2019-03-01 / Shorts

Country-Rock Collision

State College band Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er-Do-Wells’ debut album features 10 songs from the early 1950s, when rockabilly was born.
by Laura Zaks

When Kristi Jean auditioned for the role of Patsy Cline in 2015 for Nittany Theatre at the Barn’s Always...Patsy Cline production, she didn’t realize that would become her gateway into the music scene in Happy Valley.

Four years later, rockabilly band Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er-Do-Wells is releasing its first album, Country-Billy Collision, which serves as an homage to when traditional country music converged with progressive jazz, swing and rhythm and blues to create a new type of music: Patsy Cline’s type.
The album, slated for release in mid-March, will showcase 10 tracks from the early 1950s that the band believes didn’t get as much love in their time as they deserved, from artists like Charline Arthur, Ella Mae Morse and Patsy Cline.

“We are doing a modern take on these songs that have such an interesting and cool vibe, but the artists never got to stick around for very long,” Kristi Jean says. “We’re really honoring a slice of music history that wasn’t around for very long. Our album’s tracks are like reinventions of songs that were underappreciated in their time; they’re a unique visit to the era of rock and country blended together.”
And that sound is the band’s bread and butter.

“We just feel like we are an old-timey type of band — we have the slap-bass player, the steel guitar, a real feisty powerhouse female voice and the passion to put this project together,” says Steven Branstetter, lead guitarist and Kristi Jean’s husband. “With the Ne’er-Do-Wells, we really picked up a link between traditional country and linked it to later styles of Jean Vincent and Elvis. It’s a little feisty, a little rock but a lot of fun.”

Country-Billy Collision features local artists like doo-wop group RamaLama; Bill Wilgus, of Erin Condo and the Hoofties, and Tyne and the Fastlyne; and Nell Hanssen, of Chicken Tractor, and the Dilly Beans. Austin, Texas-based singer and guitarist Sophia Johnson, recipient of the 2018 Western Swing Female award at the Ameripolitan Awards, also lends her vocal chops to the album.

“I love the energy of this type of music,” Johnson says. “There is a rawness, it’s not overly produced, and it can’t be faked. The songs on this record are some real rare treasures.”

At the end of the day, Kristi  Jean says she wants the album to be a tribute to rockabilly, a way to breathe new life into some of the ’50s songs that were undervalued.

“I want our listeners to just feel something, anything,” she says. “It’s so much fun to hear the fantastic musical thought. This CD is a great representation of this genre, and we got to bring it into this century.”
Working on the album hasn’t slowed down Kristi Jean and Her Ne’er-Do-Wells, though. The band was selected to play the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival — a three-day event that presents more than 70 artists — in late February and continues to gig at joints around State College, like Webster’s Bookstore Café and Doggie’s Pub (catch Kristi Jean and her Ne’er-Do-Wells there on March 29).

“Our band’s presence is about more than music,” she says. “It’s also about emphasizing visual energy with colorful retro dresses and dance through country and rock ’n’ roll sound. There’s no other group like it here.” •SCM

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