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. The songs they inspired became The Whitmore Sisters' debut album, GHOST STORIES, out January 21, 2022 on Red House Records.
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 in their Los Angeles closed circle for a break during quarantine this past year. Chris, who’s recorded four albums with his wife as The Mastersons, saw the visit as an opportunity to issue a practical mandate: If Bonnie was coming, it was time for the sisters to make an album. 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 collection, along with two covers — a song by their pal Aaron Lee Tasjan (“Big Heart Sick Mind” and “On the Wings of a Nightingale” (written by Paul McCartney for iconic sibling duo The Everly Brothers) — complete GHOST STORIES.
“We’ve had a lot of loss, a lot of ex and dead boyfriends, a lot of friends that have passed on – and writing about the grief, especially working towards this record, there’s been a lot to consider. Both Bonnie and I are pretty empathetic people. The world around us has seen a lot of anguish, so there’s a lot to write about. Definitely quite a few of the tracks are about healing,” says Eleanor. Bonnie concurs, “We’ve been writing songs about dead people for years. Songs are like therapy...”
The sisters’ closeness and unconventional upbringing, not to mention their melodic sensibility and pure blood harmonies, create something truly special.
“We have all these things that make us us,” Bonnie says. “Our mother was an opera singer; our father was a folk singer. When I heard Ian & Sylvia for the first time, I didn’t realize that song wasn’t our parents. That’s how we heard music.”
Trained to fly as girls by a father who was an accomplished Navy Air carrier pilot, they were exposed to amphibious planes, jets, props and all sorts of aviation possibilities. Consequently, The Whitmores see the world from an above-the-world perspective. Marveling at the whimsy that comes with flying, they also acknowledge that flight allows you to see things in larger ways and make connections most people miss.
Opening with the languidly sweeping “Learning To Fly,” the lush power-pop feel buoys The Whitmores’ dizzying close harmonies. Explaining the lessons absorbed from flying, it serves as a metaphor for coping with life without losing the beauty.
“You see things from a different perspective,” Bonnie says. Laughing, Eleanor joins in. “I was practically born in an airplane! In our family, you fly a plane, you sing and you play an instrument. You just do. My Dad was an airline pilot, so it’s not just a means of transportation to us.”
They laugh now about their close bond, joking about the time they went through a sisterly “divorce,” which Bonnie confesses was instigated by a “total lack of boundaries” towards her big sis. But their oddly beautiful, shared life experiences make Ghost Stories inevitable. Eleanor explains the friction then and now, “We’re very much alike. It was part of the problem in the beginning, but now it’s a strength.
Whether it’s the bittersweet “Friends We Leave Behind,” 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 and Porter’ is pretty obviously about Chris Porter, who was a musician and a friend. It’s all the crazy stories of what happened, while ‘Greek Tragedy’ is about Justin [Townes Earle, one of the great loves of Bonnie’s life]. I remember writing Coyotes and he said to me, ‘Don’t be like every other female songwriter who won’t close the story.’ He challenged me, really made me a better writer.”
“He was a star who burned out too quickly,” Eleanor agrees. “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 in the reeling fiddle on the train wrecking “Ricky,” 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. Whether early Chicks, Terri Hendrix, or Sisters Morales and the Groobees’ Susan Gibson on “Ricky,” their mother’s lead in La Traviata or the Traveling Wilburys on “Superficial Design,” 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. Bonnie has four solo records; Chris and I have four as the Mastersons, plus all the sessions and touring. 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 “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 tracks.
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.
“Men – and women – are being murdered every day by people who are supposed to protect them. “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.
|Learn To Fly|
|The Ballad Of Sissy & Porter|
|Friends We Leave Behind|
|Hurtin' For A Letdown|
|Superficial World Of Love|
|Big Heart Sick Mind|
|On The Wings Of A Nightingale|