“Not Dark Yet” (Thirty Tigers/Silver Cross Records), the first duo album from sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, is a powerful musical milestone in the long and winding careers of the Alabama-raised and Nashville-tested singer-songwriters.
Produced by kindred spirit Teddy Thompson, the singer-songwriter son of seminal British folk-rock musicians Richard and Linda Thompson, the intimate recording sessions took place in the Hollywood bungalow Lynne keeps as a home studio.
The nine songs Lynne and Moorer chose to cover came from songwriters they admire and, like their musical tastes, run the gamut from old-time and outlaw country to alternative rock.
The title song, one of Bob Dylan’s darkest, unfolds with the sisters trading verses and sharing soaring sibling harmonies amid the soulful playing of an ensemble that includes guitar great Doug Pettibone and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench.
Other songs in the set include Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” and Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes.” But more surprising, there’s Nick Cave’s gothic hymn “Into My Arms” and Kurt Cobain’s Nirvana grunge anthem “Lithium.”
“Not Dark Yet” closes with “Is It Too Much.” It’s the one song Lynne and Moorer co-wrote for the album, and it beautifully distills the brooding essence of the familial tragedy and tears they’ve shared and the comfort they’ve given each other over the years.
Lynne and Moorer will take the stage together at City Winery in Atlanta on Sept. 2 as part of a tour that includes stops in Boston, New York, Chicago and Nashville.
During a recent phone call from Los Angeles, Lynne talked about finally recording with Moorer (the younger sister she calls Sissy), after forging a 40-year-plus musical bond that began in their childhood.
Q: What made you decide the time was right to make an album together?
A: Timing. Timing is everything. I’m a West Coast girl. She’s an East Coast girl. You can imagine how hard that is. Busy lives and craziness. But, yeah, we’ve been talking about it for years. We just kind of looked at the time and thought it was right, so we dug in and got it done, finally.
Q: What was the scene like recording in your home studio?
A: It was really comfortable. It’s a good space to create. You know, I can put on a pot of beans and make a record at the same time. If there’s anything I’ve learned about making records, it’s that you can do it anywhere, if you’ve got the right equipment. We threw up a bunch of baffles and got a bunch of hairy-legged men in here and went to town. Sissy and I were in the back room. We had amps in the hallway. We had guitar pickers in the bathroom.
Q: I love the sound of the recording and how it captures your voices with the musicians in such a warm and intimate way.
A: I appreciate you noticing because it means a lot to us to kick it old school. We cut it to 24-track tape. There’s something about recording to tape. You have to commit, and it kind of makes for an exciting attempt at it. You can hear the breathing and the guitar players. Live cutting is kind of a lost art form. But we believe in it. It’s kind of like doing it on stage, which we’re looking forward to doing, again. You only get one chance.
Q: How did you decide on Teddy Thompson to produce?
A: Sissy and Teddy knew each other. I was a fan and loved Teddy’s records and his voice. But mainly we chose Teddy because he’s got that great sense of family harmony. He knew what we were after with the blending of the voices and how to capture that.
Q: What about choosing the musicians?
A: It was about choosing the guys who would really enhance the vocals. That’s what this record is about. It’s telling the stories in the songs with our singing. Sissy and I are real heavy believers in lyrics. And then we can wrap our voices around the melody, if it’s cool.
Q: Tell me about choosing the songs.
A: We had a pile of songs, but we didn’t want to do more than a 10-song record, so every song counts. Sissy brought in a bunch. I brought in a bunch. We carefully analyzed each tune on the lyrics, on the melody, and really it was a couple of singers interpreting great songs. We knew really fast what was going to work.
Q: What gets mentioned in reviews is “Lithium” and Kurt Cobain, though, right?
A: I brought in the Cobain thing. I wanted to twist it up a little bit and give Kurt some kudos because I’m such a fan. I’ve always loved that song. And lyrically, it’s so poignant.
Q: “Is It Too Much” closes out the set in a deep, lovely way. Anything you want to share about that one?
A: We really want to get together and write an album next. That’s our goal for next time. I started that tune here thinking about Sissy and her life and my life and how we’ve always been there for each other, no matter what. We’ve always stayed close no matter how far the miles kept us apart. Coming together and making this record kind of inspired me to communicate with her in a different way. She wrote her part, and when we got together to finish the record, we just laid it down.
Q: The cover photo is really evocative. What’s that story?
A: That was taken here in my little studio. Sissy and I were beating out a song that day. She had (her son) John Henry with her that week and he was playing around outside and the doors were open. It just kind of opened up. The light was just right and silhouetted us while we were getting ready to cut a tune. When we saw the picture, it was kind of funny, we hit on it at the same time and said, “You know, I think that’s the cover.” I don’t know how to explain it, really, except it just felt like that’s what we are now.