MU­SIC Sis­ters back to­gether and in har­mony

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - FRONT PAGE - By Greg Kot Tri­bune News­pa­pers

Al­li­son Moorer and Shelby Lynne are sis­ters who were singing to­gether while grow­ing up in ru­ral Alabama al­most since they could talk. So it may seem in­con­gru­ous that it took a cou­ple of decades into the singers’ re­spec­tive solo ca­reers for them to fi­nally col­lab­o­rate on an al­bum, “Not Dark Yet” (Thirty Tigers), out last week.

“We’ve been work­ing on this record all of our lives,” Moorer says in an in­ter­view. “I don’t re­mem­ber a time that I wasn’t singing with my sis­ter. There’s all that his­tory.

“Our col­lec­tive mu­si­cal mem­ory is re­ally strong, and we wanted to do this for a long time, but our ca­reers took us on dif­fer­ent paths. So lin­ing up the right time to do it was the tough­est part.”

The sis­ters have di­verged a bit mu­si­cally: Lynne has re­leased 13 solo al­bums dat­ing to 1989 that touch on every­thing from soul to rock, while Moorer has put out nine al­bums since 1998 that hew closer to her coun­try and folk roots. But their ear­li­est mem­o­ries are as har­mony singers in a mu­si­cal house­hold.

The fam­ily was shat­tered when the girls were teenagers. Their fa­ther and mother died in a mur­der­sui­cide af­ter a mar­i­tal breakup. Both artists have ad­dressed the loss in their mu­sic and in in­ter­views, and it par­tially ac­counts for some of the new al­bum’s dark tinge. But there’s also a beauty and em­pa­thy that sur­faces in “Not Dark Yet” that wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out their fam­ily’s early en­cour­age­ment.

The sis­ters’ grand­mother, who was one of 14 chil­dren, also learned to sing to­gether from an early age.

“We spent a lot of time in her house,” Moorer says. “She had a fam­ily group with our mama, and she tells a story of pre­par­ing for a July Fourth bi­cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion when I was al­most 4. They were do­ing this old song, ‘Heart of My Heart,’ and at the end I just joined in with a per­fect chro­matic scale. They looked at me like I had two heads.”

As the youngest mem­ber of the fam­ily “choir,” Moorer was drawn to har­mony singing.

“You can’t teach it,” she says. “My grand­mother says by the time I was 3 years old I was singing har­mony. We spent a lot of time driv­ing around with my mother. We didn’t have a ra­dio in the car, so we would sing to­gether.”

When it came time to record with Lynne, the sis­ters’ voices blended like they’d never been apart.

“There’s this thing about sib­ling har­mony. There is the same tone, tim­bre, and any two peo­ple can sing to­gether and it could be pretty, but it’s not elec­tric,” Moorer says. “When you have the same DNA, it buzzes — the mix, the chem­istry — and it’s also emo­tional.”

The wildly di­verse songs they chose to in­ter­pret on “Not Dark Yet” (from the Lou­vin Broth­ers’ “Ev­ery Time You Leave” to Nir­vana’s “Lithium,” plus one orig­i­nal) turn those emo­tions into a loose nar­ra­tive about the sis­ters’ lives. Here’s Moorer’s take on some of the key tracks and why they ended up on the al­bum:

“There were things we wanted to pull in from child­hood: the Lou­vin Broth­ers, Jessi Colter, Merle Hag­gard. I don’t re­mem­ber a time in my life when I didn’t know who Merle was. We had the good for­tune of hav­ing tapes of us singing when we were very small, and in one in par­tic­u­lar we were singing ‘Sil­ver Wings’ with our daddy. He said, ‘Al­li­son, who sings that song?’ And you can hear me say­ing, ‘Merle Hag­wood.’ I couldn’t have been more than 3.”

“I was into this HBO show, and that song came on as the end ti­tle of an episode. It just hit my nerves. Tears shot out of my eyes like a car­toon or some­thing. It’s a fan­tas­tic way to de­scribe a re­la­tion­ship carved in stone. It made me think of my sis­ter and how I think about her; you can’t get rid of each other even if you wanted to, and we wouldn’t want to. I wanted to throw it in the pile, but Sissy told me later, ‘I’m not sold on that.’ It took me sit­ting down with a gui­tar and play­ing it to show how we can turn this rock an­them into some­thing that works for us.”

“That song is so spe­cial be­cause the char­ac­ter that emerges is this beat­enup-yet-stoic be­ing. There is this en­ergy that is so know­ing, the kind of char­ac­ter who is very fa­mil­iar with the idea that things fall apart, and then you grow through it and change. I think we both have that sort of per­son­al­ity. Cer­tainly, the things we lived through to­gether, there are some not-great hap­pen­ings. It rep­re­sents this quiet strength. And also this feel­ing that who knows what’s go­ing to take me down, but some­thing will. But there is also hope there, which I think this al­bum has.” “Sissy brought that to the ta­ble. I dis­cov­ered that (Nick Cave’s) ‘Into My Arms,’ (Townes Van Zandt’s) ‘Lungs’ and ‘Lithium’ all have the com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor of God. We never spoke about that as a rea­son to sing those songs, yet there it is. I know maybe peo­ple don’t think of those songs in a spir­i­tual sense, but it’s there. We take the songs se­ri­ously, Nir­vana and Kurt (Cobain) se­ri­ously, but we were let­ting loose on that. It’s one take. It’s busy and screwed up, and we had a ball.” “We tried to make an al­bum to­gether six years ago, and it just wasn’t time. We were writ­ing to­gether, and it didn’t work. But now hav­ing writ­ten ‘Is It Too Much,’ we’re ready to write to­gether. I hope that’s the next step. We put that song last be­cause the best end­ings are be­gin­nings. That was Sissy’s song. She had the verses, and I wrote a bridge. She’s so ten­der and car­ing to­ward me in the words. It seemed like a per­fect way to say, ‘When you can’t lift your­self up, I’ll do it for you.’ There’s only two of us. We grew up in the mid­dle of the woods with no other kids around, so we spent a lot of our early lives with each other. We had each other to rely on and only each other. That song en­cap­su­lates our re­la­tion­ship.” Greg Kot is a Tri­bune critic.

JA­COB BLICKENSTAFF PHOTO

Shelby Lynne, left, and Al­li­son Moorer have re­leased 22 solo al­bums be­tween them. Their first col­lab­o­ra­tion, “Not Dark Yet,” was re­leased last week.

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