Lavay Smith: paying tribute to a country legend

By Andrew Gilbert

Jazz and country music are often cast as antithetical cultural forces, signifying a blue state/red state divide. The former is black, urban, and sophisticated, while the later is white, rural (or suburban), and populist.

The truth is that jazz and country music have been kissing cousins since the styles took shape early in the 20th century, and in fact formed a blissful union with the rise of western swing in the late 1930s.

For case study of how savvy artists can seamlessly meld two quintessentially American musical forms, look no further than “Crazy In Love With Patsy Cline,” a side project that Lavay Smith pursues when she’s not delivering her Red Hot Skillet Lickers repertoire of jump blues and swing anthems (songs she performs regularly at Ashkenaz).

The San Francisco diva originally paid tribute to Cline back in 2006 as part of a collaboration with New Orleans vocalist Ingrid Lucia, and Miss Carmen Getit, resident chanteuse with Steve Lucky and the Rhumba Bums. But for the past year or so she’s made the project her own, and she brings her inimitable sass to the Nashville sound Friday at Freight & Salvage.

For Smith, creating a program featuring songs indelibly associated with Cline makes perfect emotional sense. “When I had my heart broken, I listened to nothing but Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline,” Smith says. “A while ago I thought, I wish I could hear them singing each other songs, because they’re so similar, at least in the intensity of feeling.”

While addiction and hard living felled Holiday, Cline died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30. She was at the height of her fame, a mainstay on the Grand Ole Opry and one of the only female country artists to play Carnegie Hall. Both Cline and Holiday attained iconic status through their gift for turning songs about abject romantic surrender into anthems of survival.

You can trace the Cline/Holiday connection can through the too often overlooked vocalist Kay Starr, a profound influence on Patsy. A gifted vocalist from Oklahoma who started her career singing western swing in the 1930s, Starr went on to make several important jazz and pop recordings that anticipated the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. She created one of her first hits when she transformed the country fiddle tune “Bonapart’s Retreat” into a pop number.

Ultimately, what makes both Holiday and Cline such powerfully enduring artists is that they both define and transcend particular styles. The ability to turn a three-minute tune into satisfying if harrowing emotional journey is all too rare. Just as Smith helped pave the way for the 1990s swing revival, maybe she’ll turn other jazz and blues artists onto the treasure trove of tunes associated with Patsy Cline.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.

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