PICTURED: The Carolyn Sills Combo, from left: Charlie Joe Wallace (steel guitar), Sunshine Jackson (vocals and percussion), Gerard Egan (guitar and vocals), Carolyn Sills (bass and vocals) and Jim Norris (drums). Photo by R.R. Jones
by Tim Pompey
The Carolyn Sills Combo will perform their lively country-western music at the NAMBA Performing Arts Space this weekend.
The quintet, known for their love of Marty Robbins, Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood, includes Carolyn Sills (lead singer, bass), husband Gerard Egan (guitar), Sunshine Jackson (harmonies), Jimmy Norris (drums) and Charlie Joe Wallace (steel guitar).
The award-winning combo balances three-part vocal harmonies with dueling guitar and non-pedal steel and is noted for its witty, original songwriting. They recently shared the stage with acts like Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky and Southern Culture on the Skids.
Sills’ musical roots date back to her youth in Chicago. “We grew up with a very radio-listening family,” she said. “We were always singing along and doing harmonies.”
She discovered her instrument, the electric bass, while in her early 20s. After she met Egan, they started playing blues and rockabilly together. Eventually, they married and became involved in various rockabilly bands. While living in Brooklyn, they formed their own trio that toured Europe and the U.S.
But, as Sills noted, “once we started peeling back the layers of our influences, we started to get more and more into classic country, Western swing, kind of more like the ’40s and’ 50s pop music of the time.”
While in New York City, Sills sang in a Patsy Cline tribute band and credited Cline with greatly influencing her songwriting. “She was my grad school of singing,” she acknowledged.
Why this style of music?
“We love songs that are musician-based,” Sills explained. “We love to listen to the old country-western and jazz guys, the way they were listening to each other, the various parts that make up a greater whole.”
While exploring those roots, they were surprised to be nominated in 2015 for an Ameripolitan Award for Western Swing Group. Sills and Egan realized what they had become: country-western swing with a feminine perspective.
“I had never really labeled ourselves as such,” she admitted, “but it seemed like people were responding. Our style, we kind of tag it as spaghetti-western swing.”
They eventually won that same award in 2018 for their Marty Robbins-inspired album Return to El Paso.
Sills believes that her songwriting is best when she tells a good story. “I don’t write a lot of personal songs,” she said. “I prefer storytelling. I love to get into a character and create a scene.”
The difference in her style is that she loves to share stories from a woman’s perspective. One of her song titles, “Even Villains Once Were Babies,” tells a tale of the lamenting mothers of outlaws.
While the band’s travels in the last two years were stalled by COVID-19, they are planning some upcoming tours. The show in Ventura is a rare chance to catch the combo on the cusp of increased national fame among country-western circles.
The Carolyn Sills Combo will perform on Saturday, Nov. 13, at 7 p.m. at the NAMBA Performing Arts Space, 47 S. Oak St., Ventura. For tickets and more information, visit NambaArts.com.