As origin stories go, Striking Matches’ is a cute one. Symbolic, too. In a classroom full of college guitar majors, all the freshmen were asked to team up and prove their chops in front of the seasoned upperclassmen. A young woman from the Philadelphia suburbs was among the newbies, worried about representing her gender in a field dominated by men, as well as a nervous young man from a town north of Atlanta, silently pleading, “Please don’t put me with the girl.”
That was, of course, exactly what happened. Scrambling to save face in front of his older peers, the male student suggested to his female colleague that they should try to tackle some elementary, 12-bar blues. To his surprise, she whipped out a slide, stuck it on her finger and executed impressive, molten licks, instantly raising the bar.
Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, it turned out, were not only equals on their instruments — they were so well-matched that they wanted to continue jamming together, eventually abandoning their individual plans to seek gigs as side players and christening their collaboration Striking Matches.
They got their first taste of public attention when a finespun folk-pop ballad they’d written with Georgia Middleman, “When the Right One Comes Along,” was used to accentuate the emotional tension between fictional collaborators on an episode of ABC’s Nashville. Zimmermann and Davis landed several more songs on the show, even as they built their off-screen profile as a rare, coed duo of egalitarian singer-writer-players. They opened dates for pop-rock acts like Train, pop-smart country stars like Vince Gill and Hunter Hayes and tradition-steeped singers like Josh Turner and Ashley Monroe, the latter of whom hired Zimmermann to play lead for a few dates, and gained a fervent U.K. fan base.
None of this was lost on T Bone Burnett, who signed on to produce the duo’s full-length debut, Nothing But the Silence, out March 24th on I.R.S. Nashville. The über-producer strategically kept the studio band to a four-piece — Zimmermann and Davis, plus bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Fred Eltringham — recognizing that the two young lead players generate considerable rhythmic verve and memorable melodic point-counterpoint on their own, like the self-contained rock combos they revere, Cream and the Beatles among them.
As Burnett explains on the phone, “The initial thought was that [Sarah and Justin] had worked on the stuff so hard for a number of years that they almost had arrangements completed just with the two guitars. The two guitars can’t produce the kind of percussive impact that drums can, and they don’t go down to those octaves that a bass does. So we just wanted to expand the sound, and make it punchier, more driving.”
With a paternal chuckle, he adds, “These kids play good enough that I don’t feel like I’m just having to wait for them. They play good enough to play with Gregg Allman or the Punch Brothers.”
Burnett makes clear that he’s not just describing how rapidly Davis and Zimmermann can move their fingers around their fretboards. “I think being good, that’s where it starts,” he says. “Once you’re good, then you wanna try to be great. You wanna try to transcend just being good, just having facility, say. They’ve both got a lot of facility and chops and technique, but they wanna get past that to wherever Jimmy Reed got, you see?”
Rolling Stone Country sat down with Zimmermann and Davis in the Music Row office of their manager and label head, John Grady, which was, their publicist pointed out, formerly the office of a guitarist who left his own indelible mark on the sound and feel of country music: Chet Atkins.
You were both experienced guitarists when you teamed up. How green were you as singers and songwriters?
Sarah Zimmermann: We had both, I think, written for a long time, just for fun. I think you said one time that you were making up songs even before you really realized you were making up songs.
Justin Davis: Right.
Zimmermann: I started getting a little bit more serious about it in high school, probably. I had sung forever, but just kind of to myself. I don’t think I ever really saw myself being a professional singer. My mom’s a singer. My whole family’s really musical. So it was always part of my life. But not until we really got together did we feel like, “All right, we’ve got the guitar thing. Let’s also get the vocals to be stand-out and different and cool.”
I think neither of us, when we moved to town, wanted to be artists. Neither of us wanted the spotlight, which was kind of interesting and weird. And it was only after we met and became a band just organically, through no grand design of our own, we sort of developed a vocal sound together.
Considering you were each envisioning careers as side people, what’d it take for you to take this band seriously?
Zimmermann: We started doing writers rounds around town. Still playing for other people, still taking gigs. [When] people were starting to come up to us and say, “What’s your band name? Who are you?” We had to think about it: “I guess we are a band.” . . . There was a transition for sure where we had to get serious and be like, “All right, we’re going to change paths here.”
Davis: We’ve seen people who’ve come to town and they’re so sure that they want to be artists. And then they get here and they do the artist thing and they realize they hate it. . . I think we came to town envisioning that we wanted to be musicians, and in trying to just be side musicians, it strangled [our] creativity. Because when you get hired by someone else to play music, you have to play exactly what they want you to play; you have to play the record. Being the creative folks that we are, that was a little stifling. We had slowly begun to realize, “Wow, if we want to create music, and we’re writers, and we love being in the studio, and we love playing shows, and we love traveling, oh man. . ..” We wanted to be artists all along and didn’t even realize it.
Watching just the two of you open for Ashley Monroe a while back was like watching a guitar duel, trading all these flashy solos. Your performances aren’t like that anymore. How’d you figure out what to do with your chops and musical ideas?
Davis: It was tricky, because that was sort of our defining thing that we thought separated us from everyone else and made us unique. But too much of a good thing is just not a good thing anymore. We’ve been a band for five or six years, and you just refine it. You play so many shows and figure out that sweet spot between showing what you can do and also not covering up the songs that you’ve written and letting them speak and trying to stand on your own just as singers. We retained the cool thing that we always wanted to have, which was playing guitar together, without it being a guitar shred-fest.
Did you have any points of reference, any other singing, songwriting, lead-playing, coed duos to take notes from?
Davis: Not really. I think we wanted to be trailblazers. We had to steal comparisons almost, like, buffet style. We want to have the power-trio guitar element of Cream or Hendrix, but we want to have the vocal stuff of…
Zimmermann: Fleetwood Mac or the Civil Wars.
Davis: Or Beatles-style playing live [when] you’re recording, and songwriting from the country genre, but also from just classic-sounding love songs. Smush it all together and just make it all cohabitate.
I guess it’s scarier that way, to be someone who’s trying to blaze their own trail that other people would eventually follow. Maybe it takes a little longer to do. But it was really gratifying at the end, just feeling like we were doing something unique and we weren’t following someone else’s example.
It’s unique from multiple angles. Sarah’s often the only guitar-playing woman in the room. How has that mattered so far?
Zimmermann: I think it’s definitely opened the door for us a little bit. It’s something you don’t see very often. There are great women guitar players out there, but it’s not very often that you see a great woman guitar player and a great guy guitar player writing together and singing together, aside from Bonnie Raitt doing a duet with anybody. But as a band, it’s not really something you see. Les Paul and Mary Ford, maybe.
Davis: Derek Trucks.
Zimmermann: And Susan Tedeschi, yeah. You don’t see it very often. I think that’s helped. It’s just made people kind of look again, which is cool.
You mentioned the Civil Wars as a vocal comparison. They always seemed to be singing to each other. And when songs of yours like “When the Right One Comes Along” have appeared on Nashville, they’ve been used to convey intense intimacy between the characters singing them together. But it doesn’t seem like you’re singing to each other when you play live, even when sharing a microphone. How is your performing dynamic different from these others?
Davis: We tend to just present the song as the song. We’re not necessarily singing to each other — we’re singing with each other.
Zimmermann: As performers, you’re singing to the people who are listening, and you want them to feel like they’re a part of it. We don’t want them to watch our show and saw, “Aw, it’s so nice. They’re singing to each other.” We want to sing to them. And we want them to think, “Oh, I’m thinking of this person I love.” When you watch the Civil Wars, they are singing at each other, which is super cool. But I think it’s way cooler [for us] to involve the audience and make them a part of the story that you’re singing about.
You have a four-piece band with no additional players and no overdubbed layers on your album. Is that to make room for your arrangements?
Zimmermann: Yeah, definitely.
Davis: I think that’s the whole idea behind it. And that was something that we agreed on very much. T Bone felt that way as well going into it. When you have less presented and you only have four instruments being heard at a given time, each one of them has a voice and you can pick out each one of them on the record — as opposed to when you stack it and all of a sudden there’s 20 instruments on there. . . It’s just guitar, guitar, bass, drums. That’s the Rolling Stones. That’s the Beatles and Zeppelin. So it very much gave us the opportunity to speak and to convey the arrangements rhythmically.
Zimmermann: Yeah, and to let those grooves breathe. We’ve done recordings in the past that were a lot of stacked stuff, and we felt like it detracted from our voices, in a sense, with our playing and even from the grooves.
On the album, you introduce all the musical pieces of your puzzle pretty quickly. There’s a guitar vamp on the very first track. And the final minute of the second track is. . .
Davis: Full-on Sarah Zimmermann slide [guitar].
Zimmermann: We do that live and we really wanted it to be on the record. Even T Bone wanted it. So we didn’t think twice about the fact that it’s five minutes long. We have something to say in our guitar playing, so we really wanted to make sure it was on there. And if it’s on the second track, then you can start to dig a little deeper into the next songs.
Davis: Which get a little more lyric-heavy, a little more pensive. And we wanted to show those sides of us as well. But that guitar moment was so important to us.
We miss records that have those big guitar moments at the end of songs, like we used to love growing up, whether it was Zeppelin and “Stairway to Heaven” or something Hendrix would do, or Cream, Fleetwood Mac, any of those guys. It was such an incredible moment when we recorded it, because Sarah just knocked it out in one take. Everybody just sat back and started laughing. T Bone even mixed it on the same board as they made “Stairway to Heaven” and those Zeppelin records on.
You’ve been on tours with a variety of artists and had the chance to play in front of older and younger pop, rock and country audiences. Are you finding that different crowds connect more with different aspects of what you do?
Davis: Yeah. The audience absolutely matters, but also the setting. With Train, we played a Red Rocks show [in Denver], which was a loud rock amphitheater. That was definitely more of a full-on rock & roll show. I think the audience definitely locked in on the playing and the fact that we were going at it as hard as we could. Versus something like the Bluebird Café here in town or a more country setting, where the songs really speak, a song like “When the Right One Comes Along” is just such a moment. It forces you to be very adaptable as an artist and as a performer. And that’s something that you just learn by doing it — a lot.
Zimmermann: But it seems like across the board, even going from Josh Turner’s crowd at the Ryman [Auditorium] to Train’s crowd at Red Rocks, they seemed to get excited about the same things.
So you don’t feel that you have to prove you belong on a country bill, or a pop, rock or roots one?
Davis: Doing your best to know the audience that you’re playing for and try and deliver, and also be yourself at the same time, that’s a tricky tightrope to walk. Usually the thing that gets the biggest response is just us getting up and having a blast, just having fun together and playing our guts out.