The career of Marti Brom offers evidence that the freshest rockabilly of the modern era has been made by female performers. Possessing a driving, expressive vocal style influenced by the likes of Janis Martin, Patsy Cline, and Dorothy Shay, the Missouri-born singer-songwriter has crafted a compelling body of work that has earned her a loyal following at home and overseas. Whether she is performing variants of rockabilly, western swing, or rhythm and blues, her vocal style is noted among roots music fans for its authenticity, taste, and heart.
Born Marti Evans on June 12, 1962, in St. Louis, Missouri, she sang along with Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark records on the radio and somewhat enjoyed her older sister's attempts at making folk music. "I listened to all kinds of stuff growing up, most of which were female vocalists," she said in an Original Cool interview. "I'd go through phases where I'd only listen to Billie Holiday for months, then I'd listen to Doris Day or Ella Fitzgerald or Patsy [Cline], then I wouldn't want to hear anything but something loud and rockin'."
"But in 1975, I lived in Florence, Italy with my family," she told the Rock 'n' Roll Purgatory website, "and one day while at the corner bar hangout I noticed a song on the jukebox called 'Devil Gate Drive' by a gal named Suzi Quatro. If I played it once, I played it a hundred times. I was 13 and I had never heard anything like that from a girl! Man, that was the greatest feeling, I wanted to be just like that! When I returned to the States I bought every record of hers I could find, she even looked like no other chick I had ever seen, petite and leather clad, playing electric bass, no more folk singer crap for me." As the 1980s dawned, her attentions turned to punk and new wave acts that featured dominant females, such as Debbie Harry of Blondie, Chris-sie Hynde of the Pretenders, and Cherie Currie and Joan Jett of the Runaways.
Meanwhile, her love of retro styles was brought to a boil by regular employment in a St. Louis vintage clothing shop. As a result, "I have spent most of my life on the hunt," she jokingly informed Original Cool. "I still spend way too much time in thrift stores mostly … I really do look for things to sing in, or at least that's what I tell my husband."
As with many punk fans and performers, Brom's interest in vintage clothing and thrift store record finds eventually led her towards the proto-punk sounds of 1950s rockabilly where she discovered the hell-raising waxings of Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, and country music's pants-wearing pioneer Charline Arthur. Despite this new found musical interest, the memories of high-school-era stage fright kept her from performing publicly. "I performed a couple of songs with a singer-songwriter friend in a talent show," she disclosed to Original Cool. "I thought I was going to throw up and swore that I didn't like singing." Although outwardly content to just sing at home, she secretly ached to sing every time she went to a concert.
The aspiring singer's biggest booster was her husband Robert Brom, a career Air Force officer. Firmly convinced of her talent, he coaxed her into appearing in an Officer's Wives Club production of a musical called The 1940s Radio Show. Singing "Blues in the Night," Brom was so delighted by the enthusiastic response that her stage fright problem was solved.
Still, unless pursued relentlessly, roots music was and remains a part-time career at best in the United States. It wasn't until Brom moved to Austin, Texas, in 1990 that she began to appear on stage with any regularity. Working as part of a rockabilly act with the Jet Tone Boys, which included High Noon's Shaun Young and Kevin Smith, Brom eased herself into the local musical scene. Recordings for Billy Poore's small Renegade label and for Denver-based Rock-A-Billy Records quickly cemented her reputation with the area's small but fervent rockabilly cult. At one time a personal friend and important booster, Poore alienated the Broms by releasing some poorly recorded live performances against the singer's wishes. As a result, she has not acknowledged her inclusion on 1998's Renegade Rockabilly collection.
Like many other roots artists, Brom found it necessary to start her own label, Squarebird Music. Her 1995 release Lassoed Live showcased her vibrato to great effect on covers of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love" and Elvis Presley's "A Fool Such as I," and featured raspy, ranting rock styles on "All Right Baby" and "Dirty Dog." More in line with her archivist sensibilities was 1996's Mean, a collection of eight songs—three written by Brom, three others by her favorite songwriter Teri Joyce—on four 45 rpm singles included in a box with a CD of the same performances. Such tracks as "Wanna Kiss," "Boo Hoo Boogie," and "Tom Cat" attracted the attention of Pete Hakonen's Goofin' label in Finland, which catered to the often fanatical European rockabilly cult audience.
Although Marti Brom became an internationally known name, performing at festivals in Finland, Germany, England, Australia, and Japan, she preferred motherhood to a full-time musical career. Her two children, Ivy and Carson—the former named after the Cramps' Poison Ivy Rorschach—took precedence over endless grinds on the road and publicity appearances. When she performed, she tried to find venues that would allow her to bring her children along so that they could get some exposure to her type of music. "The main reason I stay in Texas, and don't tour very often," she told Original Cool, "is that Texas has the most family-friendly nightclub scene. My kids have gone with me to all of my shows in Texas. They also go to a lot of other shows, so they don't think it's that novel that I perform. They think it's normal, which it is in Austin."
Brom's lengthy breaks from music to attend to family matters and a decorating business seemed to pique listener interest in her musical projects, and her ongoing work demonstrated artistic growth. The artist gave much of the credit for the success of her 1999 album Snake Ranch to her Finnish backing band the Barnshakers. "Well, I have to say that the Barnshakers are the best thing to come along in my musical life. They are by far the best rockabilly band out there," she told Original Cool. "It is, I think, very rare to find an already formed and well-established band that a singer like myself can walk into and have it click so well!"
For her 2000 LP Feudin' and Fightin', Brom took a creative risk by eschewing rockabilly and doing a western swing/hillbilly tribute to 1940s musical comedy star Dorothy Shay, also known as "The Park Avenue Hillbilly." Backed by the Cornell Hurd Band, which often backed the singer at her Texas engagements, Brom proved her versatility by doing entertaining renditions of "They Were Doing The Mambo," "Kiss Me Big," and Shay's best-known number, "Feudin' and Fightin'."
After a three-year absence, Brom returned with another strong set of rockabilly and honky-tonk, Wise to You. Featuring duets with Austin favorite Ted Roddy and the blues-belting Nick Curran, the 16-song set alternated torchy numbers such as "The Rainbow's End" and "Whole Lotta Lonesome" with hard-charging pieces like "Full Grown" and "That Crazy Beat." Dividing backup duties between her Finnish band and an Austin ensemble led by producer Billy Horton, Brom imbued LaVern Baker's "Voodoo Voodoo" and Eartha Kitt's "Lovin' Bug Itch" with her trademark playful sexuality and comic flair.
For the Record . . .
Born Marti Evans on June 12, 1962, in St. Louis, MO; daughter of Emory and Martha Evans; married Robert Brom, 1988; children: Ivy and Carson.
Became a professional performer, 1991; recorded with the Jet Tone Boys for Billy Poore's Renegade label, 1993; recorded single for own Jet Tone label and was included on the Rock-A-Billy label release Rock-A-Billy Record Co. Vol. 1, 1995; recorded Lassoed Live LP at radio station KUT in Austin, TX, for Squarebird label, 1995; began association with Goofin' label (Finland), which released all her work internationally, 1996-2003.
Awards: Music City Texas magazine, Best New Act, 1993; inducted into Rockabilly Hall of Fame, 2000; Freeform American Roots (FAR) disc jockeys, Best Female Vocalist, 2000.
Addresses: Record companies— Goofin' Records, P.O. Box 63, Vantaa 01601, Finland, website: http://www. goofinrecords.com; Squarebird Music, P.O. Box 160011, Austin, TX 78716, phone: (512) 659-0792, e-mail: [email protected] Booking— Mark Mencher, phone: (207) 865-0250, e-mail: [email protected] Publicist— Chickrock Entertainment/Trish Wagner, phone: (512) 627-2397, fax: (208) 460-0423, e-mail: [email protected] Website— Marti Brom Official Website: http://www.martibrom.com.
At a time when many of her rockabilly and hillbilly music heroes were passing away or just retiring from the fray, Marti Brom emerged as not only an able retro-style artist but also a passionate champion of live music. "The number of greats who have died this last year is just heartbreaking," she said in a Blue Suede News interview. "I'm fortunate to have caught a few of them, such as Claude Trenier, just in time. Once an era is over, you can re-enact it, but can't really quite bring it back again. One thing I have noticed in the few years I've dabbled in this business is that quitting altogether is never far from any good musician's mind, just because of how hard and unrewarding this life can be. It is real missionary's work, and after a point, bands feel they've put in their time. So go out tonight and support a good live rock and roll show." Then, true to her own concern, she added, "And most important, bring along the kids, because that is the only way our music is going to survive at all."
Lassoed Live, Squarebird, 1995; reissued, Goofin', 1998. Mean, Squarebird, 1996.
"Kisses for Christmas" b/w "Sleigh Bell Rock" (single), Goofin', 1997.
Maybe I Do (EP), Goofin', 1999.
Snake Ranch, Goofin', 1999.
(With the Cornell Hurd Band) Feudin' and Fightin', Goofin', 2000.
Wise to You, Goofin', 2003.
Goodman, David, Modern Twang: An Alternative Country Music Guide & Directory, Dowling, 1999.
Blue Suede News, #65, 2003.
Original Cool, #44, 2001.
"Marti Brom," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 1, 2003).
"Marti Brom Interview," Rock 'n' Roll Purgatory, http://www.rocknrollpurgatory.com/brominterview.html (November 1, 2003).
Additional information was obtained through e-mail communication from Robert Brom, Marti Brom's husband and manager.
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