Carolyn Sills: On Songwriting, Storytelling, and Spaghetti Western Swing

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Photo by R.R. Jones

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine, Issue 8

Music has always been a given for singer/songwriter/bassist Carolyn Sills. She grew up in Chicago around a musical encyclopedia of sounds and styles, via her father’s record collection. As a child, she discovered her voice, which came naturally to her and became a second language: singing in the car, singing with her father, and joining school choirs. Music was a passion, a hobby, and a source of joy, but not something she considered as a profession until she attended college. There, for the first time, she began fronting bands, and the desire to sing and play full-time became a career goal.

During that time, she met fellow student and guitarist Gerard Egan. The two bonded over their love for Stevie Ray Vaughan—Egan, it turned out, owned an impressive collection of SRV bootlegs—and from there, over hours of listening, personal and professional relationships developed. The two began writing songs together, performing locally, and eventually moved to New York to pursue music full-time. Their repertoire expanded to include country, swing, rockabilly, and a lot of Patsy Cline, which led to steady work on the club scene and European tours. After several years, the couple moved to Santa Cruz, California, and formed the Carolyn Sills Combo with Sunshine Jackson on vocals and percussion, Jim Norris on drums, and Charlie Wallace on steel guitar.

They’ve released two albums, The Carolyn Sills Combo (2013) and Dime Stories, Vol. 2 (2016), showcasing the sound they call “Spaghetti Western Swing.” This year will bring a unique new project, Return to El Paso, which Sills describes as “a study on the characters in Marty Robbins’ song ‘El Paso,’ which was recorded and released in 1959. The album is a collection of original songs that gives more backstory to that fateful night at Rosa’s Cantina. It’s dear to my heart, and we are very excited about it.” The recording was co-produced and engineered by Sylvia Massy. Notes Sills, “She is amazing, and it was such a thrill working with her!”

Along the way, the Carolyn Sills Combo has racked up a hefty list of awards and nominations: 2018 winners and three-time Ameripolitan Award nominees for Western Swing Group of the Year, two-time Ameripolitan Award nominee for Sills in the Western Swing Female of the Year category, two-time Academy of Western Artists Award nominees for Western Swing Group, and two-time Academy of Western Artists Award nominees for Western Swing Album.

When she’s not onstage, Carolyn Sills is Head of Operations for the Santa Cruz Guitar Company, where Egan also worked for eight years. While on tour, she works remotely, noting, “I love my job, and I love playing in the band, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to do both.”

When did things start taking off for the Combo?

The band has progressed naturally. We got together a couple of years after my husband and I moved to Santa Cruz, and our goals were to play the music we love, write good songs, and have fun with it. My opinion is that each show leads to something, so we kept playing and taking the next steps, booking bigger shows, and we were asked to open for people and play festivals in California. We followed the path that’s been laid out for us, and so far, so good. Last year was the first year we toured outside of California, and that’s expanding even more. I’m excited to keep touring, writing, and putting out records.

You play a number of instruments. What led you to play bass?

I’ve been singing all my life. As a kid I naturally took to it, singing in school choirs, singing in the car with my dad. Back in the day, everybody played piano, and we had one in the house, so my parents signed me up for lessons. In fourth grade, I signed up for band. I wanted to play oboe, but the spacing was too far apart for my fingers, so I moved to the saxophone.

When I graduated high school, I went to college, and I wanted to play music. I had always sung in ensemble settings, and it never occurred to me that I could be in a band. When I saw some ads at school for bands, I joined them. It was fun, but it was the 1990s and the era of jam bands, and I would get bored when they took 18-minute solos, so I thought, I’ve got to get on an instrument because this isn’t doing it for me. There were too many guitar players, as there always are, so I thought, I’ve got to do drums or bass. Bass seemed more accommodating to being a lead vocalist, so I started working on it, and it turned out to be a great instrument for me. Once you’re able to make it second nature, it’s fun to provide that solid foundation for the band and focus on my singing.

Did those childhood music lessons come back to you in a positive way?

It was invaluable. Piano helped train my ear and taught me how to sight-read. The left hand on the piano kind of mimics the bass line, and I learned a lot of scales and where the notes were, and that helps with any instrument. I read sheet music in band practice, and it gave me a feel for rhythm, how many beats are in a measure, the changes, when they happen. As you learn, it becomes ingrained, and you naturally hear when things should be played and when they shouldn’t, which is sometimes even more important.

You moved to Santa Cruz by way of Chicago to Brooklyn to Arizona to California. Can you walk us through the trajectory?

I met Gerard in college in Connecticut. He’s a guitar player, and we decided to write music together. We’re a really good team, and we’ve been playing music together for so long now that we can anticipate each other. We both bring something different to the table, songwriting-wise, and we benefit from each other’s skills to make a complete picture. It’s a nice collaboration.

We were playing in bands in Connecticut, and around 2000, we decided to move to New York. We were drawn to the music scene, and we both have family there. We started playing around town in a rockabilly trio, and the band started gaining popularity. After playing in Europe a couple of times, we realized we could do more with this than just play in local bars. A friend of ours there, who is a drummer, called one day and said, “My brother plays steel guitar. Why don’t you come over and play some Patsy Cline songs?” Her phrasing and delivery were like a master class in singing. We began playing shows in Brooklyn, and before we moved we were playing at B.B. King’s club in Times Square, and I sat in with Les Paul at the Iridium. Doing the Patsy Cline thing won some really big shows for us and took my singing to another level. We had a great time in New York, but it got to the point where we wanted to move to a place with a slower pace, and someplace warmer, which led us here.

What attracted a child of the ’80s and ’90s to Western Swing?

One of the things about growing up in that era is that you were no longer only influenced by the music going on in your community. Everything was accessible. It was before the internet got as crazy as it is today, but you had the radio, you had access to music at libraries, people trading music at school, and, of course, my dad was big into the doo-wop of the ’40s and ’50s, so that was always playing. I just gravitated to blues and country music, and when Gerard and I got to New York, we were playing rockabilly and peeling away the layers of who influenced whom. Once we discovered Western Swing, we found it was open to so many styles. They were mixing jazz, blues, country, polka, and they would cover and do their versions of other modern songs of the day. It was like jazz with a cowboy hat on, and it was everything we wanted to do. We never wanted to be beholden to one genre because we love so many styles of music. I love a good story song and telling a tale through music, and this is a nice platform for what we want to do.

How did the Carolyn Sills Combo come together?

I love our band! We’re so lucky to have met Charlie and Jimmy and Sunshine. Jimmy and Charlie had worked together—not consistently in a band, but with artists and on shows and recording sessions. We met Charlie first. He was a last-minute sub for a Patsy Cline show we were doing after we moved to Santa Cruz, and he was recommended to us. He recommended Jimmy when we were looking for a steady drummer. Sunshine joined after we’d been playing for a year. She’d been in other bands, and we’d done some shows together, and we invited her to sing on our debut record and do harmony on a couple of songs. We had such a good time that we became friends and musical partners, and she’s been an awesome addition ever since. I couldn’t be happier.

We’re always writing, and once we got the ball rolling with these folks, we could bring a song or an idea and not have to say much about what we want for the parts or harmony vocals because they get us musically. We have something good here, and it inspires us to write more of these songs and get them out there. If you look at our music from when we left New York to when we settled here in Santa Cruz, it definitely took on a more country vibe and Western vibe than it ever had before.

Let’s talk about your gear.

I am just in love with my Harmony bass! I played a Fender Jazz reissue for a long time, which was great and solid, but the more we started playing some of these other styles, I wanted to get more of the upright sound but playing electric. I play upright, but I need to get more proficient on it. The Harmony was everything I was looking for: shorter scale, lighter weight, and it has that nice thump-y tone. I got it from a shop in Brooklyn called RetroFret. I get their newsletters, and Gerard spotted the bass. I called them and had it a week or so later. It’s a ’64, and it was made in Chicago, just like me, so I felt like we had some kinship there! It’s a great instrument. I’ve never needed to have too many instruments, but I’ve somehow acquired a couple of vintage basses over the years. It’s super-comfortable to play, and it responds well. It stays in tune all the time, and it wants to be played. It’s my buddy up there onstage.

Are there certain recording techniques you swear by for bass and vocals?

For Return to El Paso, Sylvia set up a vintage tube mic and compressor for my vocals, and that worked really well. I play direct when we record the bass. I’m a consistent bass player, and I don’t use any effects. I prefer solid tones, and usually I prefer to track live and play and sing at the same time, because the exhilaration I get from playing and singing—I don’t think I can duplicate it if I break them up. The Harmony has been great for recording.

What are your goals when you perform?

I love playing live, connecting with my band and the audience, and just being in the song. When I perform, I want to tell the story. As a singer, I like to take my time and not purposely try to sing behind the beat. I don’t rush. We have a wonderful drummer, so I try to lock in with him, as bass players should do, and create a solid foundation for me to sing. There’s a lot going on in our band, but everyone plays tastefully and for the song.

Do you have some words of wisdom for young women aspiring to work in the music industry?

Work your butt off. That’s a big part of it. Put your nose to the grindstone, practice your instrument, and find your unique voice. You can play any style of music you want—whatever speaks to you. You should never be afraid to explore it, if it’s something you genuinely feel love for.

Carolyn Sills Gear List:

1964 Harmony H22 bass
1962 reissue Fender Jazz Bass
1968 Hofner Club bass
Bergantino 1×12″ bass cabinet with a Trace Elliot ELF head
D’Addario flatwound strings

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