Kim Lenz on Rockabilly: "Where Black Music and White Music Came Together"

Kim Lenz
Kim Lenz

Kim Lenz and the Jaguars play old school rockabilly with a fire and passion that is often missing from the hordes of retro-shtick, dress up cover bands that plague many music scenes. With a campy sense of humor and a ferocious persona, Lenz is a visual and musical magnet.

Although Lenz grew up in San Diego and Phoenix, she did spend quite a few years in our area. From a tour stop in Rochester, New York and in anticipation of tonight's show at the Double Wide, Lenz spoke with DC9 about her time living in Dallas and how she lost her Dallas Observer Music Award.

Many genres come and go, but rockabilly has had some longevity. It was popular in the fifties and sixties, but seemed to fade until the Stray Cats became massively popular in the 80's.

I am going to give you a little primer here. Rockabilly is an American art form that is where black music and white music came together. It was hillbilly bands trying to do what rhythm and blues bands were doing. It was the first time that white people made anything close to rock and roll. Black people made rock and roll in the forties, but the lead instrument was the saxophone or the piano. Rockabilly was the first time that rock was done with a lead guitar. This was Bill Haley and that kind of stuff. That is traditional rock. That's what you would call rockabilly of that time period. The Stray Cats were an '80s pop band. They were great at what they did. They were an 80's pop band with a Teddy Boy kind of influence. I can't reconcile what they do with what I do. I get really confused when people say that they are rockabilly. What is happening lately is that the word rockabilly is being used to describe tattoos, burlesque and all these other things. All of these are great things, but they are not the American art form that is rockabilly music. People keep playing real rockabilly music because it is the flashpoint, an amazing time for music.

Rockabilly music seems like it is just fun to play.

It is because it's that point of excitement. I consider myself a roots musician. I play blues, rockabilly, rock and roll, and country; all of those things that are interrelated. A lot of bands say that they are rockabilly when they are clearly garage rock bands. Some country bands call themselves rockabilly. The word for me is confusing nowadays. I just call myself a roots musician.

A lot of bands that play rockabilly were vintage clothing. Does that make it more of a gimmick?

Well, I wear vintage clothing. But that is the thing. Do you want to be a gimmicky, 50's cover bands? Or do you want to make new music. Say I was around in 1958 and I was signed to Capitol Records. I would not be trying to sound like other people. I would be trying to use the experiences of my life and making my own new music. That is what I am trying to do now. I am not trying to copy any specific rockabilly or any other artist.

When did the reviewer in Rolling Stone write, "If Elvis had been a woman, he probably would have sounded just like Kim Lenz."?

I think that was on my last record in 2009. That is a cool quote. That think just keeps floating around forever. That is a pretty nice thing to say. I don't think I sound like Elvis, but I will take it.

You kind of have that Elvis sneer.

Yes, that's what people say. I've always had that. I don't know where it comes from. It's just part of me. I am not trying to be like Elvis.

Do you like peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwiches?

No, I don't.  

Did you go to high school in Dallas?

No, I graduated from a high school in Phoenix, but I went to college at the University of North Texas. I lived in the area for eight years.

I know one of your favorite places to play was Bar of Soap. Did you know that it's not around anymore?

Bar of Soap is gone? It was there the last time I was there. That was the coolest thing to do your laundry there. Back then, Deep Ellum was just awesome, all of the clubs down there. I can't even remember all of the names of the clubs. The streets were always crowded with people. It was a fantastic music scene in the late nineties.

Why did you leave?

I spent a lot of time on the road in '97, '98 and '99. I did 200 shows a year. I got a little burnt out and I decided to take a little break. I had a child and once the little one was born, my husband got a really good job opportunity in L.A. I played a few festivals once we moved to Los Angeles, but it was a break from music for the most part. Once my son entered first grade, I started getting back into music.

You have a new album coming out soon called Follow Me.

Yes, I am very excited about this album. There are some definite differences in the songwriting for this album. I allowed myself to dig a little deeper. Traditional rockabilly can be kind of just the surface of things. That is fun is write. It's actually pretty easy to write. On this record, I really wanted to push myself and try to bring in some of my own life experiences. I wanted to take it to the next level of songwriting and I think that is what I did. I am excited about it. I really pushed myself. It's a transitional record for me, but I am going to keep transitioning all of the time. It's not like you are going to listening to the record and not know it's me. My band plays traditional music.

How has having a family affected your approach to music?

My family is a whole separate thing. I don't if it ever affects my music. I get asked that a lot and I never really know what to say. I love my son more than anything. It's kind of like asking a mechanic how having a family affects your ability to fix cars. Whatever life you live affects the art that you make. Having a family is awesome, but it is difficult to be away from my little guy. He is 12 now. He's grown up with a mom who has always been making music. Now that he is in junior high, he gets a little cache from his mom being cool.

In the 90's you won a Dallas Observer Music Award for best female vocalist. Do you still have it?

You might be able to help me. It was so cool. I had never won an award like that before. They actually gave me a clear plastic award that had my name on it. I had that sitting on my desk for years. Somehow, when I moved to L.A. it went missing. I wonder if they will make me another one. Can you get me another one? It was sitting on my desk. I miss it. I've look everywhere for that thing. I was very proud of it. It was a big deal for me.

Kim Lenz and the Jaguars play with GIRL plays ELVIS tonight at the Double Wide.

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