ACL Fest 2011: The Secret Sisters
1:30 p.m. Friday, Google+ stage
1:30 p.m. Friday, Google+ stage
Lydia Rogers just wants you to give her a chance.
Sure, she understands the cynics, the doubters and the eye-rollers, but just give her a shot. Watch her take to the stage in a vintage dress and she's confident she'll turn you into one of the faithful.
"Our story is pretty unbelievable. I almost feel like I'm lying to people when we recount it," says the 22-year-old singer, on the phone from Los Angeles, her voice dripping with Alabama twang. "But real music is proven by the way it makes people feel when they see it live. If you don't believe our story or you think it's too pat, come listen to us sing and perform our show and then you can figure out if we're for real or not."
That disclaimer is more necessary for Lydia and her sister Laura — with whom she ladles on honey-sweet American roots harmonies as the Secret Sisters — than most acts storming Austin this weekend. The Secret Sisters boast a biography that reads less like a confluence of actual events and more like the Platonic ideal of a contemporary throwback country duo. A savvy marketer could scarcely cook up a better tale.
Consider the short version: two young (point) sisters (point) from Muscle Shoals, Ala. (point), who learned to sing both from church (point) and their country-literate family (point) nab a Universal Republic deal from an open audition (point) and record their debut entirely with analog tools (point). Oh, and said debut eventually winds up in the hands of "Crazy Heart" and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" soundtrack impresario T-Bone Burnett, who signs on as executive producer, gives it his own polish and creates a new imprint, Beladroit, just for its release (point). The Secret Sisters hit the road hard, playing alongside a dizzying array of greats that includes Willie Nelson, Elvis Costello, Chris Thile, Ray LaMontagne, Elton John, Levon Helm and Loretta Lynn (major, epic bonus points).
"I really didn't believe that anything like this could happen, or that we'd be chosen for a record deal," says Laura, 25. "In truth, if I'd known or had any idea I probably wouldn't have gone and gotten us in this mess to begin with. It would have scared me out of my mind."
Laura speaks of the unlikely audition that set the Secret Sisters' ascendancy into motion. A recent music business graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, Laura had never seriously contemplated a career in performing despite singing a capella in church and at family functions, and a childhood heavy on classic bluegrass and country ranging from Doc Watson to the Everly Brothers. Lydia was considered the real singer of the family, and Laura suffered from crippling stage fright. Hoping to get one up on her anxiety, Laura sang at an open audition in Nashville attended by record label representatives.
"People would beg for me to sing but I hardly ever could. I just didn't have the nerve to do it. I was really insecure," says Laura. "I went to that audition in Nashville in hopes of getting over that. I was proud I had survived it and been a little bit brave without throwing up all over the place."
Laura underestimated her own take on Brandi Carlile's "Same Old You," which so impressed those in attendance that Jamey Johnson and Shooter and Waylon Jennings producer Dave Cobb phoned her even before she returned home. Laura returned for further auditions, with Lydia, then studying graphic design, in tow.
The two soon were flown to Los Angeles and signed to Universal Republic, where they began assembling the pieces of their self-titled debut, a gorgeously sepia-toned 30 minutes of rootsy throwback pop. Laura and Lydia's pristine harmonies perfectly complemented a touch of pedal steel and a smartly chosen batch of classic songs ranging from their uniquely Southern take on the Frank Sinatra-popularized "Something Stupid" to a despondent, haunted realization of Bill Monroe's "The One I Love Is Gone." Toss a couple of Laura's impressively realized originals in the mix — "Tennessee Me" and "Waste the Day," both perfect songs of heartbreak — and you have an unusually effective and understated debut.
"We wanted a record that showcased what we do as vocalists, but we also wanted a diversity of songs on there," says Laura. "Because if we didn't, it could be easy to pigeonhole us as something that's 100 percent roots country. Which isn't bad; that's our base and we love that music. But we also have some pop and rockabilliy and some gospel and some stuff that's all over the place."
One Secret Sisters fan who had faith that the duo could do more than just pleasantly croon is Jack White, who tapped Laura and Lydia to record a gloriously rowdy cover of "Big River" as a 7-inch vinyl single for his Third Man Records Imprint. But even if you doubt the once-unassailable taste of the former White Stripes front man — following his ill-advised Insane Clown Posse collaboration — Lydia, again, just wants you to trust that she and her sister are no gimmick.
"You can put as many stories around music as you want to, and build whatever elaborate tale you can imagine," says Lydia. "But if it's good music it will stand apart."