Allison Moorer and Shelby Lynne at the Birchmere
Holding an acoustic guitar, Shelby Lynne stood on stage with her sister, describing a song she wrote almost a decade ago about following their father into the Alabama woods.
“This is actually daddy’s,” Lynne said, putting a palm on the Gibson B24 that sister Allison Moorer has used on each of her albums. “I’m playing daddy’s guitar. This is the guitar I learned to play on.”
Lynne paused for a second. “We just haul the history around with us. Ya’ll know how that rolls.”
Family history looms large for Lynne and Moorer, critically acclaimed singer-songwriters who performed at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., as part of a short “Not Dark Yet” tour. That history, and the sibling bond that has only strengthened in the decades following horrific tragedy, was a constant thread throughout the 90-minute show Wednesday night.
Lynne was 17 and Moorer 14 when their parents died in a 1986 murder-suicide. Their father, Franklin, was a frustrated songwriter and musician who physically and verbally abused their mom, Lynn, and the girls. For the first dozen years of their careers, which saw Moorer receive an Academy Award nomination and Lynne win a Grammy, the siblings toured separately and did not speak publicly about the tragedy.
That has changed, especially for Moorer, in the past decade. Over the past five years, she has written and released two memoirs with accompanying music — Blood, about their parents and their childhoods in rural Alabama; and I Dream He Talks to Me, about raising her nonverbal autistic son. Meanwhile, Lynne has continued to release a series of albums on her own label, including 2021’s The Servant, a series of gospel covers.
Lynne and Moorer first went on the road together in 2010, then again in 2017 after releasing Not Dark Yet, a stunning and mesmerizing collection that included nine covers and one original song. Performing a series of covers and originals that left the audience entranced and enriched, their music was a mix of soaring harmonies, nostalgia, and melancholy.
“We’ve been singing so long together,” said Moorer, who has referred to touring with her sister as the “daily opening of a vein” because of the history and emotion involved. “What a blessing.”
The covers, including Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs,” Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” and The Killers’ “My List” come from the sister’s CD. They also performed a beautiful rendition of the title track, itself a transcendent cover of a Bob Dylan song, but opted not to perform the lone co-written original, “Is It Too Much,” which acknowledges each other’s wounds.
Lynne, who wrote the forward to Blood, took much of her father’s wrath. As she held the guitar on Wednesday night, she prefaced the song “Following You” with a story about her father.
“I was following daddy out in the woods, shooting squirrels and stuff. I followed behind him with a .22 rifle, trying to step in his footsteps,” she said. “I couldn’t quite make it. This is a song about him.”
Both Lynne and Moorer, who were accompanied by Joe McMahan on acoustic and electric guitar, played a series of originals. Highlights were the back-to-back versions of Lynne’s “Where I’m From” and Moorer’s “Alabama Song,” followed later by Moorer’s “A Soft Place to Fall” and Lynne’s “Johnny Met June.”
“Every time I walk into one of these venues I wonder who’s been here before me. There are lots of ghosts in these places lurking around. I wrote this about one of my own,” Lynne said in her introduction to the lovely song about Johnny and June Carter Cash.
One of the sweetest parts of the evening was a series of covers dating back to the siblings’ youth. Moorer noted the first time the two sang together at a fiddler’s convention when they were kids. Even though the show was mostly bluegrass music, the two “got up there and did the songs we knew, which was mainly the Everly Brothers.”
They played three Everly Brothers songs — “Price of Love,” “Brand New Heartache,” and “Maybe Tomorrow” — before segueing into Moorer’s sublime cover of Jessi Colter’s “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” from 1976’s “Wanted! The Outlaws,” country music’s first million selling album.
“It’s always good to go back and remember the songs that taught us to do what it is we do,” Moorer said. “When you’re trying to write your own songs you learn other peoples’, so we were lucky to have parents who had pretty good taste.”
“They loved to pick and sing,” Lynne said. “They did have pretty good taste. We were pretty much reared on the Everlys, Waylon and Willie and all that good shit.”
Moorer was only 4 when “I’m Looking for Blue Eyes” was released. Lynne noted she has tapes of her singing it “when she was just little, not making sense, and she knew every word of this. It’s her song.”
“Can you imagine me not making sense?” Moorer asked as the audience laughed.
She paused. “I’m trying to unlearn it. I’m working on it.”