Bellefonte, PA 16823
By Serge Bielanko
Don't be surprised if you're standing in Talleyrand Park this Sunday evening, listening to the music, watching people dance, and suddenly you get sideswiped by a rambling tumbleweed. It will make perfect sense. The best bands out there can conjure up another place, another time. Musicians-at their mightiest- combine forces with one another to create something evocative of something more. I guess what I'm trying to say is: music can transport you if you let it.
And you'd be a fool not to let the songs do just that to you come Sunday at the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association's weekly Summer Sounds show this week. Because that's when Texas native turned Central Pennsylvanian Kristi Jean and Her Ne'er Do-Wells will be transporting yet another crowd back to the smoky, sweaty dance halls of the Lone Star State many moons ago. Featuring a virtual who's-who of some of the very best pickers and singers in this neck of the woods, this is the kind of band that makes shy people dance, and quite possibly makes unabashed people do four or five backflips in a row.
Which can easily be mistaken for a tumbling tumbleweed down in Talleyrand, trust me. Kristi Jean kind of agrees, too. She recognizes some remarkable similarities between her Texas home and her adopted Centre County one.
"I grew up in a tiny town called Howe, Texas, population just under 2,000," she says. "People there could be real characters, but overall they were honest, hard-working, kind, talented and family-oriented people. I grew up next door to my grandmother, and my playmates were usually my cousins and other family members. Just about every distant family member and friend who was ever down on their luck moved in with my Aunt and Uncle at some point...the door was always open. We bickered, disagreed and didn't always see eye-to-eye; however, in the end it was always about family, and we all loved each other and stood by each other. I see the same thing in the people of Central PA - people here are hard-working, honest and family comes first. I've also met my share of characters here...just like back home."
And that experience is reflected in the songs she sings. They're songs for the people, by the people, you might say.
They've been described as rock-a-billy, which has always been a more or less loose term for a kind of sound that draws deeply from some seriously American wells. Country. Blues. Western Swing. Those are majestic and powerful styles of music that were hand-carved and reared right here in the USA over the last 100 years or so. Their influence on what came later...namely rock-n-roll...cannot be understated.
You may look at those names and think to yourself that they were all different. But that, you see, would be where so many Americans go wrong. Because they were much more similar to one another than they ever were different. Sure, the backbeats may have varied and the guitar tones might have changed from band to band, but in the end, all of the mid-20th Century music in this country was much more related to each other than a lot of people ever stop to recognize. From deep Mississippi, from out west in the Rockies, from Georgia to Chicago, and from Boalsburg to Austin, the music that Kristi Jean and her gang are playing is the same beautiful and mysterious amalgam that has been telling the American story for the better part of a century now.
And yeah, maybe you don't hear Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys or Duane Eddy on the radio that much anymore. Heck (unless you live out in Penns Valley and have access to WSOV) you've probably never heard Lightin' Hopkins or The Bluegrass Boys or Johnny Burnette or Wanda Jackson on the real life actual radio before. But that's my point exactly, you see. The real stuff, the true American canon of song written and performed by people who lived their lives to tell the story, is always being forgotten and ignored by the masses in favor of the next flavor of the week, you know?
But it doesn't matter. You cannot kill something bound to live forever. Especially if that something happens to be a song. And that's exactly why people are discovering this band this year. They play the kinds songs that helped- and still help- define a nation in the eyes of the rest of the world. And in our own eyes as well.
So call it rock-a-billy.
Call it hillbilly.
Call it honky tonk blippity blonk, it doesn't matter to me. And it really doesn't matter to Kristi Jean all that much either. She simply loves the songs.
"Even though I was born into an era of rock and roll, disco, new-wave and other music, all I remember about growing up was the music my parents and grandparents played," she recalls. "The real traditional country music with steel guitars and people who could raise their hairs on your arms when they sang. It may sound corny, but this was the soundtrack to my childhood. We listened to Hank Williams on vinyl, Patsy Cline on my dad's am radio in his truck. And even less hip, I listen to some of this on 8-track tapes in my brother's old Ford Mustang."
Kristi Jean and Her Ne-er Do-Wells are only six months into playing together but are already a big draw at a slew of events this summer.
Look, this is the music that makes people get up and dance like a tumbleweed one minute, cry in their beer (or their 78 oz carafe of Mountain Dew) the next.
"People can expect an engaging show," Kristi Jean says. "We don't feel we can just stand there and play. We are moved by the music and it shows. It's casual, interactive, sometimes funny (maybe by accident), and real. We never plan out what's going to happen, we try to go with the flow. And if I do say so myself, people can expect an authentic experience of vintage music and outstanding musicianship. Sean Hershey (drums), JimmyJames Baughman (bass), Dave Mudgett (steel guitar) have been on the central PA music scene for years, and they are simply amazing. Mike Russell (rhythm guitar and vocal) and Steve Branstetter (lead guitar) have such a great time on stage goofing around, I often times can't look over at them or else I'll crack up."
Do me a favor, take your kids to Talleyrand Sunday evening.
Stretch out on the lawn like a Texas armadillo.
Let that evening sun wash away your long gone week, my friend.
And just close your eyes and listen to the sound of a whole darn country singing together as your kids dance around the duck poop and all is right with the world.
The 38th Annual BHCA Summer Sounds Concert Series
Sunday, July 20th at 7pm with Kristi Jean and Her Ne'er Do-Wells
At the Gazebo in Talleyrand Park, Bellefonte, PA.
Lawn chairs and blankest suggested.
If it rains, concerts will be held at St John Lutheran Church, 216 N. McAllister St.
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