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Janis Gill (born Janice Oliver in California; married country singer Vince Gill, April 12, 1979; children: Jenny); Kristine Arnold (born Kristine Oliver in California; married musician Leonard Arnold c. 1982; children: two daughters). Addresses: Record company--Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300.
Sweethearts of the Rodeo took country music by storm in 1986 with their harmony-infused blend of bluegrass, folk, and traditional country. The fresh, contemporary sound helped to pave the way for other artists who rode in on the new wave of country music. For three years sisters Janis Gill and Kristine Arnold dominated the charts. They were nominated for Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association and their songs were featured in the 1987 movie Nadine. The second Sweethearts of the Rodeo album sold well, but not as well as the first, and the third, not as well as the second. Their fourth album, according to Arnold, "was dead when it came out."
When the sisters found themselves shunned by radio and ignored by their record company, Columbia, they seriously considered calling it quits. Instead, Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed on with independent label Sugar Hill Records and released Rodeo Waltz, a back-to-basics album that had the critics taking a second look.
Janis and Kristine Oliver grew up in Manhattan Beach, California, and credit their older brothers' record collection--which included Sonny Terry, John Lee Hooker, Doc Watson, and Bill Monroe--as their musical influence. "I was just beginning to learn how to play guitar, and listening to those records really had an effect on me," Gill recalled to Country Guitar. It wasn't long before Kristine began to accompany her sister on vocals, and by high school they'd formed a folksy bluegrass band.
Billing themselves as Sweethearts of the Rodeo, after the classic Byrds album, the sisters spent years on the California club circuit. The influence of such artists as Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Eagles became intertwined with the Sweetheart's traditional, down-home melodies to produce a perfect harmony of country and rock. The sisters were also renowned for their stagewear--outlandish homemade outfits with little regard for fashion. They were well received by local audiences, but the big time continued to elude them.
Both women married in the early 1980s. Janis wed Vince Gill, a struggling country singer at the time, who by the early 1990s had become one of country's most popular artists. Kristine married musician Leonard Arnold. Both couples started families, and Sweethearts of the Rodeo disbanded in order to meet the demands of parenthood. They moved apart in 1983--the Arnolds moved to Austin, Texas, and the Gills settled in Nashville, Tennessee.
The sisters reunited in 1985 when the Arnolds moved to Nashville at Janis's request. "[Janis] called me ... and said 'can you move? There's no female duo here. The timing is perfect for us,'" Kristine told The Tennessean. That same year, the twosome won the Wrangler Country Showdown talent contest and signed a contract with Columbia Records. Their 1986 self-titled debut album was a runaway hit, with five singles--including "Since I Found You" and "Midnight Girl/Sunset Town"--reaching the Top Ten.
The duo's earthy music and harmony-laced vocals were praised by fans and critics alike. In Who's Who in New Country Music, Andrew Vaughan noted that the sisters' "cascading harmonies and tight country rock instrumentation swept hard and clear across country airwaves quickly putting [them] at the head of the Nashville newcomer league."
Sweethearts of the Rodeo headlined in concerts across the country and were nominated for Duo of the Year by the Country Music Association. In 1987 they provided the soundtrack for the movie Nadine, which starred Jeff Bridges and Kim Bassinger. The suddenness of their popularity and the unprecedented demands on their time put the sisters in an awkward position. The little time they had to spend with their husbands and children was time that their record company felt could be more profitably spent.
Over the next two years the sisters juggled their home lives and careers. Their second album, One Time One Night, was warmly received by both critics and fans, but their third album, Buffalo Zone, was given little publicity by the record company. Columbia virtually ignored Sweethearts of the Rodeo's fourth album, Sisters, which was their last recording on that label. "Radio wasn't playing us anymore," Arnold told Robert K. Oermann in The Tennessean. "The record company wasn't giving us the priority. We got frustrated and thought maybe we ought to quit."
Both women admitted to "some tearful conversations" while deciding what to do next. "Finally," Gill told Oermann, "we thought, 'gee, are we gonna quit because radio is through with us and turn our backs on nearly 30 years of singing together?'" They didn't. Instead, Sweethearts of the Rodeo signed on with Sugar Hill Records, home to many of new country's more innovative bands as well as established artists, including Doc Watson, Leon Redbone, Chris Hillman, and Ricky Scaggs.
Rodeo Waltz, the duo's 1993 "comeback" album, was recorded live in one week (vocals in two days) on a budget of $10,000-- considerably less than the $100,000 Capital had allowed. The 12 songs offer charming acoustic renderings of old and new country, from Johnny Cash's rockabilly "Get Rhythm" to the haunting strains of Robbie Robertson's "Broken Arrow." The sisters drew from a well of talented tunesmiths for the album, including Hank Locklin, the Delmore Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jesse Winchester.
Critics were lavish in their praise of Rodeo Waltz. "The Sweethearts," noted Geoffrey Himes of Country Music, "sing with a kind of old-timey purity and power ... never displayed in all their years on a big label." Musician magazine's Holly Gleason lauded the duo's return to their roots, referring to the new songs as "the turpentine that strips the radio sheen off Sweethearts of the Rodeo."
Despite the accolades, this time around Gill and Arnold are determined to find a balance between their music and family life. Rather than arenas and amphitheaters, their 1994 schedule included a number of small-venue performances at folk and bluegrass festivals. Sweethearts of the Rodeo have another Sugar Hill release planned for late 1994 and though they hope that Rodeo Waltz receives adequate air time, the sisters are more than comfortable with their less-than-hectic careers. As Gill told Gordon Ely in Virginia's Richmond Times-Dispatch: "The trade-off in smaller sales is worth the freedom and peace we've found now, a thousand times over."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Sweethearts of the Rodeo's Career
Duo formed in California, c. 1975, and played at local clubs; moved to Nashville, TN, c. 1985; signed with CBS Records, 1986, and released debut album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, 1987.
- Selective Works
- Sweethearts of the Rodeo, CBS, 1986.
- One Time One Night, CBS, 1988.
- Buffalo Zone, CBS, 1990.
- Sisters, CBS, 1992.
- Rodeo Waltz, Sugar Hill, 1993.
- Vaughan, Andrew, Who's Who in New Country Music, St. Martin's, 1989.
- Periodicals Billboard, August 21, 1993.
- Country America, October 1990; March 1991.
- Country Guitar, April 1994.
- Country Music, January/February 1994.
- Country Standard Time, March/April 1994.
- Music City News, 1994.
- Musician, 1994.
- New Country Music, April 1994.
- Patriot News, 1994.
- Pulse!, February 1994.
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1994.
- The Tennessean, January 29, 1994.
- USA Today, 1994.
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