Back in 1983, the Stray Cats had a top-five hit with "(She's) Sexy + 17." Two decades later, one of Seattle's best-loved music institutions also remains hot at 17: the Shake the Shack Rockabilly Ball. Presented at the Tractor Tavern by KEXP, the ball--the longest running rockabilly festival in the U.S. --turns 17 this week. And it's looking, and sounding, better than ever.

Stretching over three days (Sept 23-25), the Rockabilly Ball is a far sight bigger than it was in its infancy, according to Dr. Leon Berman, AKA the Proctologist of Rock & Roll (just whom did he have to finger to get that title?). Berman, the host of "Shake the Shack," KEXP's Friday night extravaganza of rockabilly, country, and rhythm and blues, says the first Rockabilly Ball, launched at the now-defunct Backstage in 1987, drew just a couple hundred patrons to see three bands.

This year's program includes a dozen groups from as far away as Denmark. Saturday afternoon is also the Shake the Shack Car Show at the Shanty Tavern in Lake City, where auto fans can vote on the superlative entries in a dozen categories, including Best Muscle Car and Best Rat Rod, while digging more live music. But the highlight of the Ball promises to be Thursday night's kickoff, a special Ladies Night devoted exclusively to all-female and female-led ensembles.

Seattle is represented on this special bill by two bands: Jo Miller and Her Burly Roughnecks, and the reunited Donettes. If you haven't checked out the former at their Thursday night Little Red Hen residency, you're in for a treat. Ex-Ranch Romance frontwoman Miller and her cronies--including accordion player Nova Devonie--lay down a sweet yet hard-edged country swing, laced with vocal harmonies that rival the Jordanaires; check out their self-released CD Live & Then Some for a sample.

And even though Donettes singer Rebecca Kemberling now calls Austin, TX home, getting the quintet back together for a gig wasn't as tough as Berman anticipated. "I told Rebecca I'd roll myself in flour for her," he confesses. "Hell, I'd jump out of a cake for them." I'll just be happy if they rip through their rendition of Ruth Brown's 1958 hit "This Little Girl's Gone Rockin'," one of the highlights from their 2003 Kick Off the Covers EP.

The timing for this special program, which also features Los Angeles' Dawn Shipley & the Sharp Shooters and Chicago's the Honeybees, couldn't be better. It comes just as Wanda Jackson, the Queen of Rockabilly (with whom the Donettes have toured), has been nominated for inclusion in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. More proof that the contributions of the great women of classic rockabilly--Jackson, Janis Martin, Lorrie Collins, Rose Maddox--should not be underestimated. "Almost every female-fronted rockabilly group tries to emulate them," observes Berman, "right down to their singing styles." Don't agree? Show up Thursday and decide for yourself.

kurt@thestranger.com

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