Thinking of The Whitmore Sisters as “new artists” is in itself a funny idea; Eleanor Whitmore and her younger sister Bonnie are names that have been looming large in alt-country and Americana circles for the last decade and a half. But this project is the first time they will have crossed the streams of their individual musical powers and made an album simply as The Whitmore Sisters.
Along with her husband Chris Masterson, Eleanor Whitmore makes up The Mastersons, the alt-country power couple best known for their own harmony soaked Americana records and for being members of Steve Earle’s touring band, The Dukes and Duchesses. Her younger sister Bonnie has been steadily releasing her own enchanting solo albums since the mid-noughties, as well as playing bass and singing with Hayes Carll, John Moreland and Sunny Sweeney, to name a few.
They grew up in a musical family - their mother is an opera singer and their father is a folk singer – and the sisters’ closeness and unconventional upbringing, not to mention their melodic sensibility and pure blood harmonies, come together on Ghost Stories - their first proper joint outing together - to create something truly remarkable.
Eleanor and Chris Masterson were no strangers to recording with Bonnie - often appearing in some way on her records, providing backing vocals, guitars, violins and pedal steel, but their forthcoming album Ghost Stories is the first time the two sisters have shared top billing at the same time.
“We’re both seasoned musicians,” Eleanor says. “We’ve made so many records on our own, for ourselves and with other artists. I’m classically trained. When we come together, we understand each other, because we have so much shared musical vocabulary.”
When live music evaporated during the pandemic and people were isolated from each other, Bonnie decided to join her sister and Masterson in Los Angeles for a break during quarantine. Chris saw the visit as an opportunity to issue a practical mandate: if Bonnie was coming, it was time for the sisters to make an album. Not just an album, but “the album” — the musical inevitability that’s been simmering since a 22-year-old Eleanor was protecting her curly headed 15-year-old sister at gigs in local bars.
Masterson produced Ghost Stories, which includes nine new compositions along with two covers — a song by their pal Aaron Lee Tasjan (‘Big Heart Sick Mind’) and ‘On the Wings of a Nightingale’, written by Paul McCartney for iconic siblings The Everly Brothers – in an album that places death, distance and grief at its centre.
“We’ve had a lot of loss, a couple of dead ex-boyfriends, and a lot of friends that have passed on”, Bonnie explains, talking about the “ghosts” referred to in the album title. “Writing about the grief, especially working towards this record, there’s been a lot to consider”. The song ‘Greek Tragedy’ is about Justin Townes Earle - a great love of Bonnie’s life – while ‘The Ballad Of Sissy And Porter’ was written about Chris Porter, a former boyfriend and musician.
The title track was inspired by the death of Elijah McClain, but the sisters decided to widen their reach to honour all people of colour killed in senseless interactions with police. “It’s a modern murder ballad,” Eleanor explains. “We pulled the lens back where we could really take it all in and see all the marginalized people.”
Holler spoke to The Whitmore Sisters about growing up together, their inspirations and what it’s been like working together on this new record.
Where are you from and how has that influenced the type of artist you are?
We’re from Denton, Texas, home of the One O’Clock Jazz Band, Centromatic, Slobberbone, and many notable songwriters in the Texas music scene. Our classical upbringing was very strong being near a renowned music college and several symphonies. We spent our weekends playing in bars with our dad or going to the opera with mom.
What music were you listening to when you were growing up?
In our early years, we were listening to 80s pop and country music on the radio, but a lot of the songs we knew were folk songs that our parents would cover; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Ian & Sylvia, The Beatles, The Everly Brothers, Doc Watson, John Denver, and even Billy Joel. Early obsessions were Western Swing, Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Chapman, and The Traveling Willburys. You couldn’t escape a van ride with mom without listening to the local classical station.
Did you ever want to do anything other than music?
Not really. We both have other interests, but this is definitely what we do best.
How do you think it’s different for you as sisters making music together?
Music is a discipline, but singing with your sister is effortless. We’re a bit telepathic that way.
You were both trained to fly as girls by your father, who was an accomplished Navy Air carrier pilot. Do you think flying has influenced your songwriting and music in any way?
The title track of Eleanor’s solo record Airplanes is another biographical take on aviation. We travelled around quite a bit with our parents in our small planes and it must have programmed us with a nomadic predisposition that is well suited for touring musicians.
Are you more creative when you're happy or when you're sad?
Songwriting is good therapy to work through the things in life that make us sad. Creativity can strike when you’re happy too, but it seams less frequent.
What’s next for you?
Who knows? Things are a bit wobbly at the moment and it’s hard to make plans when things keep shifting around us. Tours have been postponed and rescheduled over and over at this point, but we keep coming back to gratitude. Being creative, writing, and singing with your sister is a gift. We’re so glad we finally got around to it.
The Whitmore Sisters will release their debut album Ghost Stories on January 21 on Red House Records