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VOL. 42 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 02, 2018

‘Neon Angel’ still clinging to Nashville dream

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Suzette Lawrence came to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1995 as lead singer of the Neon Angels

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

She’s adjusted her dreams of stardom a bit as calendar pages fly by, but this woman with the young heart and thick, red hair holds onto her Gretsch guitar and proclaims: “I am the Neon Angel.”

And in that heavenly guise, Suzette Lawrence, who admits only she is “a woman of a certain age,” continues to light up stages, neon signs and marquees in Nashville, where she arrived in 1995, a bit naïve about Music Row reality and all but certain she’d be the star she never became.

She had performed in Nashville with the rest of The Neon Angels, long before deciding to sink her roots here.

“I was married to Chris (Lawrence), and we’d been playing a lot around here,” says this gentle woman who “feels like I’m 40” despite the disparity with the calendar age I promised not to reveal.

Suzette on rhythm and vocals, then-husband Chris on guitar and pals Ruth Gunderson on bass and Kenny Griffin on drums didn’t have to research much for a band name when they operated out of Los Angeles as a rockabilly/bluegrass/classic country outfit, playing the musical blend now popularly referred to as “Americana.”

“We’d been playing a lot at The Palomino (legendary City of the Angels haunt for roots music and much more),” so they were exposed to neon every time they joined the cowboy actors, country singers and rockabilly acts inside the landmark North Hollywood nightclub.

Suzette also lived just one block off the Sunset Strip, so she and her friends basically inhaled neon as they negotiated their nightly lives most famously to The Palomino but also to whatever gin joint or beer-and-pickled, hard-boiled egg purveyor that had a spotlight.

They tried on the moniker Neon Angels, and it stuck.

“It’s really weird. So long ago. I can’t remember who came up with the name Neon Angels,” but it was about the time (1992) she and her outfit recorded “He’s Breaking My Heart” for the third installment in the “A Town South of Bakersfield” compilation. Billy Swan, Albert Lee, Dwight Yoakam, Dale Watson, Jim Lauderdale and Lucinda Williams were a few similarly bent cowboys and cowgirls who participated in the project.

Suzette, her husband and band were fixtures of the Los Angeles honky-tonk and long-neck beer scene.

The Flying Burrito Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Cash, Kristofferson, Waylon and Willie and the boys were just a few of their colleagues committing gritty, guitar-driven country-and-western music, she recalls.

Suzette and her husband had moved from Austin, Texas, where they had been recording, to join that scene. “I was 25 when I went to L.A.,” she says, only admitting that was “a long time ago.”

They’d scouted out that world during gigs there and were seduced by L.A.’s glitter, glamour … and neon.

“When we got back in Austin, it was like ‘I want to go to L.A. I want to go to L.A.,’” she recalls, more or less quoting her comments to her then-husband. “So, we made the decision to move to L.A. It was so cosmopolitan. So many venues. So many musicians.

“It’s about then that I met Billy Block” she says of the long friendship she struck with natural-born promoter and drum wizard Block, who was part of L.A.’s famous “Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance.” Billy – a damn nice guy – later moved to Nashville and embraced L.A. refugees as well as Music City’s rootsy underground.

Cancer claimed silver-haired Billy about three years ago, long after he launched his own version of the Barn Dance with his variously-dubbed “Western Beat” weekly roots showcase.

Nashville remained a gig-stop for Suzette and company, who still called L.A. home until 1995 when “we got offers to play at the Exit/In.” That’s a long haul from Hollywood, but they couldn’t resist playing here. “I don’t know why we did it. It was sort of ‘Let’s just drive to Nashville and do it. And we did.”

At least one label executive was in the Exit/In crowd, she says, noting that “Polygram’s Randy Best said, ‘I really like your music and I can get you a production deal.’

“I thought we were going to be stars. I was really excited,” Suzette recounts.

“We moved to Nashville and did a record demo for Polygram.” The Neon Angels, were counting on a CD from Polygram that would catapult them to stardom.

“We had good sessions,” she recalls, a slight whiff of the sourness of broken dreams flavoring her recollections. “Unfortunately, Polygram folded up its operation.”

And The Neon Angels were, for the moment at least, squashed.

That failure to launch was one of the factors in the dissolution of Chris and Suzette’s marriage, she adds.

They went back to Los Angeles, which was where Chris wanted to live, while Suzette pined for a chance to prove herself in Nashville.

“I really love this town for the music’s sake,” Suzette says when asked why she uprooted her life to move here.

“That’s the one thing I love most about Nashville: You can go to so many venues who want you to play rockabilly and honky-tonk.”

Chris stayed in L.A. when Suzette “got in a very old car and drove by myself all the way across the desert. It was a Ford Crown Vic.

“I was scared driving by myself. Afraid it might break down. And I was just scared because I was alone.”

Suzette Lawrence’s CD cover

-- Cover Photograph By Deone Jahnke

Suzette knew there was a place for her to stay if she got the old car here: Friend and glitter-fashion designer Manuel Cuevas – also an ex-pat from Hollywood, where he made the mask for Clayton Moore’s “Lone Ranger,” as well as clothes for the likes of John Wayne, Salvador Dali, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead – “had told me before I came that ‘as soon as you get here, you can camp out at my house.‘

“He was so sweet. He gave me one of the bedrooms, and I stayed a long time.”

And she continued gigging as much as possible, either as a solo Neon Angel or – if she cobbled a band together from the thick ranks of the sidemen who fill Nashville studios – as Suzette and The Neon Angels.

Nowadays, if she needs a couple of Angels, she’ll call on Kenny and Ruth Gunderson Griffin – her old band mates – for drumming and electric bass.

“And I have a lot of guitarist friends who I can call on.”

Should be noted that Kenny and Ruth – who married after the original Neon Angels collaborations – also deserted Hollywood’s cement ponds and Klieg lights fantasy world to move to Nashville.

“It is so neat,” Suzette says. “We met in L.A. I moved to Nashville and a couple years later, they moved to Nashville. Kenny and Ruth are some of the sweetest people I’ve ever known.”

Before I let her get too far from recounting her fear and loathing exodus across the desert to find musical salvation right here in Music City, I ask her about the old Crown Vic she had driven back then.

She can’t remember much about it. “You wouldn’t believe how many junk cars I’ve had since I moved to Nashville. I gotta get a van.”

Suzette’s life in music began as a child raised in San Antonio.

“My family had a bluegrass band, The Backwoods Volunteers. I played upright bass. My dad played mandolin and my mom rhythm guitar,” she says, noting she began performing with the family outfit when she was “very young.”

“And besides us, we usually had a five-string banjo picker and a Dobro player,” she notes.

The Backwoods Volunteers bluegrass band stayed together for about 10 years – basically until her parents divorced – and “We’d travel to bluegrass festivals around the country. Even the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana,” where the Father of Bluegrass Music and creator of that high, lonesome sound had initiated the country’s oldest annual festival.

“I never played with him (Monroe), but I sure listened to him play a lot,” she says.

Suzette relished the years she spent with the family band, but notes her musical roots were planted much earlier in her life.

“When I was 6 years old, I begged my mom to teach me how to play a guitar. I’m always trying to tell the story about this big, apricot tree that every spring would blossom.

“I can remember sitting beneath that tree and my mom showing me how to do the G chord.”

Her mother also helped the family’s repertoire flourish as she wrote down the lyrics from their collection of 45 and 78 rpm recordings.

“My mom had a huge notebook where she had written these songs. She and I would sit together in the living room or on the patio,’’ mother teaching daughter such songs as “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “Blue Kentucky Girls.”

“I started singing harmony with my mom,” she recollects.

As noted, the divorce of her folks killed the band, freeing Suzette to take her music to L.A., the paradise city.

Should note that Suzette, a foreign languages major at Trinity University – “I speak French, German and Spanish” – has used that knowledge while capturing audiences during summer tours in Europe.

“It’s kind of fun for me to be playing rockabilly music and explaining it to the French people in their language.”

While the Neon Angel loves touring and entertaining, she always is glad to get back to her East Nashville apartment.

“I still love Nashville,” she continues, adding some reservations: “The traffic is getting terrible and there are all those high rises and all the good, old buildings are getting torn down.” Damn right.

Still she loves it.

“When I first moved to Nashville, East Nashville was kind of rough,” she says, of the section of town that has become one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods, a place where young people aiming for success in the music business settle.

“It’s kinda funky and kind of cosmopolitan at the same time. There are a lot of young people in this area, lot of coffee shops. Around Five Points is such a hip area.”

She declares it a “youthful and lovely environment,” with not a trace of irony, since she defies the calendar and feels a part of that hip, youthful culture.

Course she does play in East Nashville saloons, but she frequently crosses the Cumberland to perform at Robert’s Western World and other tourist-centric, neon-lighted joints on Lower Broadway, our own little Honky-Tonk Disney World.

Like most Nashville singer-songwriters ignored by Music Row, she always carries copies of her album. Her “Tear Up The Honky Tonk” is filled with lively rockabilly songs she has composed.

This woman who loves to swing dance and two-step in her free time – “that’s my favorite exercise” – is always poised for action in case someone summons her and her Gretsch guitar into Nashville’s neon night.

Suzette realizes now that the stardom she mistakenly thought The Neon Angels had achieved in the old Polygram studios back in the mid-1990s is not going to come to her. “I thought I was gonna be a star any minute. It was kinda depressing when that didn’t happen.”

This woman, who pays for her musical dreams with data-entry day jobs, hesitates. “I’d love to play the Grand Ole Opry. That’s one of my goals. I think that’s attainable.”

Regardless, the Neon Angel, keeps her cowboy boots well-polished … just in case. “I’m a positive person. Be positive. Learn more things. Have wonderful experiences touring.”

Nashville doesn’t have a lot of fairy-tale endings. That’s certainly demonstrated by Suzette’s ongoing struggles and the lack of the stardom she expected. “I was sad that things didn’t work out” long ago with Polygram, she says.

“Yet, here I am touring and playing music. And that’s OK. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”