Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are a fascinating study in contrasts. Three years apart in age, Lynne is the older of the two but readily admits Moorer is the more practical of the pair. Although both did their time in Nashville, Moorer now lives in New York City and Lynne has called California home for nearly two decades. Lynne is notoriously private, while Moorer has just completed work on a memoir detailing the sisters’ upbringing in Alabama, addressing the events that took place 31 years ago this month, when their father shot and killed their mother before turning the gun on himself. Moorer was 14 at the time; Lynne was 17.
Having addressed the tragedy in a handful of songs on their respective solo albums, which now total more than 20, the sisters, for the very first time, have written a song together that expresses in stark, atmospheric detail the bond that only grew stronger in the wake of their parents’ deaths. “Is It Too Much” closes Not Dark Yet, which is otherwise a collection of cover songs in which each tune relates aspects of both their individual or shared musical experiences. Marking the first full-length project Lynne and Moorer have recorded together, it’s hard to refer to it as a “duets” album since, for all of their differences as individuals, their performances come through as a single voice – soul-baring and chilling.
The remaining nine cuts on the LP range, as their combined tastes do, from Nirvana and Nick Cage to Merle Haggard and the Louvin Brothers. Rolling Stone Country spoke to the sisters (who frequently refer to each other as “Sissy”) about the long-awaited project (out now) and the inspiration for many of the song choices.
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Is it more challenging to do a project with another person involved as opposed to doing a solo record?
Shelby Lynne: Oh, it feels as natural as breathing. We’ve been wanting to do it a long time. A long time. It just seems like I could relax, which I rarely do. It just seems like the puzzle finally fit.
Allison Moorer: I had a lot going on. Plus, I have a little boy and I kind of had to wait on a window where I wouldn’t have him with me, when his father could take him, because trying to record a record and be on mama duty all the time can be very challenging when you don’t have a nanny. Even when you do! I find that when John Henry [Moorer’s 7-year-old son with former husband, musician Steve Earle] is in my sight, that’s what I’m concentrating on. Or if I know he’s down the street, that’s what I’m concentrating on. If I know he’s with his dad in the Bahamas or something, I don’t worry as much.
How did the writing of “Is It Too Much” come about?
Moorer: She probably had it halfway done. But she threw it in the pile of songs and said let’s work on this together. And that particular song I feel like is a harbinger of things to come. We really do love each other enough to pick up the other’s load. We may not always be on the same page, we may not always see things the same way, but that doesn’t matter. Nobody knows me quite like she does and vice versa. That makes for interesting music, and it makes for an interesting relationship in life … one I’m really thankful for.
Lynne: When I was inspired to do it, I was thinking all about her. The lives we lived, where we live and work, the choices we make, the things that we don’t have control of, the things that we’ve never had control of. When I look at her and we sing together, I love her so much that I just was moved to write something that I knew she would understand.
When you’re preparing to sing certain cover songs, how much do the two of you talk about what the song actually means to you, or what you think it’s about?
Moorer: Not that much. Growing up, for the most part, Sissy was the lead singer and I was the harmony singer, so those are sort of our natural positions, but with this, we changed it up quite a bit, so I have just as much lead as she does. There were some real no-brainers – “Silver Wings,” “Every Time You Leave,” “Looking for Blues Eyes” – that come directly from our childhood. Those needed to be included, to tell our story. And I see this as a story, like, here’s where we were, here’s where we are now. How did we get there?
Lynne: We did want to do a Dylan tune, but how do you choose which one to do? So, we tossed a lot of them around, and Sissy mentioned “Not Dark Yet” [off 1998’s Time Out of Mind]. I immediately listened to Bob and reminded myself how great that album was. I knew we could sing the shit out of that.
Why did you choose Not Dark Yet as the title?
Moorer: It just kept popping up, kept coming back to the top. We thought about calling it “Lungs” [after the record’s Townes Van Zandt cover]. We thought that was a little bit dark! [Laughs] But Not Dark Yet kept coming back up because it has hope in it, and I think hope likes us. It keeps coming toward us. “Into My Arms” [a Nick Cave tune that’s included] was the title for a minute.
Lynne: I love Nick Cave. That, to me, is a beautiful lyric. When Nick does song structure, he doesn’t do song structure. It’s just cool. That song says something that I wanted her to hear me sing to her. We are each other’s protector. We’ve gotten old enough now that we know absolutely nothing can come between us. We are each other’s guiding light.
Nirvana’s “Lithium” is one where it’s almost tough to tell which one of you is singing which part. The harmonies are pretty unique, too.
Moorer: It’s dissonant in a way. First of all, we just really love Kurt Cobain as a lyricist and musician and what he stood for. So we liked getting it in there for that reason, but also it’s sort of a strange tune, and it was a challenge for us. But you know, either one of us can sing harmony with the wind and the trees, so just give us a note and we’ll find a third and be off and find our way around those weird melodic things that maybe make the hair on your neck stand up – and not in a good way. [Laughs] I find that interesting and fun and weird and creepy.
Lynne: I had to throw a twist in there. I like all of Kurt’s writing and the musical choices he made, so I thought it would be interesting to add harmonies to such a … almost a weird music. That worked out. That was just a “one-take Annie.”
Teddy Thompson produced the record. Why did you choose him?
Moorer: He’s my brother-in-arms. There are great producers who are technically great, who get in there with the tweezers and re-write your songs and stuff, or they’d spend an hour or a whole day getting drum sounds. That’s all great, but I think for me, and for Sissy at this point, that’s not really what we’re looking for. What we look for, what I look for personally in a producer, is understanding. I was very familiar with his production work and I knew that he had done this record on the Thompson family. I just thought, boy, if he can do that, then he understands the family dynamic. And I think one of the reasons why he and I are close, close friends is we fall in the same birth order. There’s an older sister in both of our families, who’s way much more off the rails than we were allowed to be.
Lynne: Yeah, I’m the oldest. But she’s the more practical. And that’s in everything. When you know somebody so well it just feels good to be around them. You get to sing and perform, it’s just a blessing. But even though I’m the older one, she has a practical sense that I’ve never had, even as little kids.
What was it about Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” that made you want to record it?
Moorer: I’ve been intrigued by it from the first time I heard it. It’s incredibly mysterious to me, and I like songs that I can’t figure out right away. I can listen to it 25 times and get something different every time. I like trying to figure out what’s going on because there are things hidden in that song that you could spend the rest of your life figuring out. I think the inclusion of a Townes Van Zandt song, when you’re talking about a covers record, it just needs to be there.
With songs like “Silver Wings” or “Every Time You Leave,” is it easier to stick close to what’s familiar, or are you tempted to interject things that are different enough to make it your own?
Moorer: Those songs are like falling off a log. Why change ’em? We grew up with those songs. We’ve been singing them since we could, since we had a memory to remember a lyric. There’s not been a day of my life I didn’t know who Merle Haggard was.
Lynne: Well, we put a lot of chord changes in them. I call them the Billy Sherrill chord changes, the modulations. But we tried to stay in service of the original records, so it was like Sissy said. We did “Silver Wings” and we cut a record that Merle would like. And the same with the Louvins’ song. We take such pride in the history of music, knowing a lot about it, appreciating it. It stays pretty important for us to keep a record intact as it originally was, and then just adding to it.
Do you remember when you realized that you were singing harmony?
Moorer: I don’t, but I know that I was surrounded by it all the time. My grandmother tells me I started when I was three. There’s a story that she likes to tell every now and then. It was 1976, so this must have been right before my fourth birthday. She had a singing group with two of her nieces and a sister and Mama. They were practicing at my grandmother’s house, and I was playing under the piano or something, and they were doing this old standard called “Heart of My Heart” [Sings “Heart of my heart / I love that melody“]. They’re doing their four-part, five-part thing. Aunt Margaret was playing piano. And at the end, Nanny says that I just looked up from under the piano, and I did this perfect chromatic scale. Sissy and Mama were singing and I chimed in, and they just sort of looked at each other.
It’s not like this foreign thing. Music was never foreign to us. It was not special to me in any way that Daddy had a reel-to-reel recorder set up in the living room and he would tape us. It wasn’t special to me that we would go have singing at my grandmother’s, or we would go play the flatbed trailer at the Third Street Festival or something. It was just what we did. I had no idea other people didn’t do this. I didn’t really know it until later, and I went, “Wow, we’re like traveling carnival people.” [Laughs] We still are.
Now that you’re not living there anymore, what do you think about Alabama and how that shaped who you are and who you are to each other?
Lynne: I think about it every day. I’m a country person. I mean, there’s no way I would be able to live in New York City like Sissy. I’m lucky I live in Los Angeles because I have a tucked-away little spot, so I really don’t know I’m living in crazy L.A. until I get out on Sunset, and I go, “Oh my God, I’m living in Los Angeles!” Because there’s something about being brought up in the woods, for sure. We only had each other, and that’s the truth. There were no other people. It’s not like Sissy and I had sleepovers or anything like that growing up because school was 20 miles away.
Moorer: I just turned in my memoir to my agent and I’m sure I’ll have to go through more editing, but Hayes [Carll, Moorer’s boyfriend] said to me, “It’s so enlightening for me to read this because I understand your relationship with your sister so much better.” There are sibling bonds and there’s that. We’re bonded in more than that way. We share the same parents, we grew up in the same house. We also have a deep trauma bond. That’s something that, it’s almost like soldiers who were in the same company, who’ve been through a war. You never forget that experience that you had together, and you can go off and do different things, but when you’re with that person, you know what you share, and you know that no one else gets it.