The Whiskey Sisters Work Up a World-Class Sound
No reason to mince words: In just a year's time from their formation, in my view The Whiskey Sisters have risen to become this city's hottest new roots music act. How does that feel for the band's pair of singing, songwriting and spiritual sisters, Barbara Nesbitt and Teal Collins?
"I love that title," answers Nesbitt. "I hope it sticks."
"I hope it's true too," adds Collins. "We've been nose-to-the-grindstone for a year now and it feels like it's paying off as far as the band's sounding tight and we're singing together in a way that only comes with time. It's just feeling good every week."
And every week The Whiskey Sisters can be seen playing The Continental Club's Thursday Happy Hour for free... for now.
After all, it takes but a show or a listen to the CD to be ready to place a healthy bet that The Whiskey Sisters have a bright future ahead.
Their sound at its core is rocking country with threads of blues, soul, folk-rock and Texas spirit wrapped around it, and their potent voices blend as if the two were, well, genetic sisters. They boast double barreled songwriting talent as well and show the winning ways of veteran entertainers when up onstage.
Plus they've worked up a great band, which includes guitarist Etan Sekons, bassist Lonnie Trevino Jr., drummer Phil Bass and keyboardist Michael Davids.
Both Nesbitt and Collins knew that something highly kinetic was crackling between them when they got together to trade songs and harmonies on the suggestion of a mutual friend. "I keep saying this but it's true: We got to the first chorus harmony and we were like, aw shit! We need to be doing this a lot," recalls Nesbitt.
They soon discovered that "we also had a whole lot of musical history in common," Nesbitt observes, almost as if they'd emerged from the same womb at opposite ends of the nation. Barbara grew up in Atlanta and "always loved music since I was a wee lass." She ran way from home – "things were not going well there" – at the tender age of 15 to proverbially join the circus. Or rather "joined a band and just never looked back. Especially because it was a Grateful Dead cover jam band, it was definitely the circus."
Collins hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the daughter of famed jazz disc jockey and radio and TV personality Al "Jazzbo" Collins, who hosted "The Tonight Show" for five weeks in 1957 in between hosts Steve Allen and Jack Parr. Teal took to the stage at 16 years old "playing guitar in bands before I was singing. But once I sang one song one night, I was like, well, this is less work than playing guitar," she recalls. With husband Josh Zee she fronted the rocking Americana buzz band The Mother Truckers, who moved to Austin eight years ago at the suggestion of Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson (who similarly relocated here from the Bay Area some four decades ago at the urging of Commander Cody).
A few years back Nesbitt migrated to Austin from San Diego with two solo albums under her belt. "I had seen the Mother Truckers shortly after I moved to town, and I was blown away by Teal and Josh. I thought they were fabulous." (The Mother Truckers are currently on hiatus, and Zee can be heard with The South Austin Moonlighters.)
Since uniting with Collins, Nesbitt feels like she has found a vocal soul sister. "Probably the two things to me that are most impressive about Teal are of course the way she can sing and harmonize and work up a song. But also her dedication; she's constantly working to get this band going behind the scenes. Not just up on stage in front of everyone else, but there's not a day that goes by that she's not doing something to get this band to the next level."
Before the two met up to try making music together, "I went to Barbara's website and listened to her voice," says Collins. "One thing that's really important to me as a singer is vibrato. When I listened to Barbara she had that and a certain polish to her voice, almost like a young k.d. lang – there was a strength and power there. She just knew how to use her voice. And we immediately hit it off friendship-wise. We could just hang out and it felt like we had known each other a while."
Getting the Juice They Needed Via "Whiskeystarter"
In an era when it seems all the good band names have been taken, Collins summoned up the handle Whiskey Sisters while listening to Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection album. She called Nesbitt, who heartily approved, and then "did an online search and found that it wasn't taken and immediately snagged the domain name," Collins recounts.
The two also took a cue from the Internet and did their own version of the popular fundraising site Kickstarter and launched Whiskeystarter on the group's website to pay for making and promoting their album. "I did Kickstarter for my third solo record which is coming out in a few months, and that was very successful, it worked great," explains Nesbitt. "But when Teal and I decided to try to get funding from our friends, fans and family, we didn't want to have to wait until we reached our goal. Every time money came in we just went to work. A little money here and and we'd go into the studio. We really liked the idea that we were doing it ourselves, and calling it Whiskeystarter was really fun."
And when Collins emailed Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer to ask for a weekly residency, "I just asked for what I wanted. And he said, yeah, let's do it." They graduated from Mondays at Austin's premier roots venue to Thursdays, where they pack the house and whiskey-start the coming weekend.
"Ever since I first heard Teal with The Mother Truckers, I've been a huge supporter of whatever that girl's doing," says Wertheimer. "I totally trust her and figured whatever she was going to be bringing into the club was going to be great. Everybody fell in love with The Mother Truckers and now they've fallen in love with The Whiskey Sisters. And now there's two girls to look at instead of just one. The place is full of guys... and girls. Few people come along very often that can sing like she can, and now she's found another girl that sings just as well. The two of them together are really dynamic and they have great chemistry."
The Fickle Finger of Fate Lands on the Sisters
The 12-song disc recorded at Congress House and Summit Street studios is evenly divided between Nesbitt and Collins compositions, which they both bring to each other and the band to work up and polish. Numbers like the opener "So Close To The Sun," Nesbitt's "All I Can Do" and Collins's "Home On The Highway" feel as if the queen of country cool Emmylou Harris split via binary fission into two harmonically complimentary twins and ratcheted up the rocking. "I Take It Back" (by Collins) and the swamp pop flavored "Fool" (a Nesbitt composition) recall the glories of Bonnie Raitt in her youthful bluesy heyday. "I'm Gone" and "Let's Drink" (by Nesbitt) can handily fill the dancefloor at the hardest-bitten honky-tonk. And numbers like the briskly cantering "Wait A Lifetime" (Nesbitt) and show-closing rouser "The Whiskey Song" (Collins; see live video below) brand their trademark tandem singing found throughout the disc into the listener's consciousness with red-hot authority. And by naming their own label World Records, the Sisters hint at just how high their aim is. (Click here to listen to samples of all 12 songs.)
On stage The Whiskey Sisters serve up strong shots of fun with a spirited chaser of the delight the two clearly find in their collaboration. And they have a way with cover songs that make everything from Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" to the late Doug Sahm's "Mendocino" their own. They whip up an infectious groove on the latter that would surely have made Sir Doug grin, playing it with double ukuleles. But don't think they're jumping in behind Eddie Vedder on the currently trendy uke bandwagon.
"No, they're jumping on my trend!" asserts Collins. "In 1999, The Mother Truckers had an album with 'Tonight You Belong to Me,' that song that Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters do in 'The Jerk,' played with ukulele. That's always been a dear instrument for me to play because my Dad taught me when I was like five."
It's hard not to get a sense that everything seems to be fated for The Whiskey Sisters. "We feel the same way," Nesbitt confesses. "We love what we are doing so much. The connection that I made with Teal musically has been unmatched in my vast musical history."
"We're feeling optimistic," adds Collins. "You can't force anything like this to happen. It either happens or it doesn't, like people getting behind you. It feels great that people I respect are getting right back to me after hearing the album and saying, okay, what can I do to help this get further? Instead of feeling like it's an uphill climb I feel like we're in the flow. And I love that feeling.
"That's all I ever wanted to be was in the flow!" Collins hollers. Given the big splash they're made in Austin, high-proof waves of their musical elixir and sisterly girl power seem destined to ripple far and wide.
The Whiskey Sisters play an in-store performance and sign CDs at Waterloo Records on Tuesday, February 19 at 5 p.m. Their official CD release party is at The Continental Club on Friday, February 22 at 10 p.m.