Onstage, they are a striking couple, her flaming red hair mesmerizing as she dips and bends, playing exquisite fiddle while he blazes on guitar with Buddy Holly-like cool with his glasses, stovepipe trousers and hipster hat. But when they sing together, whether playing a set at the Bowery Electric or on their just-released album, Birds Fly South, (New West) they are unforgettable. What Emmylou Harris calls the “Third Voice,” the magic that occurs when singers in close relationships sing together, elevates every song. On “Crash Test,” they go from unison to harmony and back again. But when they sing “Don’t want to wait for you baby, there’s not enough time/I don’t care if we don’t make it, I just want to try/I want a crash test,” you feel intimately present at the glorious beginning of something wild and wonderful.
The Mastersons – specifically, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore – have been making music together since they met at a Steamboat Springs, Colorado music festival in 2006. They became a couple a short time later and formally tied the knot with an onstage ceremony and music-fueled bash in 2010. Technically, they are not both Mastersons. Whitmore already had a solo album, Airplanes, and didn’t want to confuse her fans.
“I felt a little weird about becoming The Mastersons because I am still keeping my name professionally,” said Eleanor, perched on a bright red couch in the couple’s large, upstairs bed/sitting room decorated with gorgeous, colorful Gustavo Ayala Lopez paintings she brought back from a stay in Bolivia. Their shepherd/heeler mix, Shakti, races back and forth between the couch and the kitchen. “So what about Eleanor Whitmore? What happens to her?”
Eleanor is understandably proud of her family name. Her mother is an opera singer and her father a folk singer.
While preparing for last year’s five-and-a-half-month, 105-show international tour with Steve Earle and the Dukes and Duchesses, shortly after their marriage, the couple ran a Facebook brainstorming contest to come up with a band name they could use to promote the just-finished Birds Fly South. In the end, they acquiesced to Earle’s preference for the simple and obvious choice.
In addition to her concern for her fans, Eleanor is understandably proud of her family name. Her mother is an opera singer and her father a folk singer. Eleanor began playing violin at the age of four.
“My dad had me playing with him and when my sister came along, he started her on bass so he could have a band,” she said. Along with sister Bonnie, Eleanor played gigs in the Denton, Texas based family band for years. She also played classical music through college, earning a music performance degree from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. As her musical horizons expanded, she played in other bands in Fort Worth and Austin with various Texas singer/songwriters including Bruce Robison and Slaid Cleaves,
Growing up in Houston, Chris Masterson was also a prodigy, but he leaned towards blues and his path was decidedly non-academic. He started playing guitar at eight, as soon as he could get his hand around the neck of a guitar. Before that, his father, a hobbyist with a guitar collection, would play Merle Haggard tunes on one guitar while Chris pretended to play on another.
Chris Masterson was also a prodigy, but he leaned towards blues and his path was decidedly non-academic.
“The music scene that existed then in Houston was so amazing,” he said. “I don’t know if I ever had any idea of doing anything else. When I was just a little kid, I would go over to Big Walter Price’s house and play guitar while he played piano. When I was in junior high, I was playing with high school kids, and soon my parents started driving me into town to go to blues jams and sit in with various musicians,” he recalled. “By 15, I had a little blues trio and we were playing around town.”
He quit high school in his sophomore year. “I was gigging a few nights every week so I would just be a wreck for class,” he said. “So my mom signed me out of school with the promise that she’d home-school me, which we haven’t got around to yet,” he laughed.
At 17, Chris decided it was time to spread his wings and moved to Los Angeles where friends hooked him up with blues band gigs. One night at a sports bar in Whittier, he met Bill Bateman from The Blasters, and started playing with his band the Red Devils. Through Bateman, he met Dave Alvin.
“Seeing how Dave approached music was really important for me and opened my mind,” he said. “When I was in high school, I loved rock and roll and that crazy glam rock but I had this blues foundation. So at 15, I was into jump blues playing a big hollow-body guitar and wearing suits to gigs. With Dave’s influence, I started diving back into country and rockabilly records and finding those parallels where it just became music. I figured out that Johnny Burnett was as wild as the Howlin’ Wolf and they’re both a form of blues. Dave was a very insightful guy and always had good advice.”
Chris had also made a big impression on Alvin.
“Chris blew me away when I first heard him playing some damn intense blues guitar at The King King club in L.A,” he said recently. “He was only a teenager but he’d soaked up and could express himself in several styles of blues guitar from T-Bone Walker and Otis Rush to Lightning Hopkins and Johnny Watson. Over the years, as he’s grown into his own style as a guitarist and songwriter, my initial impressions of him as a musician and as a person haven’t changed. Chris is deeply soulful, open minded, honest and wise. He’s also extremely brave and that’s a bit of a rarity.”
While Chris was rediscovering his roots in LA, Eleanor was in Texas following her social conscience. After moving to Austin to play music, she was finding it hard to make ends meet. She began canvassing for the “Texas Campaign for the Environment,” promoting electronics recycling through take-back campaigns targeting national companies like Dell and Apple to encourage them to design their products for resource recovery.
“It was a cool campaign to work on because everyone could relate to it,” she recalled. “Everyone had a computer and a cell phone and nobody knew what to do with these products when they became obsolete. And even though it was a local campaign in Texas, it had a lot of national and global implications because we were talking about the exportation of these products to developing nations. So it was a nice progressive issue to talk to people about.”
She even moved to Dallas to open an office there, but while touring with singer/songwriter Susan Gibson, she went to the Steamboat Springs festival and met Chris Masterson. Shortly thereafter she quit her job, broke up with her boyfriend and moved back to Austin.
“My mom signed me out of school with the promise that she’d home-school me, which we haven’t got around to yet.”
After a half-dozen years in Los Angeles, Chris had come home for the holidays and stayed. He started writing songs in Houston, then fronted a band, Drawl, to play them. By 2000, he was gigging regularly with the late blues harmonica player Gary Primich and moved to Austin. He was playing with country artist Jack Ingram in 2006 at the fateful Steamboat Springs festival, a favorite of Texas college kids and other hard partiers.
“It was not my scene at all,” Chris said. “I don’t ski, and I don’t drink, and I was going through a divorce at the time. So I flew in the night before, played the show and was trying to leave when they dragged me to this after-party where Eleanor and I met, cowering in the corner.”
“We didn’t hook up romantically that weekend,” Eleanor said. “I saw him perform with Jack and then at this after-party there was some jamming.”
“I heard her in one of these rooms at the party and thought, wow, she’s really good,” Chris remembered. “I was more intrigued initially to play some music with her. Maybe the careerist in me, but I asked her about recording.”
While Chris was rediscovering his roots in LA, Eleanor was in Texas following her social conscience.
Back in Austin, they began their musical partnership immediately, Eleanor singing sweet harmony and playing gorgeous fiddle on Chris’ EP, The Late Great Chris Masterson, at about the same time that Chris joined Son Volt. In the first year after they met, Eleanor wrote all the songs that would be on Airplanes, which Chris produced.
“I hadn’t really gotten into songwriting too seriously until I met Chris,” she said. “Working with so many great songwriters as a side musician, I was intimidated. But I’d watch Chris pumping out these great songs and thought I could do it too.”
Among the many fascinating songs on the record, “Cup of Coffee in the Rain” tells their story:
I found love standing in a corner at a party/We shrank back from all the madness our backs safe against the wall/And I felt a little guilty when my hand brushed yours in the hallway/So I confessed that I had someone back home/ And you didn’t even blink you were still talking to me.
Five weeks later I’m in Austin and I haven’t got a home/I’ve been surfing seas of couches with my dog and all that I own/And our lips only met a week ago and it’s so crazy that you came along/I wasn’t looking but I’ve walked miles and miles to find you.
It’s easy to believe that songs on the Chris Masterson EP, such as “All I Know” and “Drive” also describe the beginning of their love affair. But at the same time they were making the records, they were preparing to move to New York City.
“Chris always wanted to live here,” Eleanor said, “and it’s the first place I ever took a mother/daughter trip when I was in third grade. Even though Austin’s really cool and there’s a good music scene there, it’s very local. There aren’t a lot of people trying to move and shake and get out of Austin, really. So I had the best and only gigs in town.”
They made the move with the encouragement of Chris’ friend Steve Earle and his new wife, Allison Moorer, who had also recently moved to New York City.
“I heard her in one of these rooms at the party and thought, wow, she’s really good. It was not my scene at all,…they dragged me to this after-party where Eleanor and I met.”
“I had met Steve ten years earlier at a festival in Australia and he stayed a good friend over the years,” Chris said. “He told me at one point that the guitar gig with him was mine if I wanted it, but for years we were just friends and not working together in a professional sense.”
After the move, the two couples started hanging out a bit and soon Eleanor was playing with Allison, who had been opening Steve’s shows solo. Steve and Allison had a residency at the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, where Eleanor joined her on fiddle and vocals. Then she and Chris both toured with her to support her album Crows.
“I wanted to play with Eleanor because she is a sensitive and intuitive, yet incredibly proficient musician,” Moorer said. “Her choices are always tasteful, plus she seems to really get my songs. She has a wide range of understanding and can really do anything she wants. As far as her singing goes, let’s just say that I continue to be impressed, and that’s not easily done. I am incredibly hard on singers, myself included. She has a beautiful, pure sounding instrument that can really connect. Again, it is obvious she is putting thought into what she is doing, but you can’t hear when or where. I consider that mastery.”
Both Eleanor and Chris were also working on material for new solo records. The decision to make one together came about during a nightmare journey to South by Southwest in 2010.
“There was a snowstorm and our flight was canceled,” Chris remembered. “We had to take a bus to Atlantic City to fly from there to Atlanta, then to Dallas, and by car to Austin. We both had piles of songs, which is pretty common in our house. Some we wrote together and some we wrote individually. Our first thought was a very practical one: we cannot self-release two records at the same time.”
Eleanor added, “But it was really interesting how the songs started to sound like they belonged on the same recording. So we started talking about it while we were stuck in airports on this horrible travel day.”
Steve Earle had already asked them to go on tour with him the following year, offering to feature them and their record, which gave them a goal and a deadline.
They returned to Austin to record Birds Fly South the following winter, coming up with the title song on the way down.
“Everything was recorded live in two weeks with just one day off,” Chris said. “We just got in a room and played the songs.”
Working with old friends – the same people as on Airplanes – they used the home studio of their bass player, George Reiff, who also served as engineer along with Steve Christensen, (who has since won a Grammy for producing Steve Earle’s Townes). Falcon Valdez, Best Man at their wedding, provided drums and percussion.
“It was like a five-way production so we all took producer credit,” Eleanor said.
The 11 melody-driven tracks are sometimes sweet and more often edgy, lyrically exploring universal situations with insight, intelligence and the immediacy of those still living through them. Many deal with relationships and only one, “Money,” has a quasi-political message:
If you had it in your pocket, would it be your friend?/Would you hold it all tight or would you give it away?/Funny how something so imaginary carries so much weight.
Chris and Eleanor wrote the song with their friend, roommate and occasional bass player Ishaq Clayton. Since her days with the Texas Campaign for the Environment, Eleanor has remained politically involved personally, but hesitates to push it in her music.
“The politics thing is really tricky for me,” she said. “Some artists can do a lot of good things by getting involved politically but at the same time I recognize that our audience is pretty diverse and have different views. I don’t have any problem speaking out as an individual, and I do say political things onstage, but I try to say things that are more rallying and bring people together rather than polarizing.
“When I introduce ‘Money’ onstage, I always say, I wrote this about the time that our economy crashed and then they put some odd billions of dollars into our economy. And that’s something to think about: What does that mean? What is the Fed? What is this number changing that they can do on the computer? Who’s paying for that? The economy is our belief in it.”
For Chris, political awareness came through a different route.
“Some artists can do a lot of good things by getting involved politically but at the same time I recognize that our audience is pretty diverse and have different views.”
“I moved out to California when I was really young and with the music came drugs and other things and with all that came oblivion,” he said. “I was oblivious to a lot of things and I think it stunted my growth a bit. But then I went through recovery and when I came through to the other side of that, I started to realize there are a lot more sick people in this world than bad people. That changed my worldview. For example, I take a very strong stance against the death penalty. Every one of us could be five minutes from some sort of miracle or some sort of change, regardless of our views. Oftentimes so-called pro-life people are pro-war and they’re pro-death penalty and I don’t understand that. I don’t have anything against pro-life people. Believe anything you want to believe, fine. But be consistent.”
Of course they are both less forceful about expressing their views than Steve Earle, with whom they toured during the six months after finishing the record.
“Steve gives it his all no matter what he’s doing whether we’re talking politics or collecting guitars or writing songs or baseball,” Chris said. “He doesn’t approach anything lightly. Everything is full on.”
The show was staged as a revue with no supporting act. Every night the entire band would start the show and at various points Allison, bass player Kelly Looney, and the Mastersons would be featured.
“Sometimes when you go out on a big tour opening for a bigger artist, you play for half the house,” Chris said. “Steve would feature us for one song on the back end of the show and everyone was in their seats.”
He also allowed them to sell advance copies of the record at every show.
“It was incredibly generous of Steve,” Chris said. “I was happy to just go do the guitar gig and play with Steve Earle. Asking Eleanor to come, and sweetening the deal by featuring us, it was above and beyond. The first time I saw Steve with a full band was 1996 – 97 and Buddy and Julie Miller were out with him. So it’s a pretty neat lineage.”
Allison Moorer was as happy to have them on the tour as they were to be there.
“Chris Masterson is an incredible player, and only continues to hone his craft,” she said. “He is also emotional and intuitive but never fails to get the job done. That’s the kind of musician you want to hire. They are both incredible sidemen, in that you never have to worry about them dropping the ball. And taking those qualities into a project of their own can only mean it’s going to be fun and exciting to watch them fly.”
When the tour ended in Europe last fall, Chris and Eleanor stayed on to play London and Amsterdam as The Mastersons. The New West contract came about, in part, through an encounter with a label executive at a Tonight Show taping with Earle.
“We’re beyond ecstatic about that,” Eleanor said. “It’s a great company with a great roster.”
Recently returned from a grueling performance schedule at South by Southwest, the pair have embarked on a radio tour to support the record. They have just finished a spring tour with Steve Earle and will now have plenty of time for Mastersons gigs. They are also planning the next record.
Chris still shows up occasionally to support other musician friends, playing hot guitar at a recent Jim Keller Band gig on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“I just love music,” he said. “I’m looking for anything that gives me goose bumps or creates some kind of emotional response.”
And that’s a good description of Birds Fly South.
Featured photograph by Catherine Sebastian (top of page) taken at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble