In the living room of their modest South Austin home, Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore are discussing "Good Luck Charm," the second record they’ve made together as the Mastersons. Together for nine years and married for five, they have that classic couples trait of finishing each other’s sentences down pat.
We’re discussing "I Found You," an unabashed love song that’s a bit of a departure for the duo. Though they’d shied away from such straightforward, confessional balladry on their first album, "it was sort of a low-hanging fruit," Chris admits. "To ignore it would be, you know—"
"Well, we are married," Eleanor finishes the thought. "That’s part of the deal, part of our story."
The story, so far, goes like this: Texas boy, playing in Jack Ingram’s band, meets Texas girl, playing with Susan Gibson, at a music festival in Colorado. Soon thereafter, they’re together in Austin. Chris, a first-class guitarist with great roots-pop senses, gets a gig playing in Son Volt, while Eleanor, a violinist conversant in both folk and classical realms, starts working with singer-songwriter Slaid Cleaves and country couple Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison.
In 2008, they move to New York, seeking opportunity and adventure; they marry in 2009. A year later, the change of scenery pays off big-time when New York resident Steve Earle, who Chris had met at an Australian festival a decade earlier, asks both of them to be part of his touring band.
Prodding from Earle, who asks them to do one of their own songs during his show, motivates the Mastersons to record "Birds Fly South," which comes out in 2012 on the prominent indie New West Records. "Good Luck Charm," an auspicious follow-up, will be released July 8 on New West, bringing the story literally up-to-date.
Ah, but there’s one more important detail: "Birds Fly South" turned out to be a foreshadowing title. After recording in Austin with a crew that included ace rhythm section George Reiff and Falcon Valdez, the Mastersons flew south for good, resettling here in early 2013.
It’s not that they grew tired of big-city life. "We both love New York," Chris says. "But in 2012, we spent a total of eight weeks at home, between the Steve tour and Mastersons tours."
Though the city invigorated them — "I think it would be worth every penny if I was there to enjoy it," Chris says — the high cost of living didn’t make much sense given their increasingly on-the-road careers.
Austin, meanwhile, brought them closer to home and family. Chris grew up in Houston, Eleanor in Denton; Eleanor’s sister, Bonnie, lives in Austin and performs regularly as a singer-songwriter in local clubs.
"I think Austin’s a great muse. There’s a lot of talented, creative people; you could go out every night watching music," Chris says. "It’s easier to write here; we don’t go out quite as much as we did in New York. You get a little time to rest and think and reflect."
Indeed, the title track of their new album was written not long after they moved back, and it was inspired by a landmark local event: Wendy Davis’ historic filibuster at the Capitol last summer. Davis’ good-luck-charm sneakers became a focal point for a song that’s not so much partisan as simply activist, championing the cause of speaking up and participating in the political process.
"Music should be galvanizing," Chris says. "So many people spend so much time thinking it’s black or white, it’s blue or red — and that’s all just a distraction. If we took a step back, took a deep breath and just communicated — "
"I would really encourage everyone to just communicate," Eleanor picks up the thread. "I really do think that as human beings we probably agree more than disagree, and if we were able to just talk about it and get together, then we’d be a little further along in making some progress."
Though "Good Luck Charm" isn’t really a political album, a couple other tracks also touch on societal themes. "Uniform," written with New York musician Aaron Tasjan, addresses avoiding the herd mentality, and "Cautionary Tale" references the isolation that can happen when "a digital haze washes over everyone."
A certain degree of social awareness probably was inevitable in the Mastersons’ music. "I think it’s from my canvassing and activist days," says Eleanor, who helped open a Dallas office for the Texas Campaign for the Environment not long after she graduated from Texas Christian University on a music scholarship.
"It was cool to see that you could literally knock on doors, identify people that agree with you, organize their voices to make change — and it can happen. And you don’t always win … but I think that no matter what you believe, you don’t have to be quiet about it. The beauty of our country is that we can speak our minds and we don’t have to accept things for how they are."
It’s easy to draw a line from the more socially conscious songs on "Good Luck Charm" to the band’s work with Earle, who’s known for the political nature of his work. Chris tentatively acknowledges the connection, though he guards against considering the Mastersons in the same light as their boss.
"He definitely knows how to use his voice, and he uses it well. And I’d say that has made us want to figure out how to use ours — not necessarily exactly as he uses his, because ours is different," Chris says. "We’ve tried to figure out how to use our voice, and the best way to be effective. And hopefully be galvanizing instead of polarizing."
Not to suggest that all of "Good Luck Charm" bends toward such seriousness. One of the most lovable moments comes during an instrumental break in the song "Anywhere But Here," when a hot piano run suddenly is enhanced by … a dog solo.
Mere mention of that magical moment serendipitously prompts the couple’s German shepherd/heeler, Shakti, to join our living-room conversation with a friendly growl. "We’re talking about you!" Eleanor nods, with a laugh.
Shakti made the trip with them last fall to Los Angeles, where the band recorded "Good Luck Charm" with renowned studio ace Jim Scott, whose production credits include Wilco and Crowded House along with an extensive engineering resume that includes heavyweights such as Tom Petty, Sting and the Rolling Stones.
"Jim was really kind to let us bring her," Eleanor says of their canine collaborator. Chris notes that Scott "was a bit nervous at first, before he met us or the dog — and rightfully so, to have a nice studio full of all that gear. And I was like, ‘Well, you know, you made a lot of really good records in the ’80s and probably saw a lot wilder things than us bringing our dog. So let’s bring our dog and it’ll be OK.’"
Eleanor was recording harmony vocals on "Anywhere But Here" when Shakti decided she wanted in on the action. "I just started jumping around, and got her to bark," Eleanor says.
"And it happened right in time — right on the beat," Chris says with a laugh. "So we’re like, ‘All right, that’s going to stay.’"
Given how easy it would be to splice such a sound precisely into place in the age of ProTools, it’s natural to be skeptical of this tale, but Eleanor insists nothing was edited: "It wasn’t! That was just exactly how it went down."
Shakti will have to stay behind as the couple spends much of June and early July on the road with Earle. They’ll be back on July 19 for a 5 p.m. in-store performance at Waterloo Records and a full show at Stubb’s that night.
"She’s my dream dog," Eleanor says. "We take her with us any time we can. I’m sad to have to leave her behind" on this tour, she laments, then remembers one of the major benefits of being back in Austin: "But Bonnie will take care of her, so she’ll be in good hands."