Ghosts are always with us, waiting for the right moment, or reason, to reveal themselves. Then a song, a stretch of road, or someone's laughter hits your ear, and suddenly you're back in the moment, feeling the rush of emotions as if time never moved on. For Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore, two of roots music's most accomplished songwriter/ instrumentalist/ vocalists, the ghosts chose to appear right as Covid became entrenched — when live music evaporated and people were isolated from each other.
Bonnie, whose four solo albums are all state-of-a-real-woman's-heart jewels, decided to join sister Eleanor and her husband Chris Masterson (who are both members of Steve Earle & The Dukes) in their Los Angeles closed circle for a break. Chris, who's recorded four albums with his wife as The Mastersons, saw the visit as an opportunity to issue a mandate: If Bonnie was coming, it was time for the sisters to make a record. 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.
The sisters' closeness and unconventional upbringing, not to mention their melodic sensibility and pure blood harmonies, create something truly special.
Opening with the languidly sweeping "Learn To Fly," the lush power-pop feel buoys The Whitmores' dizzying close harmonies. Whether it's the bittersweet "Friends We Leave Behind," the Elite Hotel/Luxury Liner Emmylou Harris-evoking "The Ballad of Sissy & Porter" or the closing "Greek Tragedy," with its addiction quicksand outcome, the echoes of people lost to the wages of misadventure permeates Ghost Stories. Yet, even in the occasionally stark arrangements or dour topics, there's a shimmer that pulls you forward. Loss is to be endured, but not drowned in, The Whitmores suggest.
Pausing for a moment, Bonnie dials the songs in a little closer to their hearts. "'The Ballad of Sissy & Porter' is pretty obviously about Chris Porter, who was a musician (and former boyfriend) who was killed in a tragic accident on tour. It's all the crazy stories he used to tell, while 'Greek Tragedy' is about Justin" [Townes Earle, another great love of Bonnie's life]. "He was a star who burned out too quickly," Bonnie continues. "He was so much like his dad, who paved the way. The answers were in front of him, but he had to make those mistakes for himself."
"Greek Tragedy," with its deep rush of emotions, draws heavily on the Beatles. Friend and Leonard Cohen/Tom Petty vet Hattie Webb guests on harp, offering a heavenly feel, while Chris Masterson's George Harrison-evoking electric guitar on the chorus is luxurious. The juxtaposition – that sky high view – merges great sadness with music that lifts the listener.
Whether their opera singer mother's lead in La Traviata, for the quiet storm post-facto obsession that builds in "Superficial World" or the steel guitar-stained "By Design," echoes of their influences ripple throughout Ghost Stories. You can hear early Chicks, with the reeling fiddle on the train wrecking "Ricky," and the fluidity makes these songs vast, but utterly Whitmore.
"We're both seasoned musicians," Eleanor offers. "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."
That musical fluidity is as buoyant on Aaron Lee Tasjan's "Big Heart Sick Mind." Their harmonies offer the Paul McCartney-written Everly Brothers cover "On The Wings Of A Nightingale" a velvety pluck. Eleanor admits, "We did want to nod to the influence of sibling harmony. Will Rigby (dBs) had sent Chris and I the demo Paul McCartney had made for the Everlys." "In addition to McCartney's songwriting," Bonnie says, "his bass-playing was a huge influence on me."
Equally tricky, but no less compelling is how The Whitmores can slide into something as seemingly ordinary as a shuffle – and make it new. From the start of "Hurtin' For A Letdown," they're long on their Texas roots with a gust of fun through the track.
The title track marks the other end of the spectrum. Deeply serious, with a violin line inspired by the death of Elijah McClain, the sisters decided to widen their reach to honor all people of color killed in senseless interactions with police. "'Ghost Stories' is a modern murder ballad," Eleanor continues. "We pulled the lens back where we could really take it all in and see all the marginalized people."
Ultimately, Ghost Stories' cathartic songs embrace the beauty and the experience of living. What came from lockdown and shared experiences —hiking the Grand Canyon at 5, playing bars at 15 or just embracing the beauty of living — is an album to take you places and make you feel so alive.
"Music should move people," Eleanor affirms. "Or at least cause some kind of reaction. Sometimes it's comforting, or you can rock out! I've always liked Woody Guthrie's way of looking at it: 'Music is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.'"
Self-penned though most of these fine songs are, Ghost Stories' tracklisting might have been cherry-picked by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant for one of their duet albums...the sisters soar even higher here.
Think Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne or imagine Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch. Yes, they're really that good.
Arguably, the greatest reward for such a lengthy wait for Ghost Stories is the undeniable richness with which their harmonies soar. It's not a stretch to suggest the sisterly singing on this album is otherworldly
Sibling harmony can be a contradiction in terms. It also makes for lovely music, and that's the case here. The sister sonorities of Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore mesh beautifully on their duo debut, the voices are easy to differentiate but complementary as they explore a range of styles.
- 140g Black Vinyl
- Limited Time Free Album Download
- RIYL: Allison Moorer, Shelby Lynne, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Secret Sisters, First Aid Kit, The Highwomen
- Learn To Fly
- The Ballad Of Sissy & Porter
- Friends We Leave Behind
- Hurtin' For A Letdown
- Superficial World Of Love
- Big Heart Sick Mind
- Ghost Stories
- By Design
- On The Wings Of A Nightingale
- Greek Tragedy