We’ve all dealt with our share of mortality over the past two years, but musicians seem to have more ghosts than most. Their lives and songs are strewn with memories of family, friends, bandmates and exes who have passed on. Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore have spent two lifetimes sharing stages and studio space with just about everyone in the Americana world. The siblings decided to share the stories and heartache that come with that musical path in their first album together as The Whitmore Sisters, titled Ghost Stories in memory of those who didn’t have the opportunity to hear it.
Although the Whitmores were raised in a musical family and performed in a family band, their adult lives have seen them take separate paths to this point. Big sis Eleanor has performed with husband Chris as half of the Mastersons, as well as being a longtime member of Steve Earle’s band The Dukes. Bonnie has made her way as a bass player and has released four solo albums, including 2020’s excellent Last Will & Testament. For their album opener, “Learn to Fly,” the sisters shoot a nod back to their parents, who are pilots as well as musicians. The big, spacious intro gives way to a gorgeous pairing of voices (between this and last week’s Jamestown Revival record, I’m thinking/hoping that harmonizing will be a musical theme in 2022). The optimistic vision of soaring is countered by a warning of life’s difficulties – “But I’m telling you, I know it will bruise/When you bounce up too high.” Musically, both Eleanor’s mandolin work and Bonnie’s bass lines pop.
The ghosts come in soon enough. “The Ballad of Sissy and Porter,” penned by Bonnie, along with Bonnie Montgomery, is a reflection on the late musician (and ex-boyfriend) Chris Porter, killed in a traffic accident while on tour in 2016. The song portrays a woman who wants to keep just a few memories of her departed lover to herself – “Sitting on a porch in her rocking chair/Thinking ‘bout the stories that she’ll never share.” The rollicking context of those untold tales is buoyed by Eleanor’s upbeat fiddle and a boisterous Cajun accordion line from Dirk Powell. “Friends We Left Behind,” the first song the sisters wrote together for Ghost Stories, is a more somber look at loss – “Can we be erased?/It’s all borrowed time.” Along with a plaintive banjo part from Masterson, the downbeat tune brings out the best in the sisters’ vocal work together. And the title track is built around Eleanor’s violin solo, inspired by Elijah McClain, a young man who was killed by Aurora (Colorado) police and paramedics simply for walking home. These tragic deaths, too, weigh heavily on minds – “There’s nothing left/But to talk to your ghosts at night.”
Need a more standard, bar room country weeper? The mid-tempo “Hurtin’ for a Letdown” will have your feet movin’ and your dance partner swingin’ to the tune of crushed romance. Two covers on the record also show the sisters’ playful side. “On The Wings of a Nightingale,” a Paul McCartney-penned tune covered by the Everly Brothers, is a nod to sibling harmonies. And Aaron Lee Tasjan’s deceptively bouncy “Big Heart Sick Mind” (written with Erica Blinn) is an organ-driven look at what happens when the heart and brain battle and nobody wins. True to its mission, though, Ghost Stories ends with a goodbye to another lost soul, Justin Townes Earle. Stirred by strings and harp, the sisters, after years of such loss, are able to see past the Earthly limits – “Bound to the sins/Can’t circumvent the end/Could you not survive yourself?/Your body let you down” – and wish the best for their departed friend. It’s not the painful last moments that matter most, but the life, however short, that was lived.
Song I Can’t Wait to Hear Live: “Friends We Left Behind” – We all need more great harmonies in 2022.
Ghost Stories was produced by Chris Masterson, engineered by Masterson and Mark Rains, mixed by Steve Christensen and mastered by Pete Lyman. Except where noted above, and “Ricky,” which was written with Ricky Ray Jackson and Chris Masterson, all songs were written by Eleanor and Bonnie Whitmore. Additional musicians on the album include Masterson (acoustic and electric guitars, banjo, percussion, handclaps), Tyler Chester (organs, keys, piano), Jamie Douglas (drums, percussion, handclaps), Dirk Powell (accordion, triangle), Jon Graboff (pedal steel) and Hattie Webb (harp).
Go here to order Ghost Stories (out Jan. 21): https://shop.merchcentral.com/collections/whitmore-sisters
Check out tour dates and info on a record release live stream on their website: https://www.thewhitmoresisters.com/
Enjoy an interview with them here: Interview: The Whitmore Sisters Find Their Harmony