Janis Martin,
The Blanco Sessions
(Cow Island, 2012)

Janis Martin (1940-2007) survives as a footnote to rockabilly's brief moment in the spotlight of the mid-1950s. Today, she is most likely to be encountered on historical anthologies, usually represented by the endearing "Drug Store Rock 'n' Roll" and the novelty "My Boy Elvis," both cut while she was in high school. Her label, RCA, billed her as the "female Elvis." A pregnancy by her first husband had ended her rise by 1958. Though not entirely inactive as a performer in the years after that, she was relegated to the far fringes of the industry.

Like most pop music of the time, rockabilly was male-dominated, and Martin was a notable anomaly. That, along with her undeniable talent, would attract the attention of latter-day female rockabillies, most prominently Rosie Flores. Flores met her in 1994, and Martin appeared on a Flores album the next year. Flores and Austin-based musician/producer Bobby Trimble got her into a studio in Blanco, Texas, in April 2007. Over two days they were able to cut 11 songs, all of which appear on the Blanco Sessions. Martin died of lung cancer the following Sept. 3.

Though obviously an older woman than the teenager who sang "My Boy Elvis," Martin does a sure-handed job of delivering rock 'n' roll and country material, mostly relatively obscure notwithstanding the warhorses "Sweet Dreams" and "Oh Lonesome Me." The production is solid and un-fussy, the emphasis on dance-floor rhythms. This is less concert than barroom music, which is as it ought to be, and it makes no claim to anything other than what popular music used to be: tuneful songs, beats to move your feet and distractions from life's anxieties and aggravations.

I'm pleased to hear Rick Nelson's 1957 hit "I Believe What You Say," a neglected rockabilly gem, though the reference to going steady dates it and sounds a little discordant sung in Martin's mature voice. But then, it's only rock 'n' roll, and it ain't meant to be overthunk. Among the less well-known songs, Billy Scott's sexy "Roll Around Rockin'" is a particular standout, and Dave Alvin's cautionary tale "Long White Cadillac" (from his days in the Blasters) is welcome in my speakers anytime. Blanco Sessions is all good stuff, and thanks to Rosie Flores for making it possible for Janis Martin to go out on such a grace note.

music review by
Jerome Clark

20 October 2012

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