The three siblings in The Band Perry like to brag about how their mom used to play them Loretta Lynn records but that dad was into the Stones. They have a thing for "the romantic" and "the grotesque." They like steampunk. They love Faulkner. They think Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events was totally underrated.
"It was too dark for kids and too childlike for adults," said Reid Perry, bassist and middle sibling.
Even if The Band Perry's music comes from a similar in-between space, no one would call the group underrated. In a little more than a year, its popularity exploded, thanks to If I Die Young, a stunning ballad that topped the country charts in late 2010, earned a Grammy nomination for best country song, won single and song of the year at the Country Music Association Awards (where the group was named new artist of the year) and propelled the band's superb self-titled debut to triple platinum. On Saturday, they'll sing it when they open for Brad Paisley, alongside American Idol champ Scotty McCreery, at Rupp Arena in Lexington.
Although The Band Perry's career seems headed up, up, up — it performed at the Grammys last month with Glen Campbell and was the first to perform on the new stage at the iconic Ryman Auditorium last week in Nashville — its album is full of songs that pull in various directions. The siblings sing about leaving their hometown in the dust while longing for the comforts of home and breaking hearts while pining for true love. Their songs feel young and old, naive and wise — which might explain why so many kids go to see The Band Perry in concert with their parents, grandparents or both.
"We walk a fine edge between the surreal and the romantic," said Kimberly, 28. She and brothers Reid, 23, and Neil, 21, were taking a dinner break on their palatial tour bus after a performance last year at the Delaware State Fair, where they preceded If I Die Young with a punchy cover of Queen's Fat Bottomed Girls. Their mom, Marie Perry, handed Kimberly a peanut butter sandwich. It was cut in half, the way only moms cut peanut butter sandwiches.
On a grueling tour schedule that includes photo shoots, press interviews and fan photo sessions, the Perrys' only reprieve is sleep, which doesn't always help.
"I've even been dreaming about the songs we're working on," Kimberly said.
On nights before a rehearsal, Kimberly could never sleep. At 15, she was fronting a rock band of high school buddies called Rain, named for the weather on the day the group formed in Mobile, Ala. Neil and Reid, then 8 and 10, would watch their big sister with awe as she practiced in the living room. Whenever her bandmates left for a glass of water, they'd rush to grab the drumsticks and bass guitar.
The boys eventually started their own group — "the Mobile Music Machine," Reid said, almost blushing — and would rehearse in the foyer of their pediatrician father's practice. (These days, papa Perry works in Tennessee while his wife travels with the band. His name is Steve Perry. No, not Steve Perry from Journey.)
In 2005, Reid and Neil were finally tall enough to stand next to their sister onstage without looking ridiculous, so they started performing together. Reid played the bass, and Neil picked up mandolin and accordion. Everybody sang. "I think we always knew we were going to do the family band eventually," Reid said. "We needed a lead singer, and she needed a band."
They embarked on a radio- sponsored tour of Wal-Marts across the Southeast. "With the panties and the bras," Kimberly said of the band's early gigs in Bible Belt lingerie departments.
It was there that the trio nurtured a sibling chemistry for vocal harmony that would propel the songs they had written in their parents' basement in the East Tennessee town of Greeneville, where they moved in 2002. They'd start recording them after Garth Brooks' manager, Bob Doyle, discovered the group in 2008. In 2009, the Perrys were signed to Republic Records Nashville by Scott Borchetta, credited with launching the career of Taylor Swift. In summer 2010, If I Die Young was all over country radio. Last summer, it crossed over to pop radio.
Since the band's album was released in fall 2010, it has produced other big singles — the jouncy Hip to My Heart, the fiery You Lie and All Your Life — but If I Die Young is the song the trio hears about over and over, on Twitter, on Facebook and in the autograph lines that form after every gig. Equal parts sentimental and fatalistic, the song imagines the fallout of a premature death in sepia-toned melodies that have touched listeners who might have lost someone too soon.
"All the stories come out of the faucet," Neil said of fans' intense response to the song. "It's been really cool to be a part of these people's lives in a very personal way. I think that's what country music is."
The trio has toured the state fair circuit heavily in previous summers, and carnival imagery has seeped into the band's lyric sheet along the way.
Walk Me Down the Middle depicts a young romance blooming beneath the glow of a Ferris wheel, and Lasso describes love as "a ride on a Tilt-A-Whirl that sits on top of the world." They loved going to the fair as kids, and they still like to watch Ryan and Tatum O'Neal in the movie Paper Moon.
"The image of the fair in that movie is always in our heads when we're writing," Neil said.
The band writes nearly all of its material and said other songwriters are brought in to keep them on track and pull their tunes into focus. "We have a lot of ideas swirling around," Kimberly said. Then "somebody comes along with a needle and thread and helps us sew up all of these really cool ideas."
Most of the ideas on the Perrys' first album formed in Greeneville, where Reid, Neil and Kimberly still live with their parents. There's no point in buying apartments or building houses when they were home only 19 days in 2010, they said.
"The biggest pressures, to me, are the ones that come externally — the pressure of trying to maintain the pace on the road," Kimberly said. "Some days, you want to go home."