December 10, 2009

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Sweet, hot and hoping for a holiday reunion
Female trio mixes harmonizing and bluegrass in songs old and new
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

Sweet, Hot and Sassy were a big musical item in the 1990s, specializing in a melodic marriage of Andrews Sisters-inspired harmonies and bluegrass traditions. The trio took a knack for reviving oldies and reinventing contemporary hits like the Judds’ “Mama He’s Crazy” and built a solid regional following.

By the end of the decade, though, the group’s members had gone their separate ways. Ellen Carlson was the first to leave, in 1999. “I was working on my Master’s,” Carlson said recently from her home in Tilton. “I was playing with a lot of people, and I was just burning out.”

Mary Maguire and Val Blachly recruited two other musicians and continued as a quartet, Sweet, Red, Hot & Sassy, for a while before turning to solo projects. Since leaving the band, Maguire has fronted her own eponymous group, while Blachly has played with Tim Mowry, Mink Hills Bluegrass Band and most recently the ’30s & ’40s-themed Swing the Cat.

Despite the breakup, the three stayed friends.  Over the years, they’ve frequently joined each other to make music. Sweet, Hot and Sassy even reunited for a few one-off gigs, many at house parties for friends. They never tired of playing together, says Carlson.

“That’s the way the musical community works. When you find someone you work well with, you stick with that,” she says, adding that when the band split, “there was no falling out, we were just at different times in our lives.”

Late last summer, the three began planning a series of reunion shows, to culminate with a holiday performance at the former Franklin Opera House, now known as The Middle. “We did the last reunion because our Christmas album [1992’s Swingin’ ‘Round the Christmas Tree] was so popular,” Carlson said. “In our heyday, Christmas was so big for us. We stayed so busy. We did concerts at the mall on weekends. We enjoyed doing it. So we thought we’d do it again this year.” Then came devastating news.“Mary got cancer.”

Mary McGuire was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in September, and soon was undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Performing plans were put on hold as Maguire focused on her recovery. Miraculously, though, encouraging news began to arrive. The cancer was found early, on the inside of her ovaries, making it easier to remove. With four rounds of chemo behind her and two more to go, Maguire has an amazingly positive outlook.

“I’m feeling really well, so I might join them for a few songs,” said Maguire on Nov. 29. 

“I’m suffering more from the chemo than the cancer,” she added. The laparoscopic treatments are very debilitating, but she’s cautiously optimistic that by Dec. 12, the date of the show, the ill effects will have passed.

The plans aren’t set in stone, obviously. Maguire may end up performing off stage to avoid contagions. But everyone is hopeful that the planned reunion will happen, however briefly, and the in any case the night will include rousing performances from Swing the Cat, with Carlson sitting in as guest fiddler.

Carlson remains confident that trio will be able to perform.

“Mary has a great new tune she just wrote called ‘Winter Whiteness,’ which is not on our album,” she said. “It’s something she wrote when we were doing our last Christmas thing. We’re also doing ‘Star of Wonder’ and ‘There Was a Little Baby.’”  

This Christmas miracle is made even better by Blachly and Carlson’s announced plans to donate the show’s proceeds to help ease Maguire’s financial burdens — she hasn’t been able to work since getting sick. Maguire says that in addition to the recommended hospital treatments, she’s been receiving holistic therapy.  “My sister had cancer six years ago and survived, and she did natural healing techniques like Reiki and energy healing, so I’m trying it,” Maguire said. “I like the idea of endorphins — laughter as medicine.”


Hear it live
Who: Sweet, Hot and Sassy
Where: The Middle NH Arts & Entertainment Center, 316 Central St., Franklin, 934-1901,
When: Saturday, Dec. 12, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $17, www.themiddlenh.org