After a splendid chart run that included 10 Top 40 country hits in four years, sister duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo chose to exit the spotlight.
Or, they didn’t.
“Getting out of the music business was not a choice,” says Kristine Oliver, half of the newly resurrected duo that is releasing its first album of new material in 16 years. “There was a point where they weren’t playing us on the radio, and gigs were becoming fewer and farther in between, and my husband and I had two little girls and we did what we had to do to keep this family together and pay the bills.”
Kristine and Janis Oliver (she was Janis Gill during the Sweetheart’s major label days, when she was married to a pretty fair guitar picker named Vince Gill) had always known they would be big-time singers. They started singing in harmony as pre-teens, they named their act after a favorite Byrds’ album, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” and they signed a big-deal recording contract in 1985. Kristine says it was almost too easy to fully appreciate: Doors opened everywhere they walked.
“I never considered that we wouldn’t be able to make a living doing it,” Janis says. “I thought early on that we had a unique sound, and that the sound was our ticket. There was never a ‘Plan B’ from high school onward.”
Enter Plan B. Or Un-planned B. In some ways, the Sweethearts were victims of their own happiness and wishes for normalcy: The sisters had sometimes turned down lucrative or helpful tour dates and appearances because they prioritized families and children over careers.
Such decisions don’t assure that families hold together — the Gills divorced in 1997 — and they don’t do much to attract record companies and managers, who tend to advise that “getting priorities in order” means “Get on the bus, get off the bus, get on the stage and get back on the bus.” But in the end, Janis and Kristine raised healthy and happy children, which in retrospect seems more important and worthwhile than having some really good gigs in Poughkeepsie and Spokane and other hotspots.
“I don’t regret any of that,” Kristine says. “We made some decisions that were bad for our career, but we made them for the right reasons. This was a period of time after all that when I was frustrated, working crummy jobs. And sometimes in those workplaces, my co-workers would say, ‘What are you doing working here? You need to be singing.’ People like that reminded me, one of these days we needed to be singing again.”
Annual Bluebird show
They did sing together, sometimes. Once a year, really: the night after Thanksgiving at the Bluebird Cafe. Every year, they’d have a ball, and folks would applaud when the first notes of 1980s hits “Since I Found You,” “Satisfy You” and “Midnight Girl/Sunset Town” rang through the little listening room. And music would seem joyful and easy and valuable, and band members would say, “Let’s do this again, soon.” And then life and jobs and families would once again take priority, until the next post-Thanksgiving Friday.
In the new century, Janis experienced a creatively debilitating writer’s block, one that came concurrent with a second divorce. But the sisters rallied together, and decided to meet each Friday to make music together at Janis’ home.
The familiar experience of singing together, without external pressure, helped mend some things. Janis set up microphones and started recording the sessions, and those raw recordings led to the wish to do something in earnest, with superb musicians including co-producer/bass player Dave Pomeroy, guitaristsRichard Bennett and Kenny Vaughan, steel/Dobro player Al Perkins and drummer Rick Lonow. Those recordings are now available as the new, independently released album, “Restless.”
“This time, I’m cherishing every single moment, because I know how lucky I am to have an opportunity to be on a stage and perform in front of people,” Kristine says. “The last time, it happened so fast, it was all a blur. This time, it hasn’t been so easy. Everything that’s happening this time, we’re making it happen.”
Janis finished recording the vocals at her home studio, using curtain racks for sound baffles. “Restless” is likely the most self-assured and seamless album of the duo’s career, and the Sweethearts have taken it on themselves to do the duties they used to farm out to record companies. Each time someone buys a CD, Janis’ phone dings and tells her where the purchase was made.
“Then she’ll call me, and say, ‘Hey, somebody in Sweden bought a CD,’” Kristine says.
For these Tennessee sisters, getting out of the music business involved obligation. Getting back in, though, has been a choice.
“Life holds lots of different surprises for all of us,” Janis says. Add to the surprise list: a fine new Sweethearts of the Rodeo album.
Reach Peter Cooper at 615-259-8220 or email@example.com.
If You Go
What: Sweethearts of the Rodeo album release concert
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: 3rd & Lindsley, 818 Third Ave. S.
Tickets: $15, available at the door or via www.3rdandlindsley.com. A copy of the new “Restless” CD is included with paid admission.