I felt somewhat guilty about seeing Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer perform on Sunday night at The Birchmere. My wife and I had just returned from Chicago earlier that afternoon, and we’d seen Green Day just three nights earlier. I’ve been on the road for five of the past six weekends, and the work was piling up. Family members and lifelong friends were dealing with the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey, and Texas was — still is — on my mind.
Little did I know that seeing — and photographing — this sister act would be such a salve for the soul.
On a short tour to promote “Not Dark Yet,” a stunning and mesmerizing collection that is their first album together, Moorer and Lynne talked about their heritage and the bond they share as sisters. It’s a bond that has been forever cemented despite horrific violence (their father killed their mother, then himself when they were teens), lives on opposite coasts (one in L.A.; the other in New York), and disparate personalities (Lynne, three years older, is the introvert; Moorer just completed a memoir).
Nashville musician Rick Brantley opened the show, and was joined by Lynne and Moorer for his song “Hurt People,” a beautiful moment that offered the promise of things to come. I spoke briefly with Brantley between the sets, and he said that watching the two sing together will “blow your mind. Their sound will put you in a trance.”
I’ve seen Moorer live several times, the first time at Joe’s Pub in New York when she was eight-plus months pregnant with her son, John Henry, and then as part of her then-husband Steve Earle’s band. I saw Lynne years ago and have most of her albums in heavy rotation.
Brantley was right. Together, they were better than I could have imagined. At points, they would glance at each other as only siblings can, wordlessly helping the audience understand their “Sissy” bond.
Performing all 10 tracks — nine covers and one original — from “Not Dark Yet,” plus songs from each of their catalogues, their voices blended seamlessly as the selections ranged from family staples (Louvin Brothers, Merle Haggard, Jessi Colter) to the unlikely trio of Nick Cave, the Killers, and Nirvana.
But it was the title track, a Bob Dylan song from his Grammy winning “Time Out of Mind,” and the sole original, “Is It Too Much,” that resonated most strongly. Dylan’s song, one of his best, is both a sad reflection on mortality and a message of hope. “Is It Too Much,” a song about the sisters’ family history, reaches out to others in pain. Sample lyric: “No one else bears this heavy load/Bring it here to my side…Don’t you know you ain’t by yourself/I’m right here to help you lay it down.”
Appropriately, the sisters donated proceeds from the sales of their T-shirts to victims of Hurricane Harvey, a generous gesture that showed the compassion they have for others in need. The donations are small in the light of the scale of the destruction, but you start somewhere. After all, the message is about uniting in the face of tragedy.
Postscript: This morning, as the tour moves to Chicago, Moorer posted a childhood photo from a family trip to Texas. Today would have been her mother’s 73rd birthday.
“The loss of her feels deeper somehow this year — maybe because we're out here singing together and we both miss the third part she would've chomped at the bit to add. Maybe because she would've been so proud of us. Maybe because we know that she IS proud, looking on, and cheering for us,” Moorer writes.
Moorer then addresses her mother’s death, and her father’s horrifying decision.
“He and he alone took her beautiful spirit out of this world. He was able to because of two things — she didn't know how to fight back and he had a gun. The most harrowing and frustrating thing about domestic violence is that it wears down a person's spirit in such a way that most women forget they are in charge of their own lives. I wish someone had been able to tell our Mama that hers was worth more than she ended up believing it was.”
These sisters, now both older than their mother was at the time of her death, honor her memory every time they walk on stage. They certainly did Sunday night.