Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore have enjoyed an amazing career in making great artists sound even better. As in-demand on stage and as they are in the studio, The Mastersons have boldly stepped out front with their latest Shooter Jennings-produced album, No Time For Love Songs, a challenging and personal effort that endeavors to ask questions while musically seeking comfort. The couple has spent the better part of a decade as members of the Dukes, Steve Earle’s touring and usual recording outfit, where they often open the show by entrancing audiences with an ability and spiritual harmony that few possess. Currently, The Mastersons are on tour with Bonnie Whitmore (Eleanor’s sister) for a show that will pass through Macon on April 8th. Calling from the road, Chris Masterson was able to share a few minutes to discuss the new album, the SXSW cancellation, and his role as a musician.
AI- SXSW… I don’t know if it was out of the blue for the artists that were coming but for us, it was kind of a big shock to see the festival canceled. Although, I guess there’s still a lot of things going on. How’s that reverberating throughout the artist community right now?
CM- Well, I can only speak for us ’cause we’re out in a van and playing shows. Our record was coming out the day that we got the news and we were loading in for a gig at Brooklyn Bowl. So I don’t know that I could speak for a community per se, but it’s a fluid situation right now. I think I’m starting to understand why the city did that. But at the same time, the rodeo is going on in Houston. I’m not sure if a cowboy hat protects you from coronavirus or…
I’m hopin’ so!
(Laughs) I think that we need to listen to people as they give advice, but at the same time, people gotta eat and drink and be merry until we’re told otherwise. As far as our plans, I think one of the first emails we got after the news was Waterloo Records asking if we were going to be at our in-store. For a relationship with one of my favorite brick and mortar record stores in the world, we wouldn’t want to hurt any of their business. Our plan, our week at this conversation is unchanged.
I saw your tour dates. I think you get a little bit of a break in May and then you’re right back out with Steve Earle. I’m sure that tour’ll go into the end of the year.
He’s actually just through the summer and then we go to Europe after that.
Let’s talk about the brand new album, No Time For Love Songs. I’ve been listening and tryin’ to figure out how to dive into the album because it’s a difficult thing at this particular time right now when you start dissecting what a political song is or a political album. With No Time For Love Songs, I feel there’s a bit of irony in that title…
With several of those songs, you’re actually speaking to an individual whose philosophies clash with yours. But there’s not like a condemnation in the words. Is it coming from that personal place?
There is not a condemnation! That’s the thing about it is there was a time when people would go behind the curtain and vote how they wanted to vote and then they’d come back out into their community and continue to be sons and daughters and employees and employers and people weren’t so divided. It wasn’t so polarized. I just wanted to be able to talk to as many people as we could, even if we had divergent views. Because I think fundamentally you can sit down with someone that believes different than you– and we have more similarities than differences across the board, I would say to a person. If you can put it into words, if you can do it right, you can disarm someone that’s looking for a conflict.
We made these shirts that say, “Love and Kindness 2020,” and who’s opposed to that (laughs)? When you look at it in those terms, some people are going to agree with us in certain cities or maybe at a Steve Earle show you know you’re preaching to the choir… But I also think that music should be a hopefully galvanizing experience. People work really hard, and when I see people out at the show on Friday night, I look at it and I see, man, they probably had to get a sitter and maybe went to dinner before and bought some tickets and maybe you’re buying a record– and that’s a costly night. So we don’t want to beat someone over the head with something that they don’t want to hear. What I would hope that our music does is create pause– you know? You might not change how someone votes, but you might change how they go out into the community and treat one another.
I’m glad you bring that up– you say at a Steve Earle show, you’re preachin’ to the choir. I have found that is not always the case. I’ve been a fan of Steve’s for decades and have never minded the political bent because he’s always done it. So if you’ve been a fan of his music, it wasn’t something that was coming out of left field, but I have been to shows where I have seen sections of the audience, either that’s when they go to the bathroom, that’s when they get a beer, or that’s when they decide they’re going to stand there with their arms crossed and frown.
And that’s cool! They bought a ticket. It’s their night off. They’re totally entitled to do that. That’s their expression.
There’s so much happening right now to make you angry or to inspire you. And then you have so many people like that who just want to go to the show– as you say they’re making an evening of it and they want to do it without politics or message. And I ask you this because you and Eleanor, you’re in the studio and you’re on the road around the country with so many different artists. Do you see yourself being able to get back to a point where you’re performing and writing “love songs” with more regularity? Or is this– once again asking you about an artistic community– is there a general consensus that this fight is going to continue going into the next election year?
Oh, man. Again, I would hate to speak for a community, but I just kinda thought that song started as almost a joke. We were listenin’ to the radio and Eleanor heard a song– it was a female country singer singin’ about whiskey– and Eleanor was just jokin’, she was like, “If I hear another song about whiskey, I’m gonna stab myself!” (Laughs) And I said, “Well, that’s a little harsh, but I think we can work with this.” We just kinda started there, There’s just so much going on in the world… Woody Guthrie, he said, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s a folk singer’s job to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” And I always loved that.
Jason Isbell just recently– and I’m paraphrasing his line too– in his song “Be Afraid”, he references that if you are not standing up and saying something meaningful with your songs, that you’re not really saying anything at all. (Editor’s Note: The actual line is, “If your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice to sing a cover when we need a battle cry.”)
You know, I like that a lot. That resonates with me. But that’s not to say that the next record, we might not revert back to our regularly scheduled programming. I kind of reserve the right to write about what I want to write about. But that personally resonates with me a lot and I think that art and activism have always gone hand in hand and art has always been a reaction to what’s going on in the world– and sometimes it seems odd when it isn’t! At the time we were writing the title track, the Amazon was fire and then fast forward a few months later, Australia was on fire. There’s just a lot going on in the world and outside of our country as well. There’s a lot to talk about.
I’ll switch gears on you a little bit. You made the record with Shooter Jennings. I love his production style.
He’s a badass!
I think he’s got just a great ear for puttin’ things together. And I know you had a history with him. What brought all of that to the table and full circle to get you guys out there with him in California?
Back in, I would say around 2009, we were all living in New York City, and Shooter called me out of the blue. We met through our friend Jeff Hill, who’s now actually playing bass in the Dukes. Jeff introduced Shooter to me, and I knew who he was, but we’d never met. But he’s like, “I’m puttin’ a band together. I’m gonna make a record. Do you want to play on it?” And we discussed all the finer details and he said, “Cool. All I need to find is a fiddle player now,” and he didn’t know Eleanor. I just said, “Hang on a second…” I just handed the phone to Eleanor (laughs). So that was the first time we worked with him in 2009 and what was supposed to be one record turned into two. It was Family Man and then The Other Life— solely because we cut so many songs. He got two records out of that session. It was a great experience, and then life moved on and we went out with Steve and we made our first record and then started touring with Steve… So it was really about a decade before we worked together again. He’d call for this or that and we were always busy or out of town. But then at the end of 2018 in December, he called me and asked me about this Tanya Tucker record [While I’m Livin’] he was gettin’ ready to make with Brandi Carlile. I looked at my calendar and lo and behold, we were home all month, so Eleanor and I participated in that. Talk about gettin’ to record with a legend, with two great producers, and a great band! It was magical, and it sounds as such– and I guess the GRAMMY people thought as much too (laughs)!
We started 2019 at Sunset Sound with Shooter there. We live in LA. We have for the past three and a half years, and it’s less than 10 minutes from our house… But we were reminded of how good Shooter was! He not only produced with Brandi, but he played piano on the record, so just havin’ him in the band and seein’ his bird’s eye view of the songs in the session, even while he was sitting behind the piano– and that’s no easy feat. There aren’t many people that possess that. It was a couple of weeks after that Tanya record concluded that we were already in talks with him about doing our record– and not only doing it but then doing it at Sunset Sound. That was the impetus to really get us all together again.
I’ve seen you two with Steve Earle multiple times doin’ the opening slot and then, of course, part of the Dukes and the Duchesses. Is it a challenge to maintain and evolve your own personal sound while you’re helping other artists, whether on stage or in the studio, realize their own?
It’s a role that I’ve always enjoyed. I’ve joked that I wanted to be Buddy Miller when I grew up! I just like people like that, that are able to wear a lot of hats, that are able to be a great artist in their own right, great singer, a great guitar player, go play on other people’s records, produce records… I’ve always enjoyed people that have done a bunch of things. Or you think about Nick Lowe as an artist and as a producer. I enjoy the challenge. It is two different skillsets. The moment we started makin’ our own records, it made me respect every bandleader I’ve ever worked for. Even the bad ones because it’s a lot to worry about.
I think being a side person, there’s a real clear delineation of how to do your job. You show up when the day sheet tells you to show up and you play your best and try to be laid back and create a good vibe… But when you’re running a band, there’s a lot more going on. You have all that stuff that surrounds the live gig or the sessions, but then you have a day full of interviews and logistics and there seems to be more responsibilities on the bandleader front. I think we enjoy both. It’s fun to come out here and headline some shows and do our own thing. And then after that, you really appreciate just gettin’ to walk into a session and be a part of an ensemble that makes a great record. I really enjoy all the roles and I think Eleanor is in the same boat.