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Nothing Artificial Added : Just Plain Folk Again, the Sweethearts of the Rodeo Are Taking an Acoustic Spin

August 09, 1994|NOEL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is there life after country stardom? For Janis Gill and Kristine Arnold, the sister duo better known as the Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the dwindling of their country hits and the subsequent end of their contract with Columbia Records led not only to personal rejuvenation but to some of the best music they've ever made.

Gill and Arnold, who play the Coach House tonight, have returned to their folk and bluegrass roots with a wonderful acoustic-based album, "Rodeo Waltz," on the independent Sugar Hill label.

On the phone last week from her Nashville home, Gill discussed the Sweethearts' transition from country hit-makers, who pulled five hit singles from their debut album in 1986, to acoustic music.

"Maybe we were trying too hard to make records for the radio," she said. "I think that's a trap. It's hard to avoid sometimes when you have a few hits and then you try to re-create the last record, but different." In any case, by the Sweethearts' third album, "Buffalo Zone," the hits had stopped coming.

"I think Kristine and I started reaching a little too far away from where we're most comfortable," Gill continued, "and that's kind of natural. You want to try other things. That's a natural process. (But it) led us to a dead end--which eventually led us right back to our roots.

"Kristine and I grew up singing acoustic folk and bluegrass-influenced music," she noted, recalling their youth in Manhattan Beach. "It wasn't until we came to Nashville 10 years ago and got a record contract that our sound became electrified to fit within the context of radio. The acoustic sound is where we are most comfortable, and maybe you can hear that on the album itself with our vocal performance."

Indeed, their singing on "Rodeo Waltz" is their most impressive ever. "You know, we recorded all those vocals in two days," Gill said, "and we cried when we were done. We thought, 'Oh no, we're all done. There's no more songs to sing.' Usually, you're relieved to finish an album."

*

Gill also said that recording on Sugar Hill released her and her sister from the pressures of producing hit singles, and the result was a surge of creativity. "The president of Sugar Hill literally said, 'Just go have fun.' That was the criteria. I produced the record, and we had total freedom.

"I remember a couple of friends a time or two would come up and pat us on the back and say, 'Don't worry, girls. Maybe someday another major label will pick you up.' I wouldn't know how to reply. I would want to say, 'Are you crazy? This is where it's at.' "

Their last days with Columbia had not been especially happy ones, Gill said. "We were still out there on the road plodding along with no more radio hits, not knowing what was going to happen.

"We felt as though we were going to be dropped from the label at any moment. We decided to ask for a release before that happened. The interesting thing is that they refused. We said, 'Come on, come on, you're going to let us go anyway. Just let us walk away with our dignity.' They said, 'Nope. We still think we can do something.' We begged them, and they finally let us go."

The Sweethearts had wanted to avoid pouring their creativity into an album that would receive no support. "It's like rearranging chairs on a ship that's going down," Gill said. "What's the sense? You know they're not interested in you anymore. The writing's on the wall. They're not promoting your records. You release them, and they die. They're dead before they even come out. We just wanted to get away and try to salvage our career or start over somewhere else.

"They finally did let us go. The frightening thing is that we had trouble getting any interest from any other major label. 'We're not touching women artists right now,' they said. Then we really felt desolated.

"Our manager told us to go away and try to remember why we started doing this in the first place. I was sitting right here in my office one day after that, and I started to think it would be wonderful if we could just make an acoustic album of some of the old songs we grew up singing. Even if nobody ever heard it, it at least would keep our sanity together. I thought maybe Sugar Hill would be interested ,and it turned out they were thrilled to have us."

* The Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Gina Quartaro sing country music tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Show time: 8. Tickets: $18.50. (714) 496-8930.

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