Deluxe, where they were "discovered" by the club's promoter in 1999. ("We weren't even a band yet," she recalls.) At that point, the idea of putting together a few full-fledged sets still hadn't occurred to Cari Lee, who didn't get her first real gig until the Stillmen cajoled her into opening for them at the Paradise Lounge a couple months later.
"Their opening act had canceled at the last minute, and they said 'Just put her onstage for twenty minutes, and we'll back her,'" she recalls. "I was kinda thrown into it." But Cari Lee gamely agreed at her husband's behest -- although it actually didn't take much behesting.
After several different band configurations, the couple finally recruited rockabilly vet bassist Danny Santos and Tin Pan Alley enthusiast drummer Rick Quisol, dubbed themselves the Saddle-ites, and hit the club circuit. Soon they were headlining clubs and playing the kind of shows where overzealous fans try to bullshit their way backstage, a practice Cari Lee finds so venal, she carped about it in her blog the day after the Brooks and Dunn imbroglio, pronouncing such faux-groupie shenanigans "icky."
But arena rock blowouts are definitely an anomaly in Cari Lee's career, which, thus far, is best characterized by Friday nights at the Uptown, performing for a small cluster of rockabilly chicks with high, hairsprayed cowlicks and Gauloises tucked behind their ears. One fan loudly complained that her car got jacked the last time she came to this part of town, to which Cari Lee saucily retorted, "That's why I drive a Mercury station wagon." You might've felt like an interloper here if you're familiar with the "rural bop" or "hillbilly jazz" world -- perhaps you'd have felt more comfortable scooting around the corner to the @Seventeenth Club, where hyphy KMEL hooks and primordial jeep beats reverberated from car stereos.
To the uninitiated, Cari Lee may seem like a spectral presence from an era frozen in time. She wouldn't fault you for saying that; she'd probably just smile politely. Secretly, though, she might think you were icky.
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