The world may not have been ready for the likes of rockabilly queens Wanda Jackson, Brenda Lee, Janis Martin, and Lorrie Collins back in the '50s, but their inspirational stories - both individually and collectively - will surely strike a chord with female artists today.
Sassy and tough, the women profiled in the PBS documentary film WELCOME TO THE CLUB - The Women of Rockabilly were ahead of their time as players in rock's earliest days, and all are still making music today.
Narrated by Roseanne Cash, the film recounts the challenges and joys of these unique and un- sung heroines of rock. We asked Portland, Oregon-based producer/director/writer Beth Harrington (a former singer with Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers) how she came to film this inspiring tribute.
Tell me a little about your life in The Modem Lovers.
I was one of two original female members of the Modem Lovers. The other was my friend, Ellie Marshall. We toured with Jonathan Richman and the band from 1980 to 1983 all across the US and Canada, and made an album on Sire Records entitled Jonathan Sings. I was 25 years old when Jonathan asked me to join and it was a funny time. I loved rock & roll and I loved to sing. I had been a fan of Jonathan's for many years. We are both from Boston and I used to go see his band.
I'd always secretly wanted to be in a band, but there weren't a lot of opportunities for a woman to be in a rock band. It never occurred to me that I should go out and do it myself. I guess this underscores the value of role models.
The real trailblazers like Patti Smith and Deborah Harry were out there, but there weren't a lot of utility players (which is how I view my singing).
Jonathan heard a certain naive quality in the way Ellie and I sang together, and it really worked for the kind of music he was doing. It was a great opportunity.
The three years I toured with the band were amazing. They were interesting, fun, tiring, exhilarating, annoying, and gratifying - the whole gamut of emotions and experiences. One day you're featured in Rolling Stone and the next day you're in some cheesy motel in the middle of nowhere eating cold burritos.
How did you become interested in rockabilly and the women you featured in particular?
Jonathan encouraged Ellie and me to find early rock, doo-wop, and pop songs to perform in the band. Most of Jonathan's material is original, but it's written for his delivery, so finding old songs to sing seemed like a good way to go. I stumbled upon Wild, Wild Young Women, an anthology of women rockabilly singers put out by Rounder Records. Though I consider myself to be a student of rock music most of these women were unknown to me. I was dumbfounded. I remember thinking, "Why don't I know about these women? And who else don't I know about?"
I was getting into filmmaking around this time and thought, "Someday I'm going to make a film about this." It only took me 21 years to do it!
When I finally made the film I realized I couldn't do an encyclopedic thing with every single woman who had ever recorded a rockabilly record. There were quite a few women rockabilly performers. It might have been valuable historically to include them, but I thought it would make the viewing tedious. So I focused on the ones whose work I loved and whose personal experiences captured something universal in all the women's stories.