Anyone who has witnessed a live performance for Steve Earle has also experienced his backing band The Dukes and Duchesses. Since 2011, Chris Masterson and his wife Eleanor Whitmore have worked among the ranks of these talented musicians. Even though their work with Earle keeps them busy, the couple has also found time to perform as The Mastersons.
The Mastersons are familiar faces at Callaghan’s, and they are currently touring in support of their latest effort “Good Luck Charm.” When Lagniappe spoke with Masterson, the conversation began with the question of which came first: The Dukes or The Mastersons?
SC: You and your wife are both members of The Dukes, which is Steve Earle’s backing band. How did The Mastersons come about? Was it before The Dukes or after you both had joined the group?
CM: Well, it’s a little bit of all of the above. I guess it was about 2010. I knew for a while that I was going to have the guitar gig if I wanted it. When Allison Moorer released the record “Crows,” we put a band together for her to do the promo for it. We did Letterman and all that stuff. Steve had the idea that he wanted to bring Eleanor out too. Shortly thereafter, he said, “I’m gonna feature you guys in the show too, so you better have a record ready.” If that’s not a clear indication of what to do next, I don’t know what is.
SC: What’s it like balancing The Mastersons and The Dukes? Are there times when you’d rather be doing one or the other?
CM: We really enjoy doing both. I’ve played guitar for a lot of people, and Eleanor has had a pretty long career as a side musician. We’ve done a lot more of that than we’ve done shows. If the songwriter is good, then I love being a slave to the song and being a part of the ensemble. I like switching hats. I’ve always loved guys like Buddy Miller who get to do it all and be an artist and play with other artists and gets to produce. I like a world that involves us doing all that.
SC: You hail from Austin, which is a pretty crazy scene. What do you think of Austin these days?
CM: You know, we moved back to Austin from New York at the end of 2012. We weren’t spending enough time in New York to justify the expense. We moved back to Austin and bought a house, and we have family in the area. We’re really happy to be back. There are a lot of talented people around town. We don’t play Austin too often. We play a couple of times of year, whether it’s a Mastersons or Steve Earle gig. We’ll go sit in with friends around town. It’s a great place to live.
SC: You’re touring in support of “Good Luck Charm.” This was the first album that you two wrote together as a team. What was it like putting the songs together?
CM: I think that’s what got a little more streamlined this time. When we made “Birds Fly South,” Eleanor had a pile of songs, and I had a pile of songs. So, the goal was to find a set of songs that lived under the same roof together and would work well on an album. Toward the end of that record, we wrote a couple together, and it became the template for the next record. There was a song called “Crash Test” that we sang together as one big voice. After we wrote that song, we were like, “We need more of those!” When we sat down with “Good Luck Charm,” we started together from start to finish. The short answer is “Birds Fly South” was his and hers, and “Good Luck Charm” is ours.
SC: What was it like finding the inspiration for the songs? Did you write about experiences that you two shared together?
CM: I think you just chase that stuff however you can. On the first record, there seemed to be a lot of broken character songs with sad people who find redemption at the end. That record sounds like it was conceived in New York in the winter, and it was. With “Good Luck Charm,” it’s a little bit of a sunnier record, globally speaking. We tried to get a little deeper with the subject matter. There’s also some stuff that we wrote about us and our relationship. We try not to do too much of that. If you talk about being in love too much, it can get exhausted.
SC: It took a couple of years to write “Cautionary Tale.” Why did it take so long?
CM: You know, I don’t know! That song is interesting. Eleanor had the violin hook for a while. I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. We’ll have to use that.” I had this idea about a cautionary tale. There was nothing specific at the moment, but I like the concept of a cautionary tale. If you look it up, there are usually three parts to a cautionary tale. Part one is like, “Don’t play with matches, or you’ll burn your house down.” Part two, the guy goes and plays with matches. Part three, his house gets burned down. I don’t know if we followed it that literally in the song, but we had those two things, such as the violin melody and the concept. We were sitting at our hotel on tour with Steve doing our laundry, and we decided to hammer it out.
SC: What was it like working with Jim Scott?
CM: Jim was amazing. When we sat down and started talking about the record with the guys at our label and who we would like to work with, Jim was at the top of our list. There’s so many records that he’s made or been a part of that I hold in such high regard. We sat down and had a dinner meeting with our A&R guy and came up with this list of producers. Three days later, Jim Scott called me. We made the record relatively fast. We started in the summer sending songs back and forth. He was like, “If we’re going to have a 10 or 11 song record, I need at least 20 songs.” We just wanted to be producible. When you’re working with a guy who has done as much as he has, I just wanted to do what he asked of us. We started sending songs and demos around, and he sent us some notes. From the jump, he played an integral part in selecting the songs. When we got out to California, he had a way of moving the session along. He didn’t change who we are or what we do. He just made it better and bigger.
SC: When is the next album?
CM: We’ll keep writing, and we’ll see. It’s a little early too tell what direction we’ll take. Sometimes, you have to wait till you have a pile of songs to figure out what the story is. Being our third record, we upped our game for record two, and we’ll do the same for record three.