Swing on a star
Portland's Retta Christie and the Smart Fellas lope along with the release of their second CD
With a sound as sweet and clear as a Texas summer night, the band Retta and the Smart Fellas is leading the resurgence of Western swing music from Portland to Paris.
The five-member group headed by Retta Christie brings the flavor of country and traditional jazz Ñ and a dose of the blues Ñ into a mix that's invited comparisons to the iconic Western swing group, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
Not only was the local band's first CD, 'Rural Jazz,' one of Europe's most-played discs after its release in 1998, but its success on the home front also netted the band a slew of award nominations by the Academy of Western Artists.
Not content to rest on their spurs, Retta and the Smart Fellas will release their second CD, 'They Took the Stars Out of Heaven,' next week.
Christie is the linchpin of the group's sound. Her clear, facile voice moves from a throaty, campy take on 'It's Your Red Wagon,' to rich and dramatic when covering Patsy Cline's 'Crazy.' Her vocals and rhythm guitar are the perfect foil to the band's crisp, upbeat instrumentation.
Christie says her love of Western swing music was born of the Saturday evenings her family spent at the community Grange hall. One of five children, she was raised on a farm outside Astoria.
'We all played instruments and sang,' Christie says, smiling at the memory of her veritable rural von Trapp family. 'In fact, instead of us going to the piano teacher, the piano teacher just came to us. Dad played country swing albums, and Mom was always singing.'
Christie, 44, says she now finds the same kind of satisfaction when she's performing:
'For me, it's about singing from the heart. It's gratifying to really occupy the middle of a song, instead of being outside of it. That's when it's rewarding; that's when you really feel like you're doing something right.'
With that kind of focus on the integrity of a song's delivery, Christie says the praise she values most is from audience members who say, 'I love your voice; I could hear every word of the song.'
A former member of local bands Meloddity and the Modern Day Drifters, Christie admits that she'd be lost without her Fellas: 'I'm lucky to have these people.'
Jim Goodwin plays both piano and cornet for the band, skills honed over 40 years of playing with jazz legends such as Joe Venuti and Turk Murphy.
Goodwin credits the band's success to its emphasis on fun, not fastidiousness.
'This band has a real vitality that I love; it's always hot and nice,' he says. 'We can also be bluesy and really romp, and everyone's in on it Ñ there's no one dogging it.
'I also think there's a future for this type of music, because not everyone's doing it in their back yard. There are some pseudo-Western swing bands who've been trying this for a long time, but there's no life and they're calculated.
'We just sit down and try to get as hot as possible: One, two, vrooom! When I play with other bands they say, 'We have to get it right on this tempo,' and I say, 'Oh, geez, where's the bar?' '
Other band members include Kevin Healy, who, with two decades of experience in Northwest swing bands under his belt, has a fiddle that sizzles. Bill Uhlig's energetic bass playing lays a sound foundation for the band, while Jesse Johnson provides the push behind the swing with lead guitar playing that channels Django Rheinhardt and Les Paul.
Now in their fourth year together, Retta and the Smart Fellas perform frequently at outdoor concerts and festivals. The open-air forums match the band's high-spirited groove.
'We love to perform wherever people just want to have a good time,' Christie says of a genre of music that appeals to all ages and all kinds of people. 'Grandma's crying because her husband used to sing that song to her, Mom's happy because she remembers a song from her childhood, and the kids É well, they're just going nuts.'
Portland-based piano jazzman Dave Frishberg is a fan of the group, saying it pushes all the right buttons, both musically and emotionally.
'I grew up listening to this kind of music when I was a kid, so Retta's band hits me square in the memory department, where it counts,' Frishberg says. 'They're authentic Western swing, and they can swing you into bad health. I love hearing them in person, and their onstage charisma comes across on (their) recordings.'
'They Took the Stars Out of Heaven' was recorded live, which Christie says suits their sound like a favorite pair of Tony Lamas.
'One of the great things about this band is that we can record live,' she says. 'For us, it's not about getting the track just right, it's about spontaneity and having fun.'