They’re back, and they’re glorious.
For sheer vocal splendor, few country duos can match Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the sister team of Janis Oliver and Kristine Arnold. But their last album — Beautiful Lies — came out 17 years ago, which was practically the Stone Age in music.
Now they’ve returned to the spotlight in full power with an impressive new collection of tunes. Called Restless, it was co-produced by the Sweethearts and bassist Dave Pomeroy. Oliver wrote seven of the album’s 12 songs and provides harmony vocals to Arnold’s lead.
So why the long dry spell?
“My sister and I are very close,” says Oliver, who speaks for the team. “So we hung out and spent time together all those years. But it all came down to one date we were doing together each year. We would play a date at the Bluebird [Café in Nashville]. It was always the day after Thanksgiving. For years, that was the only show we did.
“We would come together for that show with a great band and get all excited and say, ‘Man, we’ve got to get back in the studio.’ But kids and family and all that stuff kept distracting us. Finally, a couple of years ago, we made a date. I said, ‘All right. Here’s what it is, sister: You come to my house every Friday, and we’ll start singing.’ I set up a studio, and we started recording, and pretty soon we had a demo.”
Oliver admits that getting back into the recording game wasn’t easy for her.
“I went through a terrible writer’s block,” she says. “It was just terrifying. This album saw me coming out of it.”
Friends who heard the sisters’ demo encouraged them to develop it into a full-fledged album. Toward that end, they brought in Pomeroy for studio guidance and set up their own label, Good Trade Records, to carry the project.
“We recorded this whole thing live,” Oliver reports. “We were all there together, all playing in the same room.”
From the first song, “You Can’t Hold Me Back,” the album has a buoyant, decisive quality — even in those lyrics that are leavened with sadness or the grim weight of experience.
Written by Jon Nite and Stacy Donahue, “You Can’t Hold Me Back” is a fierce assertion of self-reliance. It came to the Sweethearts’ attention through Oliver’s daughter, Jenny Gill, who was pitching songs for a Nashville publishing company during the early stages of the album’s development.
“I called her up and asked her to help me find some songs for the project,” Oliver explains. “It was such a good call on her part. She thought it sounded like a new version of ‘Midnight Girl in a Sunset Town’ [an early Sweethearts hit]. … It was a song we sang one time through and said, ‘This is a keeper.’”
Sweethearts of the Rodeo made their recording debut in 1986 on Columbia Records with “Hey Doll Baby.” Over the next five years on that label, they would score the Top 5 hits “Midnight Girl,” “Chains of Gold,” “Satisfy You” and “Blue to the Bone” and the Top 10 “Since I Found You,” “Gotta Get Away” and “I Feel Fine.”
One other song on the new album — “Maybe Tonight” — also has a family connection. Oliver wrote it with her then-husband, Vince Gill.
“Vince and I wrote that at the end of our relationship,” she recalls. “We were splitting up, and we knew what was ahead of us. It was a bittersweet sort of thing.”
Gill recorded “Maybe Tonight” in his 1994 album, When Love Finds You. The two divorced in 1997.
Easily the most festive (and feisty) song is the album’s title cut, which Oliver wrote with Deanna Walker and Rick Beresford.
It bristles with hillbilly imagery (“fine as a frog’s hair,” “itchin’ like a chigger bite”) and pulsates with raunchy come-ons (“burnin’ up my mattress,” “can’t wait to lose this dress”).
“It was incredibly fun [to write],” Oliver says. “That was the last song we wrote. I went to two of my favorite writers, and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got one sound, one tempo, one feel that’s missing. It’s something that’s really just kind of free and sexy and goofy. We don’t have anything like that.”
With “Restless,” they had it.
“We were just being mischievous,” Oliver declares with a chuckle.
Perhaps the most unexpected of Oliver’s co-writers is her image stylist, Rique Patier. He collaborated with her and Pomeroy on the self-helpful “Love It Away.”
“We were all at a party of musicians — my sister and me,” Oliver recalls, “and Rique happened to be standing there. Someone was complaining about something, and Rique said, ‘Let it go. Just love it away.’ Dave said, ‘There’s a song,’ and I said, ‘Let’s write it.’ We ended up writing it over the phone with Rique while he was in Los Angeles.”
The final cut on Restless is a sweeping cover of the Youngbloods’ 1969 classic, “Get Together.”
“That came about,” Oliver notes, “because Dave does a Christmas show every year. A couple of years ago while we were just starting gathering songs and thinking about this album, Dave invited us down to be a part of his Christmas show. We were trying to think of a song that wasn’t necessarily a Christmas song but which be about the feelings of the season — like peace and love.
“I can’t remember who suggested this song. It may have been Dave. We’d never done it before, but we worked it up for the show. It was so inspiring for us to sing it in this church. … We thought, ‘We should think about recording this.’”
The Sweethearts have since worked the song into their stage show, where it invariably turns into a singalong.
Other standouts on the album are the folkish “Sinful Thoughts” (written by Jessi Alexander and Sally Barris), the forlorn “Hopeless Rose” (Alexander, Sally Barris, Jon Randall, Ashley Monroe) and the blithely escapist “Gone to Kentucky” (Kaci Bolls, Greg Johnson).
After a career of singing on corporate labels, Oliver says she revels in being an independent.
“One of the great things I’m enjoying about it is that I am so close to the fans now — and get to talk to them. When people order through the website, I see where they live, and I get to write to them. And they write to me about the album and their feelings about it. It’s wonderful. I would have missed so much of that [through a conventional label arrangement].”
The Sweethearts plan to tour to promote the new album.