On their website, Sugar Shot describe themselves as “hyper-active country with a shot of rock n’ roll.” They could also add “thoughtful, business-minded women looking to perfect their craft and show their fans one heck of a good time,” but perhaps that would start to verge on the verbose. Since this is a feature story, I get to be verbose, and lucky me, because this barely 2-year-old band is obviously the real thing. Sugar Shot began in 2009 as a gleam in frontwoman Jen Fisher’s eye. She was in Nashville attending a Keith Urban concert with a friend when she realized that starting a country band might not only make good financial sense, but would allow her to get back to her roots.
The former lead singer of local cover rock act Good Night Gracie, Fisher grew up listening to gospel and country music. She idolized Dolly Parton and The Judds, and it was because of Naomi and Wynonna that Fisher started singing in the first place.
So Fisher traded the world of rock n’ roll for the greener pastures of country music. Not that the decision to leave Good Night Gracie was an easy one. She cherished her time with that band, but said that it was another trip – this one to Mexico – that convinced her that fronting a strictly cover band was no longer for her.
“I was preparing for that trip and I noticed that I was really missing my own original music and the songwriting side of things,” she said. “I kind of lost that with Good Night Gracie, since we were mostly doing cover party stuff. And while I was in Mexico I rediscovered my passion for writing. I came home wanting to get back to making original music.”
It turned out that Fisher’s timing was impeccable. Good Night Gracie had found a temporary replacement for her in Amanda Kittredge-Prieur, and the band was able to make a smooth transition from singer to singer. Fisher was now free to realize her dream of forming a country band, and she was particularly interested in getting a few women to join her up front. Enter Gwendra Turney, a local, classically trained violinist usually seen performing in the funky, jazzy, world music act Rhapsody in Wax.
Turney was just seven when she picked up her first violin. It was natural that she would begin so early, given that her whole family was musical. What was perhaps less natural is that for a period of 13 years she gave it up. Didn’t touch so much as a bow. Later her husband Mark, an accomplished musician in his own right, convinced her to begin again.
“He told me I should get my violin out of the closet, dust it off and see what I could do with it,” said Turney. “I took a few lessons and it all started to come back to me.”
Unlike Fisher, Turney didn’t have extensive knowledge of country music. She preferred world music and has tried her hand at a number of instruments, the more exotic the better. Perhaps that’s how she was able to learn an entirely new playing style so quickly.
“I was so impressed with Gwendra and how, having never really played the fiddle styling, she took to it like gangbusters,” said Fisher.
Turney and Fisher met in the spring of 2010, which was also when they brought Mike “Lou” Grant (drums) and Pete Jacobs (bass) into the fold. All that was missing was Jill Engerman, guitarist, building designer and closet songwriter. Actually, a bit of a closet guitar player as well. To hear her tell it, Engerman was almost a no-show at her Sugar Shot audition. The former pageant queen was not necessarily a victim of stage fright. She’d been on stage plenty of times, but this time she’d have to have her guitar with her.
“I got a call from a friend and he said, ‘You have an audition for a country band.’ He’d set it up for me, and I said, ‘I’m not doing it. No way.’ For years I’d been sitting in my basement, playing my guitar by myself. I was terrified to play in front of people. I’d only played in front of my own family once, so this audition, no, it was not happening. Up until a half-hour before I was supposed to be there I was still thinking I wouldn’t go, but then I just decided to go through with it, and they hired me on the spot.”
Sugar Shot immediately caught the ear of Neon Armadillo owner Tony Raiffee, who began booking them to open for national acts like Lee Brice and Christian Kane. They recently served as local support to crooner James Wesley, whom they all describe as the nicest guy they’ve ever met.
Speaking of nice guys, Grant and Jacobs eventually bowed out of the band (Jacobs because he became a father for the third time and wanted to slow down and Grant because the two men pretty much came as a package deal) making Sugar Shot one of Fort Wayne’s only all-girl outfits and certainly its only country one. The fact that Sugar Shot are strictly female makes them unique and allows them to put a new spin on some old ideas.
“There are so many songs out there about guys going out and throwing back the beers together,” said Fisher. “Well, what about tunes about the ladies who want to do the same thing with their girlfriends? Our originals can and do appeal to both men and women, but we have a chance, given our lineup, to do something new.”
You can catch Sugar Shot at the Neon Armadillo opening for British sensation Emma King April 8 and Brad Eldridge April 16. They’ll also be playing a triple bill with Scarlet and Dave and Dave April 23 at the Neon, and will be putting together an all-acoustic set for Julia Meek’s Meet the Music in the next couple of months. On May 20 they’ll be playing a special concert at Bixler Lake dubbed the Icebreaker Wakefest, an all-day event that will feature not only live music but a wake boarding, surfing and skiing competition to raise money for breast cancer research.
In addition to these gigs, the ladies of Sugar Shot have big plans that include learning a few new instruments to enrich their sound – Engerman is looking to pick up the mandolin and harmonica and Fisher hopes to add six-string banjo to her resumé – and dropping an all-originals album some time in the near future.
And who knows? Maybe a band that began as an idea in Nashville will end up there, with these Fort Wayne country girls getting some national attention for fun-loving music you want to play from your front porch or blast out the windows of your pickup truck.
“If we’re being honest that’s obviously something we would love to have happen,” said Fisher. “Right now we all have backup plans that include our day jobs, and we’re loving just doing what we do – playing out twice or three times a month for great crowds – but we would definitely welcome an opportunity to have more recognition for what we do.”
“And add a tour bus to that equation,” joked Engerman. “Oh, and Keith Urban.”