When the Mustangs were opening for the likes of Rosie Flores, Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams at the Palomino and other nightclubs in the late 1980s and ’90s, they were an anomaly: an all-female country band whose members played their own instruments. And they weren’t in Nashville. They were part of the diverse Americana/roots-music scene in Los Angeles that also birthed the careers of Dave Alvin, the Blasters, James Intveld, Candye Kane, Lone Justice, Buddy Miller, Boy Howdy’s Jeffrey Steele, Dale Watson, and Dwight Yoakam.
The Mustangs parted ways around 1997 — just before the Dixie Chicks shook up the country charts and freshened the genre’s sound (which laid the groundwork for present-day groups like Della Mae, Pistol Annies, Maybe April and Southern Halo).
“We used to be on a lot of the same bills [at festivals and in Europe], just before the Dixie Chicks broke,” electric guitarist Sherry Barnett recalls with a chuckle. “We’d be there one week, Dixie Chicks would be there the next. … I think we definitely were ahead of the curve.
“We had fun growing up in that environment. We got a lot of attention. But it was very difficult. We formed at a time when a female country band was a novelty.”
Twenty years later, the Mustangs are back in action, with three original members — Barnett, bassist Holly Montgomery and lead vocalist/acoustic guitarist Suzanna Spring — plus newcomers Suzanne Morissette and Aubrey Richmond on drums and fiddle, respectively. As before, they strongly emphasize harmonies (usually between Spring, Montgomery and Richmond) with material largely drawn from Spring’s country-folk repertoire. Barnett says they plan to co-write more, but with five working musicians scattered between LA, Orange County, Northern California and Washington, DC, it’s a challenge just getting everyone together to rehearse.
Recently they coordinated schedules long enough to record a single, “T-shirt From California” (co-written by Spring and Wes Hightower), which they’ll be promoting at a few shows, including one Friday at The Rose. Barnett acknowledges that the musical landscape’s changed drastically since the days when independent artists — including the Mustangs — recorded demos in hopes of getting signed by a label from the Palomino’s “breeding ground.” The Mustangs never made an album then but they hope to now, retaining their focus on melodic songs and sunny harmonies.
“Thematically, a lot of country songs these days are party-driven, kind of post-’80s rock songs. It’s a different vibe. I don’t know if we’re fighting that as much as knowing that there’s a smaller space in the world of radio for female artists,” Barnett says, singling out Brandy Clark, Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves for praise.
“Most of them are out of Nashville and also, they’re primarily in their twenties or early thirties. We’re not in that category. But to me, it’s about the music. It’s not about what age you’re doing this. I’m not looking at this as we’re up against something. We have something real to offer.””
The Mustangs open for Junior Brown at the Rose, Paseo Colorado, 254 E. Green St., Pasadena, at 7 p.m. Friday, July 7; $24-$44. Info: (888) 645-5006. themustangs.us, suzannaspring.com, roseconcerts.com