By Hank Adams
The Whitmore Sisters grew up in a unique musical and creative environment. With an opera-singing mother and a father who was both a folk singer and a pilot, the girls learned to play music while also learning to fly airplanes. As both bloomed into accomplished professional musicians, they occasionally played on each other’s albums, or worked together for other artists. Yet it took until last year to record an album together — Ghost Stories, out on January 21st on Red House / Compass.
“We’ve done a lot of recording together,” Eleanor said during a recent phone chat. Despite any potential conference call awkwardness, she and Bonnie handed the conversation back and forth with an ease that belied a lifetime of collaboration. And yet a sisters-only album remained something they’d get to…someday.
“We’ve always played music together,” Bonnie said. And there was always the idea of the sisters getting together on a project of their own. “But with that expectation behind it, we were both kind of like, ‘No.’”
“I don’t think we could have made this record in our twenties,” said Eleanor. “We just didn’t have the relationship we have now.”
“You have to set yourself up as a separate person,” Bonnie added, noting that they needed to explore and develop as both siblings and artists before they could ever be ready to come back together and create. [Ed. – for more about Bonnie’s journey, read Mya Byrne’s 2020 interview.]
And develop they did. Eleanor and Bonnie have each played, and toured, with a who’s-who of country and Americana elites. Austin-based Bonnie is both a solo artist and a sidewoman for the likes of Hayes Carll and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, to name a few. Older sister Eleanor, based in LA, is one half of the band The Mastersons. With the other half, her husband Chris, she’s played with Brandi Carlile and Steve Earle, among many others.
With two successful careers only sometimes overlapping, a sisters-only album remained forever on the horizon. The time was just never, quite, right.
And then the pandemic came. Like so many other musicians, the sisters were grounded and off the road for who knew how long. And Bonnie, so used to being on the road, came down with a bad case of itchy feet.
“I was tired of being cooped up at home,” she laughed. “We don’t do vacations in our family.”
She decided to let those feet take her out to LA, to the home Eleanor shares with her husband Chris. And before she even arrived, it was Chris who declared now to be the perfect time to work on an album together.
“We’ve been talking about it for a really long time,” Eleanor said. But “Chris lit the fire.”
And after years of feeling pressured by the expectation of a Whitmore Sisters album, and juggling two busy schedules, it seemed a pandemic, of all things, had created the perfect opportunity to finally create together. The time, at last, was right.
“After we split off and did our own thing, I had an epiphany: my sister is the most natural, easy person on the planet I can sing with,” said Eleanor.
It was “destined to happen,” in Bonnie’s words. “We’ve become not just sisters but best friends. We have a love and a like for each other, and that made the idea of creating together easier.”
Written and recorded over the course of less than three weeks, their debut album Ghost Stories was an almost seamless creation.
“It was kind of cathartic with how easy it was,” Eleanor said. With all the time in the world, and absolutely zero expectations, “it was such an easy process.” And with her husband Chris as the producer, the sisters had complete creative control.
“We made this album without a record deal, without anybody telling us what to do,” Bonnie said. “We had the freedom to make something we really wanted to make.”
With that freedom, and a new-found sense of purpose, the sisters began to draw together songs written previously and ideas for new ones. “We just kept writing,” said Eleanor.
Having both experienced a lot of loss in their lives, the work began to circle around themes of grief and loss for former flames and friends, often to addiction and overdoses.
“Songs can be therapy for both the writer and the listener. Bonnie’s explored that a lot in her writing, and I’ve always used songwriting as a way to process death.”
Though the songs deal with the heaviness of grief, they aren’t all low and slow and sad. There’s a lightness to many songs on the album, what Eleanor called a “celebratory” approach to remembering those who have gone.
“There’s definitely a need to combine not just grief and sadness,” said Bonnie, “but to balance with some whimsy, something that melodically lifts you.” She went on to explain, particularly in terms of the final song “Greek Tragedy” that “there’s this feeling” when you lose someone, particularly to addiction. “You’re grateful they’re not having to fight that battle anymore.”
Finding the grace in grief is the journey through Ghost Stories, a journey that widened in scope once the sisters began to pull back their focus from the personal and individual to look at how grief, in all its myriad incarnations, affects all of us.
The pandemic, and the events surrounding the murders of Elijah McClain and George Floyd, sparked a need to draw out that larger narrative.
“We’ve been forced to see and deal with death in some capacity,” Eleanor said of the pandemic, which none of us were prepared for.
Bonnie likened it to her lifelong struggle with depression. “People are weighed down by the heaviness and sadness of grief.” They’re not just dealing with the loss of loved ones but the very real fact that the pre-pandemic “normal” is now also gone.
Together they sisters wanted to create a space for that grief, as well as face head-on the need to address systemic racism faced by marginalized communities.
Turning their lens toward issues like racism and police violence wasn’t something the sisters took on lightly. An early version of the title song “Ghost Stories” focused more tightly on the murder of Elijah McCain. But, as Eleanor said, “It didn’t feel like a song for us to sing, as two white women.”
“There’s a lot of luxury you have as a songwriter, to write songs that aren’t always the story of your own loss,” said Bonnie. But with “Ghost Stories,” both sisters openly discussed appropriating a story that just wasn’t theirs to tell.
Widening the scope to talk about the wider issues reflected in what happened to Elijah McClain gave them room to speak to the broader narrative. As Bonnie noted, “The grief and anger around the world – that was a pivotal moment for a lot of people. It definitely influenced how we reworked the track. To speak to that collective grief.”
“When we can experience our grief together we can share the weight,” Eleanor said.
Bonnie agreed. “It’s okay to be vulnerable with your grief and it’s okay to feel it. Running away doesn’t help. We need to figure out how to get better as a whole.”
Eleanor takes it back to a favored Woody Guthrie quote. “For artists, our job is to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed.”
The comfort of grief seen and acknowledged is what makes Ghost Stories such an engrossing album. Beyond the joyfulness and grace of celebrating love now lost, beyond even the delicate back-and-forth harmonies that stretch longing out into acceptance and grace, that willingness to turn to pain, to look at it and love it, makes this debut album, released January 21st by Red House Records, one that was totally worth the wait.
Hank Adams is a writer and photographer, country music fan from way back, and an overalls enthusiast. They are based in Central Pennsylvania.