How many drops of rain roll off of how many window panes
Down to a valley low where a river like me begins to grow
I sing a mournful song as I rush and ramble along
Oh di oh di oh di o di o di o di o
I bury secrets deep, I keep them down where the catfish creep
Where the rolling tide can’t reach the things that I hide
I hum a mournful tune in the Alabama June
“The Tennessee River,” by The Secret Sisters
The Secret Sisters, Lydia and Laura Rogers, are from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and no matter where their music takes them, they don’t want to live anywhere else. Alabama shaped them, gave them their start and provided a place to recover and heal when their career fell apart. It later became the inspiration they needed to start over and try music one more time.
A music career started fast and early for the sisters who sing dark songs in a pure harmony that twists, bends and blends with every note. It was learned from growing up in a church where the congregation was the choir. In their early twenties the duo signed with Universal Republic Records through a talent search, and recorded two albums with T Bone Burnett. Their image was a 1940s photograph of pale-skinned girls with finger waves and pin-curled hair and red lips. There were tours with Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne and songs produced by Jack White. They played on “Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” and their song “Tomorrow Will be Kinder” was in the Hunger Games soundtrack. But a lawsuit with their manager wiped them out and almost ended their careers before they turned 30.
Their third album,You Don’t Own Me Anymore, produced by Brandi Carlile and mixed by Grammy-winner Trina Shoemaker of Fairhope, comes out in June. Writing the new songs ripped out and released the worst time of their lives and created a new beginning for the duo who had almost walked away from music.
The Southern Rambler talked with The Secret Sisters on the Cayamo music cruise in February.
TSR: What does Alabama mean to your music?
Laura: When you grow up playing here, you don’t think about it. Muscle Shoals is a few hours from the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and Nashville. Blues, country, Appalachian, soul and even Cajun music finds its way there. It is the perfect melting point of all of the great types of American music and it is home for us and the only thing we have ever known. If we hadn’t started playing music professionally, I don’t know that we would have ever traveled outside of Alabama, but if you don’t travel, it is hard to realize how special it is. Growing up I was bored with Alabama, I thought it was a redneck Southern state and I wanted to get out. Touring took us to different places and we realized there is a specialness even in the familiarity.
Laura: It is so easy to be inspired where we live and there are other international touring musicians living around us. We see each other at home or at festivals and there is a feeling of family.
Lydia: If you aren’t into sports, music can be your thing here. We grew up around our mom and dad singing. Our dad was in the band Iron Horse, and they were mentioned in Rolling Stone this week.
Laura: We come from the world of the art of making music. The culture, perspective and stories coming out of Alabama songwriters are magical, and they are representing the state in a positive way in a time where it could be portrayed as negative. Being from Alabama now almost gives you an edge and people pay closer attention. The people of Alabama aren’t defined by our history or the politicians who represent us.
Being Southern has become a little trendy and some people try to capitalize on that and write about southern things or play in a Southern way. We are so obnoxiously Southern that even if we wanted to be something else, we can’t. We are past the point of playing around and trying to act like something we aren’t. We are confident in who we are.
The South will never be a point of shame for us. All of our family is still in north Alabama and we prefer that to New York, L.A. or Nashville. Now that I have moved back, I could never leave. I don’t care if it is inconvenient for touring and recording, or if I have to drive farther to an airport. If that means we won’t be as successful as we could be, that is okay. People have to sacrifice a lot of things to be successful. Leaving Alabama is not one of the things I am willing to sacrifice for success.
Lydia: People don’t have to move to Nashville anymore. They can stay where they are most comfortable and creative and live where they can develop.
TSR: Why did you leave the South to record this album with Brandi Carlile as her first producing project?
Laura: It would have been easy to make it in Muscle Shoals, but we went almost as far as you can go north in the U.S. Brandi has always been one of our heroes and we recorded with her at Bear Creek Studio in Seattle. We were such fish out of water that it brought out the Alabama parts of us and captured the beautiful parts of being Southern. All of the annoying parts were left back home. It is also nice to have other people like Brandi who are not from the South but see the good in it.
TSR: Trina Shoemaker says this is the best album she has ever worked on, but she has never met you in person. She describes your music as, “beautiful, sexy, dark and deep and they stay in perfect pitch. How is all of that present in their voices?”
Laura: Trina has worked on so many records that we love and we love the sound that she captures. We want to meet her, but when music connects you and in an honest place you still find a kinship. She understands where we are coming from.
Lydia: That is great to hear from her, but I disagree. I don’t think we have perfect pitch, we are all over the place.
Laura: We can adjust to each other and instinctively know where the other is going and that is the advantage of being siblings. If Lydia has a day where she is a little flat, I can meet her there, but we are neurotic about being pitchy. We were in church all of our lives and there was a lot of music, but no instruments or choir. We read shape notes in the song book and everyone sang a capella at the same time.
Lydia: If anyone is off pitch you can hear it. We weren’t going to church to learn how to sing, but we learned how to blend and control our volume. Gospel and church music blends with bluegrass music which is what we grew up on. It is natural to us. We love the Louvin Brothers and we feel like we are carrying the torch of Alabama sibling harmonies.
Laura: Our whole congregation sings well and there we are just a face in the crowd. It was surprising to us when someone thought we were special because to us, we were just normal.
TSR: You seem normal on stage when you tell stories and talk with the audience and each other, and much of it is spontaneous and personal. Do you have “Did I say that? Did she say that?” discussions after the show?
Lydia: It is always me thinking, “Did she say that?” I am constantly surprised and have no idea what is going to come out of her mouth from show to show. It is kind of fun, but also terrifying.
Laura: Cruise food is not the best on the digestive system and Lydia has begged me not to talk about it. I am not going to talk about poop on stage, Lydia.
Lydia: You have done it before.
Laura: Some people think we script the show and the humor is part of the schtick. But it isn’t. I feel awkward just standing there while she is tuning her guitar, and I can’t stand there and look cool because I am not cool. I feel like I have to talk and tell stories and fill up space, and then she rolls her eyes, but that is just who we are.
Lydia: Whatever comes into her head goes out of her mouth.
Laura: Now I can’t imagine our show without the humor. Every now and then people say we remind them of June Carter. That is the best compliment we can get. I love the old-timey, G-rated humor.
Lydia: We are musicians and that is just what we do for a living. We don’t want to ever put ourselves on a pedestal like we are above someone else. Humor is a way that people can relate and get to know us. We play such dark and somber songs and we have to lighten it up.
TSR: Speaking of dark and somber songs, there is an “Iuka” reprise on the new album (“Iuka” is an abuse, marriage, and murder ballad on their album Put Your Needle Down)
Laura: It is called “Mississippi.” We love “Iuka” so much so we thought we would shift it around and show it from the murderous father’s perspective. It became a heartbreaking story with painful reasons about why some people can do horrible things. We love dark Southern literature and I have always tried to write that way.
Lydia: Iuka, Mississippi, is a real place and people went there to get married, just like the lovers in the song. People come up to us to talk about getting married or other stories from there.
Laura: Those stories matter in the South. Jason Isbell is cool because if you are from his neck of the woods, you know the folklore and events he references. To everyone else, it is a good Southern lyric, but to us, it is real and he is commemorating the history of a place that matters. We are trying to tell the stories of these little Southern towns and of people who will never write a book or a song.
Rick Bragg is my favorite living author and he also tells the stories that mean something to people here. On the days I forget the way my grandfather was, I can go back and read Rick’s book and remember something my grandfather did. Rick says we should have statues made for the men with a bag of fishing worms in their pocket, hat sideways and wearing coveralls. They don’t make men like that anymore. We are losing that generation and mentality. We have to remember those people in Alabama.
TSR: What is the story behind your song “Tennessee River?”
Lydia: That is the song that we took the bankruptcy and everything from that terrible time of our lives and made it into an identity that reflects what we had been through.
Laura: We were having a writing retreat in a house that overlooks the Tennessee River. The river is a huge part of the Shoals area and it was our first time to write again. We didn’t know if we could do it after all we had been through.
We thought about all of the characteristics a river has and the parallels of our life at that time. It was the first song we wrote with a third record in mind. Everything was fresh and raw and we were emotional and high-strung and not getting along at all. We had been going back and forth with lawyers and were bogged down and not feeling creative. We forgot how to write songs together. Writing “Tennessee River” was how we processed it. It was a cathartic song for us.
Lydia: Once we got it out, it was a relief and we had faith in ourselves again. It was a heavy moment.
Laura: With “Tennessee River,” we realized we had a lot to say and we needed to say it or we would explode. You Don’t Own My Anymore is about the awful phase and it may not do anything good for our careers or people may love it, but we had to put it out there. That song is the thesis of all of it.
We had to be out of it before we could really sing about it. We couldn’t sing “the Tennessee River runs low” while we were in the darkness. We had to get out and then write about it. We can look back on it now and have peace–we are even better off because of it. We figured out who our real friends are and we discovered ourselves. We had to learn how to avoid getting run over by people. We are coming from a place of honesty and doing what we want to do.
Lydia: What happened to us was pretty rare. Who goes bankrupt when they are 26?
Laura: I had a perfect credit score and had been so responsible with my spending.
Lydia: We were served the lawsuit the strangest way. It was the last show of the tour with Nickel Creek and we were heading to our van after sound check. A guy approached us with pictures of us and sharpies, said he was a huge fan and had his picture made with us. We signed everything, took the picture and then he said, “You have been served.” True story.
Laura: We had spent most of our money on lawyers and legal fees trying to negotiate out of a contract that was stifling but we couldn’t get out of it. The lawyers said we could go to court and that would cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars, or file bankruptcy. We were broke so we had to file bankruptcy. I was driving a car that I got when I was 18 and living in a one-bedroom house that I paid $60,000 for. I didn’t have anything that mattered to anyone else, but my house and my dog mattered to me. It was humiliating to be in your late 20s with amazing career experiences but can’t pay your electric bill and need help from your parents to pay a $400 mortgage. It turned us on our heads and we had depression and anxiety.
Our artist friends like Brandi and John Paul White rallied behind us, encouraged and gave us advice when they didn’t have to. Those little breaths of life kept us barely breathing and holding on. I don’t want anyone to go through what we went through, but if they do, we are here to listen. I will put that PSA out there.
We started touring again with Jon Paul White, Old Crow Medicine Show and Brandi, and that touring saved us.
Lydia: We are ready to get back out there. We have a new perspective on music and value life even more. Looking back, we know we were spoiled at the beginning of our career because it happened so quickly and easily. Now we know how hard it is in the music business when you are just starting out. Someone paying $25 to come see you play in the middle of the week is a big deal. We are also both married and happy now. In a lot of ways this feels like our first record and a fresh start. Everything is different and brand new.
Laura: God gives you what you can handle and He must have known that would push us to the brink. But there is redemption and He heard our cries for help and wanted us to sing again. This album got us a little closer to who we are and what we sound like. We are happy, stronger and excited about the future. We are so thankful for that.