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Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly

By Jon Johnson, April 2002

It's a sunny day in the country while a young woman, clad in a jacket and slacks, is staring at an old barn. Painted on two sides of the barn is this advertisement for a now-forgotten patent medicine:

WOMAN'S TONIC

Dr. PIERCE'S FAVORITE PRESCRIPTION FOR WEAK WOMEN

The young woman takes one last look at the barn, then picks up her guitar and walks down the road.

This dramatization - found at the beginning of director Beth Harrington's new documentary "Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly" - is intended as a tribute to the late Charline Arthur, a Dallas-based country singer of the 1950s whose two-fisted stage persona was decades ahead of its time and is today regarded - along with Rose Maddox - as an important precursor to later rockabilly singers such as Janis Martin and Wanda Jackson.

As it turned out, Arthur presaged many of the female rockabillies who followed her in another respect, as well: She never became a national star. In spite of the fact that she was a hugely popular performer on Dallas' Big "D" Jamboree radio show and made several remarkable records in the early and mid-'50s - rockabilly in all but name a year or two before their time - her shot at the brass ring was more or less over when she left RCA Records in 1957.

"There are so many things that conspire against any performer; male or female. And a lot of those things befell these women," says Harrington in an interview at a Harvard Square coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass.

Indeed. Though Wanda Jackson and Brenda Lee continued to have country hits into the '70s (and into the mid-'80s in Lee's case), they were exceptions to the rule. As Harrington's documentary shows, Janis Martin was secretly married at the age of 16 and became pregnant while her career was just taking off, forcing her retirement for several years.

Lorrie Collins' 1959 marriage to Johnny Cash's manager Stu Carnall broke up the Collins Kids after the birth of her first child in 1961.

Other talented female rockabilly performers - Sparkle Moore, Joyce Green and others - seemingly dropped off the face of the earth altogether. Few female rockabilly singers had careers that lasted past the late '50s, unlike their male counterparts such as Elvis, Johnny Burnette, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis whose hits extended well into the '60s and beyond.

In many cases, these women have been rediscovered by fans young enough to be their grandchildren and are now respected elder stateswomen on the rockabilly festival circuit. Still, the question of why none of them achieved a long-term career comparable to that of Presley, Cash or Orbison is one worth pondering.

Harrington's "Welcome to the Club" - which will be shown on PBS stations across the U.S. during March - ponders that question, and offers a thoroughly entertaining ride while doing so; by turns funny, exciting, and well-researched, with appearances by Janis Martin, Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Lorrie and Larry Collins, writers Robert K. Oermann and Mary Bufwack, and younger rockabilly fillies Kim Lenz and Mart' Brom.

Harrington was a fixture of the Boston music scene in the late '70s and '80s, best known for a three-year stint with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers during which time the band recorded one album for Sire Records; at that time something of a home for punk and new wave bands like The Ramones and the Talking Heads.

Though her first three films focused on Boston's Italian North End, Harrington had long wished to make a film that focused on music. As it happened, Harrington found her inspiration in a 1979 album of female rockabilly artists of the '50s.

"Because of my music background, I always wanted to make a music film. (I got the idea) 20 years ago when Rounder Records (released) 'Wild Wild Young Women.' I recognized Rose Maddox's name, but I'd never heard of Lorrie Collins (or) Janis Martin. And I thought that was pretty amazing because I consider myself somebody who knows something about rock 'n' roll. So I sort of tucked it away.

"Then when I moved out west (Harrington moved to Vancouver, Wash. in 1996) I thought this might be the next logical thing for me to do."

"Welcome to the Club" was financed through a series of grants from small arts organizations, as well as a contract from the Independent Television Service, which provides funding for independent filmmakers who then create content for PBS.

Though a few dozen female rockabillies recorded in the '50s, "Welcome to the Club" focuses on a few who Harrington felt had achieved a certain measure of national prominence and some commercial success.

"I talked to several other people who had done rockabilly recordings; Skeeter Davis, who I've known for a long time, Barbara Pittman, Cordell Jackson, Martha Carson, Linda Gail Lewis...Some of it just came down to my personal taste, to be quite honest. The stuff that reached me - and the stuff that I thought was the feistiest stuff, as opposed to a great couple of cuts - was what I ended up using."

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