One day, as The Mastersons were driving down that endless highway on the way to another gig, a song came on the radio. As they tell the story, it was a sort of a sort generic Americana tune with a songstress going on about trains and whiskey. Eleanor Whitmore, who makes up half of the duo with her husband, Chris Masterson, said, “If I hear one more fucking song about trains and whiskey…”
This was seed for what would become the title cut of their fourth and most recent record, 2020’s No Time For Love Songs. They released it, and they took off on tour opening for alt-country heroes The Jayhawks, which came to a stop after just a few days. While the record got some strong buzz, the pandemic killed all their momentum in 2020, just as it did for everyone else in a similar situation.
The Mastersons regained that momentum significantly in a star turn at City Winery DC recently, when Eleanor headlined with Chris and then opened for herself with her sister.
No Time For Love Songs captures what The Mastersons do really well. They work in alt-country and Americana sounds, but they avoid a lot of the overused tropes you see in the genre. And for all the gentle folk harmonizing this couple does, these songs have sharp teeth, and they’re not afraid to bite. The Mastersons also play in Steve Earle’s band, The Dukes; they have the force of personality to hang with the Hardcore Troubadour.
At City Winery on March 23, the audience saw a flash of this razor’s edge when Eleanor told the story behind “Don’t Tell Me to Smile.” As she explained, it’s difficult to smile when you’re playing the violin. During one of Steve’s shows, a woman repeatedly encouraged her to smile. After trying to politely rebuff her multiple times, Eleanor finally told her to “fuck off.” (If you’re at a show, and you decide to say something to one of the performers, and they tell you to stop, you really need to stop. This is not a bad principle for life in general, that when people tell you it’s time to back off, it’s probably time to back off.)
Watch the official music video for “Don’t Tell Me to Smile” by The Mastersons on YouTube:
The Mastersons’ songs look inward as much as outward. Songs like “Fight” draw on their relationship; as Chris explained at City Winery, the song took on new dimensions for the couple when they were at home together during lockdown. They don’t sing about trains, thank God, but there are songs about life on the road, like “Highway 1” (written with their good friend, Steve Poltz) and “Transient Lullaby.”
Last week’s show was a family affair. Eleanor and her sister, Bonnie, released their first album, Ghost Stories, as The Whitmore Sisters a few months ago, and they started off the evening with a selection of tunes from the record. “Learn to Fly,” Bonnie explained, is not about drugs; both sisters are licensed pilots. “The Ballad of Sissy and Porter” is “one of the ghost stories on the album,” as is “The Friends We Left Behind.” “Hurtin’ For a Letdown,” Bonnie told the audience, is about “the ghost of my love life.” The opening set wrapped up with “Superficial World of Love,” followed by “Big Heart Sick Mind.”
Watch the official music video for “Learn to Fly” by The Whitmore Sisters on YouTube:
During the main set, Bonnie came back onstage to share a few songs from her solo work, including “Fuck With Sad Girls.” She related the painfully awkward story of being approached by fans who claim they do, indeed “fuck sad girls, but that’s not really what this song is about.” A word of advice: There’s really no way talking to a complete stranger about your sex life isn’t going to be awkward, and it’s not appropriate — but maybe it could be a song! Bonnie also joined her sister to play “Ricky” to close the performance.