Sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer sing as one
When Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer sing on the album “Not Dark Yet,” they’re two voices, and then one. Their vocals do a dance with a familial awareness of space - together, apart, together.
In conversation, they speak quite differently from one another, but for the fact that each addresses the other as “Sissy.” Moorer engages in talk generously. She can dig into a topic, but she also is capable of petty small talk.
Lynne, not so much.
I don’t know if she coined the phrase, “You can’t roll a joint on an iPod,” but she was among the first to utter it publicly. Her observations are clipped, funny and peppered with profanity.
I’ve always found Lynne to be a beguiling conversationalist. She ignores petty pitter patter entirely. And if she agrees with something you say, you get the least from her: “That’s true,” or, “I agree with that.”
Her most revealing space is mildly provocative disagreement, when Lynne engages with the sort of tense passion that has informed her music for 20-plus years. Conflict suits her better than compromise.
So when I use the phrase “sunset album” to describe “Not Dark Yet” - the first album these sisters have made together after putting out more than 20 on their own - Moorer agrees with thoughtful reservations.
“In a way, it’s like a sunset in reverse,” she says. “I think of the last track as a sunrise. A harbinger of what’s to come.”
Lynne digs in a little deeper.
″ ‘Sunset record,’ I like that, but be careful how you write it,” Lynne says. “There’s dark joy in that. You sound like a dark one, dear. But let’s be clear, you’re the writer, so just be careful how you write that. It’s all up to you.”
My point was that their new set of songs - one somber and moving original along with interpretations of tunes by Nick Cave, Bob Dylan, the Louvin Brothers, Jessi Colter and others - threads a needle’s eye of that space between hope and despair. It exists between dusk and dawn.
And it does so beautifully.
Neither Lynne nor Moorer, who will perform at The Heights Theater on Sunday, could recall the first time they sang together. “Since before we can remember,” Moorer says. “Certainly since before I can remember.”
Simple math puts the number of collaborative years at 40-plus. Lynne was born in 1968, Moorer 1972.
They grew up in Alabama, immersed in country music of the era. That explains three of the anchor songs on “Not Dark Yet”: Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings,” Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs” and the Louvin Brothers’ “Every Time You Leave.”
To those they added an intriguing mix: a later-era Bob Dylan song in “It’s Not Dark Yet”; a lovely Jason Isbell/Amanda Shires co-write, “The Color of a Cloudy Day”; “My List” by modern rock band the Killers; as well as “Into My Arms,” by Nick Cave, maybe the most unreligious religious song written. “You could sing it in church,” Lynne says, “if you’re high enough.”
The songs are united by the sisters’ voices, for sure. But together they also tell a larger story, with various points of view on connection and disconnection; those who love, those who leave, those who are left.
If the Killers’ song looks the oddest on paper, the opening lines reveal its connection to the album’s gravitational pull: “Let me wrap myself around you/You’ll show me how I see it.”
“That pretty much says what the record is,” Lynne says.
The sibling connection is a celebration on one hand, though Lynne twice references how she and Moorer “protect” one another. The choice of word isn’t random. In 1985, their mother fled from their abusive father, who tracked her down and, in front of the girls, shot and killed her and then himself.
Lynne’s role as big sister shifted to caretaker, even as she began to pursue a career as a country music singer in the late-1980s. Her career story is pretty well known thanks to a punchline that ridiculed the Grammy Awards more than it did her: Lynne won a best new artist Grammy in 1999 for ” I Am Shelby Lynne.” This particular new artist had been recording for a decade at that point; it was her sixth album.
Moorer released her first album a year earlier. Each has had a push/pull relationship with Nashville, with some successes and some conflict about what sort of recording artists they could or could not be.
Neither wavered. Country music trends change, and so did both sisters, though neither changed with those trends. Over 20 years, each charted a course independently. Both find embrace in the Americana sphere.
Nearly 20 years ago, Lynne recorded a song, “Miss You, Sissy,” that hinted at some separation between the two.
“We talk three or four times a day,” Lynne says. “There were times we didn’t. It wasn’t because we didn’t want to. We were just doing other things. Life and things like that. But it’s a joy talking to Sissy anytime. And doing something like this record is something I was waiting on my whole life.”
Moorer enjoyed the process of making the record, but says she treasures the touring behind it more. “We haven’t had this much unbroken time together,” she says. “We spent time together, but not for such long stretches.”
The way they sing together suggests no lulls. The songs on “Not Dark Yet” don’t feel divvied up and assigned to two singers. Their collaboration possesses an easiness.
“Sometimes it takes just a movement of her head or a lift of her finger to know what she’s going to do,” Moorer says. “It’s not always intuitive, singing harmony. But one gesture, and it’s like, ‘I’m with you.’ I’ve been watching her mouth sing since I was 3 years old. I grew up trying to emulate Don Rich singing with Buck Owens. That was the template for me; the best I’d heard done. And they weren’t related. But you could tell they watched each other closely and knew each others phrasing. So I’ve been singing harmony with her that way, almost since I was born.”
Lynne brings up having sung with George Jones and Willie Nelson. “That taught me to watch close. Sometimes it’s just something you notice out of the corner of somebody’s mouth. It’s out before you know it. So there’s instinct, and there’s also a physicality to it.”
They close with the one original song, “Is It Too Much.” And true to Moorer’s comment, it does feel like a sunrise at album’s end. Thematically, it’s a declaration of commitment and shared experience. The song is disarmingly intimate and the writing just opaque enough to keep it from being an obvious commentary about their shared connection after a devastating familial tragedy: “No one else sees the memories. No one else lives it with me.”
The song is a perfect closer, one that begs you to the record’s first song to play it over again.
And the song also suggests a sunrise, in that both sisters will, sooner rather than later, sit together and find a set of tunes that lets their two voices again become one.