Carlene Thornton’s reputation as a lean, mean, singin’ machine preceded her, so it was no surprise when other musicians in Waldo County began to seek her out. The 52-year-old Liberty-based vocalist had already become popular in the Midcoast for her appearances performing the songs of Janis Joplin – and for her karaoke skills – so when guitarist Bob Strusz called her up at work and asked her to sing with the new blues band he was putting together, Thornton was ready.
“They were looking for a female vocalist,” said Thornton, who by day is a corrections officer at the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office. “‘Well, you know what, I’m gonna give it a shot!’ I thought. Why not, you know?”
Bassist Steve Mellor came along for the ride, and Tim Woitowitz, formerly of the band Steel Rail Express, joined in on drums. That was two years ago; now the Juke Rockets, as they’re known, have quickly become one of Maine’s premiere blues acts, and have found themselves as one of the more than 200 acts from around the world that will descend on Memphis, Tennessee from Jan. 29 to Feb. 2 to compete in the International Blues Challenge.
The IBC, held by the Blues Foundation, can be a stepping stone to blues stardom for some people, including Eden Brent, Fiona Boyes, Susan Tedeschi, Albert Castiglia and Tommy Castro. The Juke Rockets, all of whom are veteran Maine musicians, are hoping that this might just be their big break. Their sound is traditional full band blues, mixed with a little r&b and swing, the hopped-up style made popular by B.B. King – though with Thornton’s big, powerful, soulful vocals giving it a bit of a rock n’ roll edge.
“You know, we’ve all been around a long, long time, so we’re just happy in the end to go out and play music and have fun,” said Woitowitz. “But to have this chance – wow, that’s something else.”
The Juke Rockets won the chance to compete last year, when they performed in the Maine Blues Society’s Road to Memphis Challenge. To their delight, they won the whole shebang, and have spent the past months traveling up and down the state, playing gigs nearly every weekend, getting even tighter, stronger and better as a band. To raise money for their trip south, they had a big fundraiser concert at the Time Out Blues Pub in Rockland, and later, had their live show critiqued by North Atlantic Blues Festival boss man Paul Benjamin.
“I think the four of us have great chemistry, and we hit it off in a big way,” said Thornton. “It’s a big group effort. Nobody is the boss. And I can’t believe I get to do this all the time, and just sing and entertain people and get all dress up in sparkly dresses. The sparkly dresses are my thing. I like my bling.”
Before they head off to Memphis, they’ve got one more gig in Maine – Jan. 19 at Chummies in Ellsworth, on the heels of their popular appearance at Bangor’s Downtown Countdown New Year’s Eve event. When they return from Memphis, they might be one of the next big things. But even if they don’t win it all, they’ll still be hitting the road, playing the music they love best.
“Even if we don’t win, I get to go to Graceland and eat barbecue,” said Thornton. “That’s not so bad, either.”
For more information, visit the Juke Rockets on Facebook. Tim Woitowitz also has a compilation album of Maine music titled “The Stockton Project,” which raises money for Waldo County’s BCOPE program’s new music school; it’s available on iTunes and Amazon for download.