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Marti Brom: Austin's rockabilly sweetheart

By Jon Johnson, January 2000

The past decade has been a good one for the Austin music scene, producing an apparently endless string of acts, each seemingly as talented as their predecessor. One of the most talented - though lesser-known - performers is 38-year-old Mart' Brom, an Austin-based vocalist who has just released "Snake Ranch," the first release for the U.S. subsidiary of the Finland-based Goofin' label.

Recorded in Helsinki and backed by Finnish rockabilly act the Barnshakers and Texas pianist T Jarrod Bonta, the album is a terrific outlet for Brom's ample talents. Her powerful voice anchors a fine mix of material from rockabilly to traditional country to Patsy Cline-esque torch songs, all delivered with authority and confidence.

Brom's musical career was set in motion in 1989 when her husband Bobby, then a captain stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, brought home a flyer announcing auditions for an Officer Wives Club production of a musical called "The 1940s Radio Show."

"It drove him crazy that I'd sing in the house, but only talked about doing it in public," says Brom in a telephone interview. "He told me, 'If you don't do it now, you'll never do it.' So I worked up some Andrews Sisters songs and tried to hide behind the piano during the audition. But then I landed the starring role. After the first night of dancing and singing in my slip in front of an aircraft hangar full of hootin' servicemen, I lost my stage fright forever."

Shortly afterwards the Air Force transferred her husband to a new assignment at an Air Force base in Austin, Texas. Soon after arriving in Austin Brom met High Noon, a well-regarded local rockabilly band that broke up in early 1998. The meeting was fortuitous for all concerned, with Brom sitting in with the group at their Austin-area shows and all three members of the band continuing to play various roles in Brom's career up to the present day.

"Not too long after we moved here, I met (High Noon vocalist) Shaun Young and his wife at a flea market. I became friends with High Noon, and they found out that I could sing, (so they) asked me if I could sit in with them. That's how I started playing around here, with little stuff like that. Then, later, Shaun took up playing drums and helped me put together a band."

Brom's first single, "Crazy Fever," written by High Noon guitarist Sean Mencher, was released in 1992 on a small Nashville-based label, but subsequent releases came slowly. Two more singles in 1995 and 1996, as well as a 1995 live cassette and a handful of compilation appearances were all anyone outside of Austin heard of Mart' Brom until she and Bobby released "Mean!" in 1998 on their own Squarebird label.

The package was unusual, to say the least; a 7-inch reel-to-reel tape box including the same material presented in two formats: an 8-song stereo CD and 4 mono 45 rpm singles. The recording was produced by Brent Wilson of The Wagoneers fame on 1960 vintage equipment.

"We had the concept for the box first. We thought it'd be cool to put four 45s in a box, like the old box sets I collected from thrift stores."

Though Brom has long been associated by many with Austin's rockabilly scene, "Mean!" demonstrated that Brom also had a real gift for traditional country music, with "Wicked White Lies" and "Wanna Kiss" in particular showing off Brom's country side to great effect.

Last year, Brom's career picked up some additional momentum with the re-release of her 1995 live radio performance, "Lassoed Live!" Except for Chris Miller on steel guitar, her band here - the Jet-Tone Boys - are the same crew as on "Mean!," including guitarist Todd Wulfmeyer and High Noon's Kevin Smith and Shaun Young on bass and drums, respectively.

"We (first) put that out ourselves as a cassette and then (Goofin' label head Pete Hakonen) asked us if he could put out the live set on a CD, so we had it remastered and added some songs that weren't on the tape. It did well enough to motivate Pete to fly me to Finland for another recording."

"Lassoed Live!," though heavy on covers like Elvis Presley's "Fool Such as I" and Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," also included a couple of songs that had been written for her, such as Wulfmeyer's "Dirty Dog," and Brom says that it accurately represents the way she and the Jet-Tone Boys sounded at the time.

Brom collected additional original material for "Snake Ranch," including three numbers from Barnshakers vocalist Vesa Haaja and two numbers by Austin songwriter Teri Joyce, including "Blue Tattoo," the album's opening number. Though she wrote two of the numbers, Brom says that she's always on the lookout for good original material.

"The funny thing is that at the time I was picking (material), I was planning on doing a session here in Austin with my band. Along with the one that I was going to do in Finland with the Barnshakers, I was actually looking at doing two projects. So I had this mass of songs; either stuff that I had written or that people had sent me. So now I have all this stuff that I'm sitting on for another record."

Though currently lacking a permanent band following Wulfmeyer's recent move to New Mexico, she does short tours in Europe with the Barnshakers and also recently recorded a six-song big band EP with Austin's Cornell Hurd Band, due soon on Goofin'.

"It's totally different. I guess people will be surprised. It's sort of big band-sounding country stuff. I became enamored with a song I heard only once on the radio, 'Feudin' and Fightin',' that Dorothy Shay did in the 1940's. After I stumbled upon an original copy in a thrift store, I approached Cornell and his big band. Then it turned into this big project. Cornell started looking for songs in a similar vein, and I found some other songs. We're hoping to put it out on vinyl on a 10-inch and also put it out on CD."

Eight years after her recorded debut, Brom's name is finally starting to become known outside of the fairly limited circles of Austin scene watchers and rockabilly fans. There's only one hitch at this point: Brom remains reluctant to tour extensively without her two children along.

"No, I won't go on major tours where I'm gone for weeks at a time. I have kids, and I knew when I had them that I wasn't going to say 'See ya!' And I know that's not a good thing if you're with a record label that wants you out promoting yourself all the time. But my records seem to sell regardless."