[7 November 2010]
A great friend of mine, also a great musician, once told me that to produce a successful cover song, you must maintain the integrity of the original while still making it your own. I bring this up because the eponymous debut album by the Secret Sisters is essentially a covers album, sporting only two originals. This would normally be a big problem for me, but let me explain why, in this situation, it is not.
Firstly, these women can sing. And they can harmonize. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill vocal harmonies—Laura and Lydia Rodgers actually put thought into it, and compel you with their voices like sirens forcing your hand to steer your ship to certain doom. These vocals, and vocal harmonies, are up there with the flawless Buck Owens and Don Rich, or the classic male/female combinations of the ‘60s and ‘70s (Conway and Loretta, Dolly and Porter), as well as more modern acts like Gillian Welch and her pitch-perfect partner David Rawlings—or, or, the Louvin Brothers, or the Everly Brothers! And now I’ve crossed the line from sharing knowledge to stroking my musical ego. My point is, even on their debut, even when giving us about 80 percent cover songs, the Secret Sisters have a recognizable voice.
First off, they tackle the George Jones classic “Why Baby Why”, a perfect ‘60s country tune with a chorus that’ll kill ya. It’s always a great song, and they do an excellent rendition. Next, they take on Bill Monroe’s (some say the king of bluegrass) “The One I Love Is Gone”, creating something slow, dark, and damned, heavy on the upright bass and (thankfully) the pedal steel (which is, in my opinion, the most beautiful instrument in music). Next on the covers collection is the Buck Owens staple “My Heart Skips a Beat”, which isn’t given Owens’s signature Bakersfield sound, but is nevertheless a complete success. The perfect thing about this rendition is that the Rogers sisters don’t do the dipping vocals that Owens and Rich do during the chorus to give it that extra zing. So, once again, the Secrect Sisters aren’t just recording carbon copies here.
To mix things up, they take a shot at the 1967 Frank & Nancy Sinatra hit “Something Stupid” (or “Somethin’ Stupid”, depending on your source). With a light, shuffling rhythm, it’s given a “Galveston”-era Glen Campbell makeover and turns out to be one of the strongest tracks on this album. Then for a bit of the esoteric, the Sisters unearth a forgotten Nancy Baron tune from the early ‘60s, penned by Charles LaVerne and Wally Zober (I know, “who?”, “who?”, and “who?) entitled “I’ve Gotta Feeling” (or, yet again, “I’ve Got a Feeling”), which ventures into exuberant Brill Building territory while still maintaining a country flavor.
Two traditional numbers follow: “Do You Love an Apple?”, which is seemingly an Irish or Welsh folk song that is given a slow and atmospheric rural Appalachian treatment in this case, and “All About You”, a rendition more rhythmically complex, but still heavily indebted to the previously covered Buck Owens and George Jones. I must hang my head in shame, however, and admit I know nothing of the origin of this song (actually, my head was already hanging because I wasn’t certain about the “Apple” one, either). The scant, 29-minute album ends with two Hank Williams numbers, “Why Don’t You Love Me”, which is energized, fun, real country that, oddly enough, immediately smacks of something off Dolly Parton’s debut, or a mid-‘60s Tammy Wynette track. The other Williams cover, “House of Gold”, is the complete antithesis—rooted in country, but with the solemn, atmospheric sound that Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash would venture into later in their careers. And it is absolutely beautiful.
That covers the covers, what of the two originals? The Rogers sisters-penned opener “Tennessee Me” is a mellow, pleasant, and folkier number that recalls certain Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons collaborations. “Waste the Day”, speaking of Gram Parsons, strikes me as a lost track from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, with unquestionably better vocals, and surprising, popped-out handclaps during the bridge. I love handclaps. Both originals showcase completely competent songwriting and are not necessarily better or worse than any of their covers.
Considering the originals are still rooted in traditional country, a lot of people are looking to the Secret Sisters for more, because it’s exactly what we need. Country, or shall I say “country”, music has been utterly raped, fashioned into something that’s part counterfeit down-home innocence and part Melrose Avenue fashionista. The music equates to what used to be known as Southern rock, or it’s just plain ol’ pop altogether, assembled by dozens of different industry songwriters and featuring a token pedal steel guitar or a fiddle, pushed back far enough into the mix so they can all hope for a crossover hit.
Neo-traditionalists shouldn’t be such a rare commmodity, and let’s give a round of applause to T-Bone Burnett for essentially discovering the Secret Sisters and getting them in the limelight. I know, it’s weird that their home is Universal Republic, a label where acts like Godsmack, Enrique Iglesias, and Chamillionaire also reside, but maybe the time has come to get the traditionalists and so-called “alternative country” acts off the indies like Bloodshot, Rounder, and New West, and into the public eye, for that is exactly what the scene so desperately, desperately needs.