When Kathleen Stieffel, Rhonda Lohmeyer and Sharon Leger first decided that they wanted o assemble an all-female country band, their reasons had less to do with sex than with sound.
"We had the strong vocals but we wanted them backed with women," explains Stieffel over the phone. "We wanted that sweet harmonic thing happening. I've worked in a lot of bands with guys who sing excellent harmony, but you just can't nail it the way we wanted it done unless it's with women.
"We wanted a feminine sound, there's no question about it."
And Evangeline -- the group these three eventually assembled -- does indeed make the most of its womanly vocals. That much is obvious in the richness of the singing, which ranges from the close-harmony chorus of "Bayou Boy" to the folkie clarity of "Gulf Coast Highway," to the slow, sweet sadness of "Carrying a Torch."
But there's more going for this band than mere vocal ability. After all, not only do these women play as well as they sing, but they've managed to develop a sound that draws from country, zydeco, rock, reggae and R&B; -- a stylistic range that makes it easy for them to slip from the gospel chorus of "By the Rivers of Babylon" to a red-hot Cajun tune like "Bon Temps La Louisiane."
Stieffel credits fiddler Nancy Buchan and keyboardist Beth McKee with giving the group its stylistic range. "Beth came on about nine months ago, and has a heavy R&B; background," she says. "Nancy's contribution is rock. Her hero, I think, is like Jimi Hendrix, and she plays really wild and out there.
"When we added Nancy and Beth, it really took on a different flavor. And the drummer, Dudley Fruge, is from Lake Charles, La. You just have to have a Louisiana drummer for the kind of music that we play."
Maybe that's why the group was such an instant success in its hometown of New Orleans. Stieffel says the group got its first big break when it won a city-wide contest to play at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival. "We were mystified," she laughs, "because we'd only been together for six weeks at the time. We just sort of threw something together."
It may have been hastily assembled, but it got the attention of Jazz Fest head Quint Davis, who boosted the band at every opportunity. "Apparently he and Jimmy [Buffett] chum around together when Jimmy's in New Orleans," Stieffel says. "Jimmy was talking about starting his own record label, and Quint says, 'Have I got the band for you.'
"Next thing you know he brought him down to the club that we were playing at. We met him, and in a few days they made us an offer, and we accepted. It was just that quick."
In addition to being the first act signed to Buffett's Margaritaville label, Evangeline will be opening for him all summer. But given the near-fanatical enthusiasm of his fans, isn't the band a bit anxious about having to go on first every night?
"Oh, we're excited," answers Stieffel. "We sort of had a taste of his crowd at the Jazz Fest in New Orleans this year. We opened for him out there and there were about 24,000 people present. That was the dress rehearsal, so to speak; we know what to expect.
"We're ready now."
When: Opening for Jimmy Buffett tonight, tomorrow and Sunday 7 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Columbia.
Tickets: $27.50 for pavilion seats, $20 for lawn; Saturday is sold out.
Call: (410) 730-2424 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.