There have been many famous familial conglomerations over the years in popular music, particularly in the genres of country and R&B, where names like Carter, Louvin, Jackson, and Ike & Tina need no introduction. The shared communal joys and passions for music flowed naturally through these families as they all grew up and matriculated in households where records were constantly spun and instruments and songbooks were passed around like gravy at the Thanksgiving table. Traditionally, there has been another plentiful subset of these “family bands” in the form of the husband and wife duo, in some cases pared down as simply a man/woman pair who may or may not be romantically involved. The names here also need no introduction as George and Tammy, Kenny and Dolly, Jack and Meg, and She and Him stand out over other worthy yet lesser-known contributors like Jenny and Johnny, the Civil Wars, the Rosebuds, and Mates of State. Record labels, managers, and the artists themselves seem to be recognizing the revamped appeal of these duos as the music industry has seen an explosion in popularity within this duo genre. Along these lines come the Mastersons, the very much married (despite the joint band surname) pair of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore.
Those with a keen eye for liner notes will surely recognize these two performers. Masterson has logged time as a guitarist with Son Volt, Jack Ingram, and Bobby Bare, Jr., while Whitmore, over the years, has worked alongside such luminaries as Regina Spektor, Kelly Willis, and Diana Ross (!). As a duo, The Mastersons are best known as being part of Steve Earle’s Dukes and Duchesses, the highly skilled group of backing musicians he assembled for last year’s I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive tour. Each night, Earle relinquished a portion of the spotlight for Chris and Eleanor to do a few numbers, a gesture that not only increased their exposure, but also helped formulate future musical ideas, which are now seeing the light of day. Following the conclusion of that tour, Chris and Eleanor returned to their Brooklyn home, but ventured back to their original home in The Lone Star State to work and collaborate for the first time together on a full-length album.
Their debut release, Birds Fly South released on New West Records, features an 11-track showcase of gently appealing Americana, full of bright and sunny melodies, impeccable harmonizing, and versatile lyrics that run the full emotional spectrum, from the dire warnings of hard living in “Money”, to the aching appeal of giving in to vice and temptation in the swinging and catchy “No Dancing”, to the lilting and lovely ode to the pulls of home in the album-closing title track. The Mastersons eschew the obvious tendency to sing about their love for one another and instead reveal their mutual commitment in lyricism that reflects the day-to-day happenings that all couples must traverse over the course of a relationship. While marriage is a beautiful and sacred vow, the details of daily life can get in the way and provide roadblocks to that perfect “happily ever after” life that is so often promised during the wedding ceremony. This sentiment is perfectly captured in the album’s opening lines, where Eleanor exults: “The twitch in my left eye / Came back today…I just can’t find the time / To do what’s expected / And I wouldn’t anyway.” It’s that feeling of resignation that sometimes accompanies a long-term romantic commitment. You’re in love and happy, but what comes next? Should the narrator of the song accept tradition and proceed with the next steps or should she pack up and move on and start a new, non-traditional path forged by her wanderlust and hopes for adventure? It’s not an easy question to answer, but it is one worth pursuing, something that country musicians have been picking at for decades.
The sentiment expressed in the opening track sets the tone for the rest of Birds Fly South. The protagonists of these songs consider running away but they also fight for love, (the straight ahead rock cruncher, “Crash Test”), use love to ignore bad times incurred (“The Other Shoe”) where Masterson proclaims “there’s one thing I know is true / I’m gonna run away with you”, and show how love can be taken for granted (the affecting ballad “Time”). The couple veers away from schmaltzy sentimentality and instead paints a picture of real life. It is more jarring at times to listen to a couple admitting faults and doubts, but the end result is much more fulfilling than tired and clichéd platitudes and frivolous declarations. In this regard, the Mastersons debut effort is a rousing success, and one that should vault their careers out of the shadows and into an even bigger limelight than the one extended to them so graciously by Mr. Earle.