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'Old School' is cool again

Kimmi Bitter bringing '60s countrypolitan to Everett festival

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While mainstream country music continues to blot the line between pop and rock, the popularity of roots country – think Tyler Childers, Cody Jinks, Turnpike Troubadours, Zach Bryan, and others – has provided a welcome alternative to radio's bro- and gal-country.

One such fan of the popularity of resurgent Americana music is Ryan Crowther, now almost two years into his tenure as president and CEO of the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce. 

Although plenty busy in Edmonds, Crowther remains the head talent buyer of the annual Fisherman's Village Music Festival, which returns to Everett May 16-18. Crowther founded the event.

“There's no question there has been a resurgence of country music these past few years,” he said recently. “What's been fun for our team is to see the emerging country and Americana artists writing songs that align much closer to traditional country music than what we've been listening to on country radio these last 20 years.”

Like in any musical genre, subcategories abound: bluegrass, swing, honky-tonk, and outlaw, to name a few. An emerging entrant harkens to the sounds of the late 1960s and early 1970s that featured elements of popular music, often with string sections and background music.

It was a smoother sound of country, the Nashville Sound or, common these days, “countrypolitan.” Popularizing the trend were artists such as Charlie Rich, George Jones, Charley Pride, Glen Campbell, Tom T. Hall, and Lynn Anderson, among so many others.

Today, artists finding success with smooth country sounds include Zephaniah OHora (he also fronts a Grateful Dead tribute band), Logan Ledger, and the Sentimental Family Band.

A fan in the PNW

Add Kimmi Bitter to the list. The Southern Californian is a throwback to country swing, delivering original takes on tunes with ’60s pop-country leanings.

Count Crowther as a fan. So much so that he booked Bitter for the annual Fisherman’s Village Music Festival May 16-18 in Everett.

“Knowing my love for classic country, my friends brought me out to a show at the Sassafras Saloon while visiting Los Angeles for a weekend last year,” he said. “The place was wall-to-wall, with artists playing from an upstairs balcony.

“It took me like 30 seconds before I was glued to this young country singer just wailing over this ripping country band full of energy. I immediately looked her up and have followed her since.”

Bitter was that singer. She released her first album this month, “Old School.”

“She continues to release songs that embody older songs I love, from Loretta Lynn with a touch of Patsy Cline with a modern spin,” said Crowther. “And watching her band tour up and down the West Coast like true road dogs is so inspiring. Her crowds continue to grow and her songs continue to climb on Americana radio charts.

“She's the kind of artist that we want to make sure to bring to Everett, who adds a discovery element to the festival. And I'm excited to see the room light up and move from her first song on stage.”

Q&A with Kimmi Bitter

Edmonds Beacon: Saving Country Music called you "the closest thing to Patsy Cline this generation has." How would you describe your sound and why decide to go in this direction? 

Kimmi Bitter: I describe my music as a swinging '60s kind of twang. Patsy has no doubt been a great influence, particularly her work with the Jordanaires and Elvis with the Jordanaires.

So I suppose you could say the production style of the Jordanaires is a big influence, especially on my album “Old School.” I like a very specific type of country from the '50s and '60s. I haven't heard the term countrypolitan much, but that is exactly it.

My recordings are very countrypolitan, but my live show can take you on a tangent from across all the genres of the '60s and is very "twang" heavy.

You might hear some surf rock, some Western instrumentals, probably a dabble in a bit of '60s psych, and of course a lot of country originals. But the twang is what ties it together and always brings it back.

Beacon: Will your band be with you in Everett? Who is in the band?

Bitter: Yes. This will be the first time the full band will be on the road with me after four years of nonstop touring as a stripped-down act. I am so thrilled to finally be in a place to bring the full sound across the country with me. My bandmates are Willis Farnsworth (guitar), Ben Neal (bass), and Justin De La Vega (drums). 

Beacon: Why visit the sounds of classic country?

Bitter: You can't explain why you love what you love, but for me, I have an undeniable love for old music across genres. It just hits me differently than modern-day sounds.

Why country? I grew up singing female country artists of the '90s. I loved country as a kid because it played to the strength of my voice, and I liked the sound of string instruments.

When I went down the rabbit hole and got to the country music of the '60s it felt like my voice had found its home. It's what makes me feel all the feels and what makes me excited to write and perform. I wish that was what was currently spinning on the radio, but it's not, so I might as well make it.

Beacon: Roots country is having a revival with artists like Zach Bryan, Cody Jinks, Charley Crockett, and others. Do you feel Nashville will play your music?

Bitter: I love that Nashville is finally giving roots country music a chance again. I suppose if they play my music would depend on how much it resonates with the public. Commercial radio doesn't really take risks, so you need to prove yourself first before they will give you a chance.

That's why Charley Crockett, Zach Bryan, and Cody Jinks are spinning because they developed a strong underground following first. As far as Americana radio stations nationally, my debut album, "Old School,” has already broken the Top 25 Americana Albums radio chart, so I think there's definitely a chance it could cross over eventually. 

Beacon: Have you performed/visited the Pacific Northwest before?

Bitter: I have not. I'm so excited for my first time in this corner of the United States because music has taken me there. The lineup for the Fisherman's Village Music Fest is so strong, and I'm so honored to have been invited to play.

Beacon: It's up to you, but I think it's important to get your age as it works into the "new artists performing classic country" angle.

Bitter: I'm 36. I've been doing the throwback music thing for a decade already. Though I obviously wasn't alive in the '60s, I have been hashing at this movement for a little while. In recent years, honky tonk and classic country have picked up in popularity and it seems more folks are taking notice of me with this trend.

Beacon: Tell us a little about where you grew up, where you live, and your influences.

Bitter: I grew up in Oceanside, California. I spend about six months on the road touring and about six months back in Southern California. My influences come from so many different artists of the '50s through '60s.

Patsy Cline was a really big inspiration for the album I just made. She did a very specific countrypolitan ballad style that is so timeless.

Even noncountry fans love it. That style is 100% what I love singing the most, and I can't believe we don't make music like that anymore. The production is so incredible, and I'm a ballad singer through and through.

However, my influences are not solely in the vein of country. I'm a California girl, and I immensely love the sounds that came from my state, such as the late '60s San Fran psych scene, all the music that came from early Los Angeles, the Laurel Canyon crew, and surf rock.

I'm also big on old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and the pop singers of the '50s and '60s like Connie Francis, Elvis, Wanda Jackson, and Nancy Sinatra.

My greatest influence is '60s music as a whole. I'm truly obsessed with the era. I'm very much influenced by the overall vibes, tones, and sounds of certain songs of the '60s that I hope to achieve and recreate in my own way in modern times. That's what excites me.

Tickets for the Fisherman’s Village Music Festival can be purchased at thefishermanvillage.com. Acts perform at various venues in Everett. Kimmi Bitter performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at the Black Lab Gallery, 1805 Hewitt Ave.

Kimmi Bitter, coutrypolitan, country music

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