Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer: Mining Magic From Pain

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Siblings Shelby Lynne (left) and Allison Moorer (Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Alice Walker once asked if solace was anymore comforting than that in the arms of a sister. If there is any doubt that this is the case, look no further than the relationship between singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne and younger sibling Allison Moorer. The two released Not Dark Yet, the first full-length studio collaboration between the two that they’re out on the road promoting.

Save for the song “Is It Too Much,” the remainder of the album consists of covers of disparate artists ranging from the expected Merle Haggard, Jason Isbell the Louvin Brothers to the more far-ranging including Nirvana, Nick Cave and The Killers. While many of the songs were favorites of the duo, other choices date back to a childhood in a mix of happy memories of growing up and singing in the car together to the dark day when their father fatally shot their mother before taking his own life in the family driveway while the girls were inside the family home.

At a recent show at Manhattan’s City Winery, the emotional connection was palpable between the duo, as they duetted and took turns providing harmonies for the other. Quite often, Lynne would be proudly looking on as Moorer sang and on more than one occasion, proclaimed her adoration and admiration for her Sissy.

That horrible day was even addressed via the inclusion of Moorer’s “Easy in the Summertime,” a song Moorer wrote that she alluded to in prior interviews as being, “…recovery in three verses. The first part is what actually happened. The second verse is what I want to remember. And the third verse is how we survived it. Our parents aren’t with us anymore, so what we have from that time is each other.” By the set’s end, when the duo were singing Lynne’s “I’ll Hold Your Head,” a nod back to the twosome’s early years, Lynne’s tears had her sister embracing her while finishing up the song. Suffice it to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When asked about the difficulty of channeling that kind of emotional weight, Lynne admits it’s integral to what they were doing in the studio and on stage.

“It would be crazy to think that it doesn’t dredge up feeling from our childhood, singing together and who we are now and where we wound up. So it all plays a part in what we’re doing up there. We are now together as people, sisters and songwriters,” she said. “Sometimes, it can be emotional for me…and for her. Yeah, sure. It absolutely brings up a lot of emotional things and I think it’s good to be in touch with those things. But it’s a lot.”

Produced by Teddy Thompson, son of noted English singer-songwriters Richard and Linda Thompson, Not Dark Yet is the perfect showcase for the sisters’ blend of dulcet harmonies and passionate phrasing. The yearning infused into the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave” contains not a whiff of being overwrought while the Bob Dylan-penned title cut resonates with the same degree of ambiance and weight as the original that its author recorded on 1997’s Time Out of Mind.

Elsewhere, the two ease into a joyful reading of Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” a gem the two would often sing in three-part harmonies with their mother while driving around in the latter’s station wagon while listening to eight-track tapes. It’s a beloved memory Lynne shares on stage and recounts when talking about her Sissy’s emergence as a nascent singer.

“[Sissy] sang perfect harmony really early on. One day, a little voice just started singing the perfect missing third part. My momma and I looked at each other with a look that said, ‘Oh yeah, there it is,’” Lynne recalled. “It was just instant and we were both little when we started singing. When that little third voice came in like a bird, that was the trio.”

While touring commitments will eat up the remainder of the year and the foreseeable future, the sisters are definitely primed to return to the studio to cut a slate of all-original material, schedules permitting. While there have been offers to appear together on a number of unnamed tribute projects, Lynne is more interested in taking this recording collaboration to a more fully realized level.

“We do know that we’re doing it, we just don’t have an idea of when it’s going to happen,” she said. “We hope to have at least begun it within a year to try to put something together. But who the hell knows, man?”

As for anyone lucky enough to catch Lynne and Moorer performing together, what they’ll experience is a complete lack of artifice. The room winds up being permeated by the kind of raw emotion and love coming off the stage that threatens to classify anyone who doesn’t get a lump in their throat and reaching for a hankie as being clinically dead. It’s something Lynne readily acknowledges.

“I don’t think Sissy and I have any passion to hide it. We’re pretty much open wounds, but we protect ourselves within each other,” she said. “It would be silly for us to go out there and think we wouldn’t be moved or emotional in a lot of places that we’re traveling in these songs, what they mean and why we chose them. We want to share that with people who come out.”

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