By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
A concert by the Four Bitchin’ Babes is equal parts folk festival, stand-up comedy revue and sleepover with your best friends. Their albums include “Gabby Road” – on the cover the Babes are photographed in a crosswalk talking on cell phones while carrying shopping bags – “Hormonal Imbalance,” “Diva Nation” and “Mid Life Vices.” The group was created by Christine Lavin, who decided back in 1990 that it would be fun to tour with a group of talented singer-songwriter friends.
At least 11 women – Lavin, Sally Fingerett, Megon McDonough, Patty Larkin, Debi Smith, Deirdre Flint, Julie Gold, Camille West, Nancy Moran, Marcy Marxer and Suzzy Roche – have served as permanent Babes during the ensuing 32 years. Fingerett is the only member who has been with the group the entire time, while Smith, a Northern Virginia native, has been a Babe since 1994.
The Four Bitchin’ Babes recorded their first album, “Buy Me, Bring Me, Take Me, Don’t Mess My Hair,” during a 1990 concert at The Birchmere. Their upcoming concert at The Birchmere on June 11 is their last scheduled tour date and billed as possibly their final performance.
Times Publisher Denise Dunbar spoke with Smith last week about what it means to be a Babe, her outside career and the decision to wind down the Babes.
Denise Dunbar: How did the Four Bitchin’ Babes begin?
Debi Smith: The Four Bitchin’ Babes is sort of Christine Lavin’s brainchild, because she was touring a lot and she had the idea, and I think she might even have dreamed that she was out on the road with a bunch of her girlfriends.
DD: How did you become a Babe?
DS: Christine was putting on a songwriter’s retreat [on Martha’s Vineyard] and they saw me there, and then they had me substitute for Christine when she was sick once, and they decided that I was a good fit. So, then I was the next Babe. That was 1993 but I officially came in in 1994. And then it has had revolving chairs ever since. We’ve had Nancy Moran, we’ve had Suzzy Roche of the Roches and Deirdre Flint is a current member. Christine’s come back in. Megon’s come in and out. … Sometimes we need a sub and we call in some people that we’re buddies with. Camille West is another one. We kind of settle into a groove for a while and then somebody’s got to go do something or have a baby or something.
What is the concept behind the Four Bitchin’ Babes?
We’ve always been a group that sort of responds to whatever women of our age are going through. We’ve sort of taken our fans with us, because they can relate to so many of the things that we sing about. And as we get older, the things we sing about change. … The things that are affecting us aren’t just our age group. We just cover a lot of topics that people can understand. At a certain point … that was a conscious decision to appeal to women more. … It really went well to do that.
Your use of humor is great. I chuckled all day after you sent me the ‘Gabby Road’ album cover.
I know, that’s a good one, isn’t it? That was so much fun to shoot. And the one before it, ‘Beyond Bitchin’’ where we have a takeoff on The Beatles’ cover with half the faces. Oh my gosh. … And Deirdre sings, ‘The Boob Fairy (Never Came for Me).’ … And Christine has the classic, ‘Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind’ and ‘Bald Headed Men.’
Did it take a while to come up with the right mix of individual, group and humor?
I think it’s really more about picking the right Babe. Picking the right person to be a Babe, because they get us immediately, and we get them immediately. And so, everything kind of falls into place. It’s funny because when I saw the Babes before I was in it, when they asked me to be in it, I went, ‘Oh, I guess I do have songs like that.’
I’ve seen the Babes before, and your concerts leave people feeling good.
We want people to go out feeling energized, better than when they came. We want to have a positive charge we’re putting out there. I think that’s always been part of our appeal. … I had someone say to me [after a show], ‘I feel like I’ve just been to a really good therapy session.’
Does one of you take the lead on material and planning?
At first, it was Christine more. And then when Christine left, I think it shifted to everybody and then it more to Sally and I because we had a specific sort of goal in mind and we were the most regular babes at that point. … At that time, we decided to run it a little more as a business. So, the last few albums we co-produced.
Tell me more about your background. Where are you from?
I grew up here, in Falls Church … in Fairfax County Public Schools. And I was always a singer when I was younger. Even in elementary school. I didn’t really start playing the guitar, a little bit in high school and more in college. I was in a folk trio in college that was pretty popular on campus, The College of Wooster in Ohio. When I got out of college – I was a psychology major – and took my guitar with me, I was busking in San Francisco and then overseas. … I noticed I was having a lot of success. I was blocking traffic. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve got something going on here.’ When I came back, I started performing at bars in the area. … And then my sister came home from college, Megan, and I found out she could sing. So, we started singing together. … Merle Watson wound up recording our first two albums. Doc sat in on them. … We had actual LPs out. The Smith Sisters. At a certain point I had my child, Lee, and Megan decided to try something else for a while. And then I met Al Petteway and started playing with him for a while. At that point in time is when I met the Babes.
Did you play The Birchmere as The Smith Sisters before you joined the Babes?
Yes, our first album, our debut concert, was at The Birchmere. That was very exciting. Your first album is so memorable. Back then, you get your big box of LPs in the mail. … Our debut concert was in 1983. I’ve been around a while.
What’s it like to play The Birchmere?
We’re so blessed to have The Birchmere. It’s an amazing club when you compare it to a lot of other venues. There’s just a familiarity to it that’s just so open and friendly and comfortable.
Did you meet your husband, Michael [Jaworek, vice president/promoter of The Birchmere] from playing there?
No, I met Michael before [he was at] The Birchmere. I met him first, before I was in The Smith Sisters, I was in an all-women Irish group called ‘The Hags,’ and Michael came out. He was actually at the University of Maryland as the promoter there. … We got married in ’86.
Is this the Babes’ last tour, or possibly last tour?
We are winding it down. I think COVID kind of slowed us all down a bit and we may do a gig off in the future. We’re not saying no gigs never, ever again. But we’re not actively touring after this. For myself personally, I’ve been doing this a long time. And I guess I’m kind of enjoying being home. I just released a solo CD during COVID [‘Then and Now’]. And I’m writing a book with my mom that’s based on her writing since 1947. I’m ready to record more albums. I learned that over COVID. I learned how to record and put instruments down. So, I’ve got plenty of things I can do still in music, just not necessarily touring.
Have you performed since COVID-19?
We just did two dates in Ohio. We actually recorded a PBS TV show, which is called ‘Songs at the Center.’ We did a show in Columbus, which is Sally’s hometown. And we’re doing a show in my hometown. We had some other gigs that we just didn’t reschedule. … We said, ‘We’ll keep these two and see where we are when these shows roll around. We kind of looked at each other and went, ‘You know, I think it’s OK to stop right now.’
Has Christine’s vision for the Babes, to have fun on the road with girlfriends, come true?
It’s like a traveling pajama party. It’s so much fun. Are there moments when we’ve got to work through some stuff? Yes, of course. But we always do. I love these girls. I love them. They’re my dearest friends.
What else do you want readers to know?
Just come. We want to see you. We love our audiences. Our audiences are amazing. They’re warm. We love to see our people, anybody that wants to come out there and hang out. We’re looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.