Music News & Reviews

The Mastersons pull double duty as Steve Earle's openers and band members

Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore perform together as The Mastersons and accompany Steve Earle as members of the Dukes. Tuesday night they'll do both.
Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore perform together as The Mastersons and accompany Steve Earle as members of the Dukes. Tuesday night they'll do both.

Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore have a thing about home life — mostly because they experience so little of it.

The husband and wife team that perform as the aptly named Americana duo The Mastersons has spent so much time on the road — primarily through touring on their own and as members of Steve Earle's long-running Dukes band — that any sense of conventional domesticity, as least when it comes to where they lay out the welcome mat, has evaporated from their marriage.

As soon as a stretch of road work concludes that promotes the pop-laced Americana songs of The Mastersons' two New West albums — 2012's Birds Fly South and 2014's Good Look Charm — a run with Earle ensues. On Tuesday, the couple will do double duty, as they have regularly since teaming with Earle in 2010, by opening his Lexington Opera House concert and then serving primarily as instrumentalists and harmony vocalists in the Dukes for the rest of the night.

"They're kind of long days, I guess," Masterson says. "It's definitely two different head spaces and two different skill sets at work. We enjoy them both. I love standing stage right and accompanying a great artist. I always have. That's something I've done a lot longer than work as a front person. When you're a front person, you're trying to pace the evening and engage the crowd."

The accompanist roles Masterson and Whitmore have played over the years — the former as a guitarist for Son Volt, Jack Ingram and Wayne Hancock and the latter as a violinist and vocalist for Regina Spektor and Kelly Willis, among others — predated their professional and personal partnership, as did separate solo careers. In fact, Birds Fly South was largely the result of each artist composing on their own. Good Look Charm solidified a greater group dynamic that has since carried over to their own gigs (the duo has played Lexington several times outside of Earle shows) and subsequent recording (a third album is in the writing stages with an eye for a 2016 summer release).

"We definitely wanted to have Good Luck Charm be about having both of our voices together," Whitmore says. "We kind of hinted at that with a song on the first record called Crash Test where we sang everything together as one voice. That informed our process for writing tunes. But I also wanted to expand the subjects we were writing about. Our last record had a lot of broken relationship songs. This one definitely moves forward in terms of different themes."

Then there is Earle, the champion songsmith whose music has shifted dramatically over the past three decades to touch upon insurgent country (1986's Guitar Town), renegade rock 'n' roll (1989's Copperhead Road), artful personal reflection (1996's I Feel Alright), political musings (2004's The Revolution Starts... Now), a Grammy-winning folk tribute (2009's Townes) and a fine blues-hued adventure (2015's Terraplane). Now, where do The Mastersons fit in with all of that?

"As an artist and as a producer, Steve is fearless," Masterson says. "But he's not one to micro-manage or be picky. He just wants his records to sound good. A lot can be learned about making records that way. We've made the last two Steve Earle and the Dukes records (Terraplane and its 2013 predecessor The Low Highway) really fast, as in five or six days. In doing that, you just have to play and be sure of yourself. It's a delicate balance because you might not get another pass at a song.

"If Steve gets a take that he likes, he might say, 'Alright, great. Moving on.' As a soloist that can be nervewracking sometimes because you don't ever want to play it safe on a record but you also don't want to get too far out on a limb. That approach to the studio is why his records sound like they do. But what might seem nervewracking in the studio usually yields something that ages really well."