With her appealing growl-of-a-voice and rhythm guitar leading the way, singer-songwriter Kim Lenz and her three-piece Jaguars are the latest act creating a stir in rockabilly.
Though she is only 30, this talented artist is no pretender; she understands the rock-solid roots of rockabilly.
In fact, Lenz is such a traditionalist she recorded her debut album, "Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars" (HighTone/HMG), live in the studio on one-track in mono sound.
During a recent interview from a tour stop in Oregon, the red-haired musician recalled just how time-consuming the recording process was. But for Lenz, who performs with her band tonight at the Foothill in Signal Hill, the extra effort made all the difference.
"It's very hard to get everyone to give their best performance all at the same time," she said. "Yet there's an energy there you don't get when you track things out. Plus, I didn't want a contemporary sound, and the record does have this warm, old-style feel to it. I'd do it again."
Using only vintage equipment--nothing made after '58 and no overdubs--she enlisted Wally Hersom, bassist of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, as producer.
Lenz and Her Jaguars strut through 14 prime cuts from the country-ish weeper "Thinkin' About You" to full-throttle stomps such as "Saturday Jump."
Some tracks required as many as 30 takes to get it right.
But it's worth it, said Lenz, who is trying to capture rockabilly as it sounded in its infancy, when hillbilly music came together with rhythm-and-blues.
"There's a fine line there because if you rock just a little too hard, it'll sound modern. It's not just about what you play, it's kind of about what you don't play too."
So, while Lenz's contemporaries were tuned into modern- and alternative-rock, she was soaking up the timeless, rootsy vinyl of Carl Perkins, Charlie Feathers, Faron Young, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent and Janis Martin.
The daughter of an auto dismantler and former rodeo queen, Lenz also enjoys spinning "old jazz, R&B and country . . . really anything recorded before the '60s."
Born and raised in the San Diego area, Lenz lived in Los Angeles in the early '90s. She was drawn to a rockabilly scene and its customized wheels, '50s-era threads and undiluted live music.
She frequented hoppin' joints such as the fabled Palomino in North Hollywood, where Big Sandy, the Paladins, the Reverend Horton Heat and Jumpin' Joey performed regularly.
But she grew restless, and in 1994, Lenz moved to the Lone Star State to earn a psychology degree from the University of North Texas. It was here that she met her future bandmates and got serious about pursuing a career in music.
Two years later, Lenz and Her Jaguars released a four-song EP, and Lenz was voted Best Female Vocalist in a Dallas Observer readers poll. This local award boosted her self-confidence, she said, and prompted Lenz to write nine original songs for her first full-length release.
She also decided to pay tribute to several lesser-known rockabilly pioneers--including Johnny Carroll, Ray Smith and the Miller Sisters--with some covers of their now hard-to-find material.
In searching for those obscure but treasured tunes, Lenz said, the hunt was part of the fun.
"I like to dig up stuff that people probably haven't heard before, and at the same time, bring new life to some of my favorites. I mean, there are just too many great songs out there that no one is playing."
Lenz says she's delighted to be one of the few female rockabilly singers to break through in a male-dominated genre. Yet she has no desire to be a spokesperson for her gender.
"The first time I got interviewed was so depressing," Lenz recalled. "I talked to this reporter with the Dallas Morning News for, like, three hours about music and so many things. Then I read this headline for his story: 'Kim Lenz Loves '50s Music but Hates '50s Attitude Toward Women.' I'm thinking, 'Where did he get that from?' "
"I'm not a feminist--that's just not what I'm about. I think there are advantages to being a woman, and there are advantages to being a man. You should take what you have, and do what you can with it."
A couple of years ago, Lenz made the most of an opportunity to meet one of her idols, Perkins. At the Hard Rock Cafe in Dallas, Lenz, Perkins and the Reverend Horton Heat combined for a triple-bill of revved-up rockabilly.
(Perkins, who died in January after stroke complications at age 65, was a great influence on Elvis Presley and the Beatles, among others.)
"I was so nervous. . . . I mean standing right here was one of my heroes, kind of the messiah of rockabilly, you know?" Lenz said.
"It was incredible talking to him. He was so humble and encouraging. Carl definitely inspired me by saying, 'Don't let anyone else tell you what to do . . . just continue doing what you want to do.'
"He just had this sparkle in his eye that was, well . . . real. That night, he was so vibrant--and now sadly, he's gone. But he truly was the best, and, boy, will he ever be missed."
* Kim Lenz and Her Jaguars, and Deke Dickerson and the Dekes of Hazard, play tonight at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 9 p.m. $10. (562) 494-5196.