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