I was down and out
Now I’m up again
When I roll the dice
Like a cannonball
Moving down the track
Baby’s on her way
She ain’t comin’ back
— She’s A Self Made Man
Chop chop blasts, all toms and downstroke guitar, a dead stop, then two more. Over and over again. It’s fraught, relentless, but somehow in control. With a fishtailing velocity, Larkin Poe blasts into view with the swaggering “She’s A Self Made Man,” a sky-thumper about women taking and making their own luck, future, fun and fortune. Unrepentant, it balances furnace-blast intensity with a certain “don’t give a fuck” attitude that transcends gender and returns a hard slamming kind of rock to the blues roots that spawned it.
For sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, it’s another day in the office. Locked down and off the road, the young women with the ferocious musical appetite are on the cusp of their second No. 1 blues album debut on Billboard’s charts, as they kill time and make videos from their East Nashville base.
“At heart, we are a rock band that has deep, deep roots in Southern music,” begins Megan, peeling back the layers of their guitar-driven sound. “Everything has undercurrents of the blues, bluegrass, old-time country music. It’s all there. But ultimately, it’s rock ’n’ roll.
“We love to move people, to have that energy, and to see people rocking out.”
Rebecca, who’s taking it all in, seeks to dial-in the answer even further. “Roots music is very difficult to define. So, to attach ‘roots’ to us is pretty tongue in cheek. But it also gives us a lot of different angles (to come at the music).”
Whether the kick drum-driven country of the heavenly “Danger Angel,” the slow and sinister “Every Bird That Flies,” the wide-open boogie of “Scorpion” or the Kings of Leon/Black Crowes-scented “Keep Digging,” the sisters of Lovell have delivered a masterclass in guitar-based, blues-driven songs. The fact they’re, umm, girls is the least of it. Although being girls, there’s that little extra.
Laughing, Megan understands.
“We can’t help but play to the equation of what we are,” she agrees. “And we are girls. So, what we do is somewhat uncommon. But there were so many incredible pioneering blues-mothers of the ’30s and ’40s.”
“And Bonnie (Raitt), Susan Tedeschi, Samantha Fish,” Rebecca continues. “Definitely a smaller group, definitely women who play the blues, not ‘the blues for girls.’ Coming into our own in our late 20s, we had people giving us a lot of advice, telling us how we should be doing this – and there’s no right way, except to play the music for what it’s meant to be.”
Meant to be. Steeped in the sounds and tropes of the South, Self-Made Man is heavy and lean at the same time. Good and evil, sanctified and profane, they plug into the themes of Southern Gothic that have fed Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee and Carson McCullers.
It’s a long way – and in some ways, a full circle – from their days being home-educated in Georgia, with a taste for bluegrass festivals and their family’s strong church ties. The convergence of it all set a fuse that wouldn’t be lit for years to come, but sometimes the fuse is almost more important than the fire.
“We grew up in ‘strip mall central’ in northern Georgia,” Rebecca marvels.
Megan continues. “We grew up going to church, were in the choir, but we weren’t super-religious. There’s more to it than heaven and earth. But we both appreciate the Southern Gothic part of the traditional piece of religion.”
“We’ve always had a fixation on the Southern Gothic religion and gospel,” Rebecca agrees, laughing with pure enjoyment. “The idea of God and the existence of the devil is such a deep, deep hole to dig into. And, you know, that’s the main foundation of the blues canon.”
While the girls didn’t head straight to the crossroads to trade their immortal being for the ability to burn through songs with slide guitars and heavy right-hand sweeps, they recognized the potency of evoking the snakes, venom, holy rolling, Satan, angels and otherworldly underhanded dealing. Rebecca says, “We actually have an issue of too many of my lyrics being God-y, but it’s always been a part of life that’s very curious to me.”
“We feel very comfortable playing with those images,” Megan picks up. “How we approach the ethos in our songs is part of what pulls you in. As a 16-, 17-year old, you haven’t experienced enough life. But being able to read so many things? Well, you draw from that, especially the things that grab your imagination.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, Edgar Allen Poe and O’Connor stood out in their reading. And then there were the bluegrass songs, equally dark and often just as murderous and macabre. Raised with classical music lessons, bluegrass was a little faster, a little darker, a little more ghastly. The pair – along with older sister Jessica – couldn’t get enough.
“We were the ultimate uncool kids,” rues Megan, half-joking. “We were influenced by the whole canon, listening to Ralph Stanley records, the Louvins, digging through all those old dusty bins looking for obscure vinyl.”
“We’re very optimistic people,” she adds. “Very light-hearted and joyful people, but we think about the human struggle and how it plays into bluegrass and the blues.”
In 2005, they became the Lovell Sisters – and released three albums in five years. They played Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” the Grand Ole Opry and Bonnaroo. As Rebecca says, “All strings, all acoustic, no drums.”
When they played American Public Radio’s “Woodsongs,” the host cracked, “You’re a divorce waiting to happen.” Again, Rebecca cautions, “We lived a lot through books and bluegrass songs. You don’t have to live it to write it.”
Still, when Jessica decided she wanted something other than the road, her sisters took a moment to think about what was next. Having played everywhere imaginable as an acoustic group, what else was out there?
“Coming up on bluegrass, going from Point A to Point B, it was pretty simple,” Rebecca offers. “We’d toured enough to know we wanted to make the shift. We were on the folkie/pop side, but the harder stuff was calling.”
“The closet rock,” Megan agrees. “Black Sabbath, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Thin Lizzy, the Allmans. All those bands when you saw them live, their key guitarist is down front, and driving the whole thing. The more we looked around, the more we knew: that’s what we wanted.”
“After all,” Rebecca adds conspiratorially, “we’re not afraid to be loud.”
They’re also not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the boys, listen and lean in. They’ve opened for Bob Seger, toured with hardcore country guitarist Keith Urban, been part of T-Bone Burnett’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes project alongside heavyweights Marcus Mumford, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Elvis Costello, Dawes’ Taylor Goldsmith, and Rhiannon Giddens and been a key part of Steven Tyler’s Big Machine solo project.
In 2014, they played the UK’s Glastonbury Festival. The Observer deemed them “Discovery of the Festival.” They returned in 2015, and the rock/blues/slide sisters haven’t looked back.
“We wouldn’t have known all these things when we were younger,” Megan begins, weighing the power of their journey. “You don’t know until you get inspired, either. Then you start seeking; there’s a real hunger for it. There’s this very American thing: ‘I’m the hard-ass dude. This is how it is.’ But what is that?”
The Basement project isn’t their only intersection with Costello. Arguably one of the most musically diverse, yet exacting songwriters of our time, the Lovells absorbed his influence on myriad levels.
“It’s not just the words,” Megan cautions, trying to sift the experience of touring with the iconic once punk, now classic songwriter. “It was on stage, too, especially the first few times. I was taking a lot of the solos and was very intimidated; he’d reach out his hand, almost motioning, ‘come forward’ and basically giving me the stage.
“Meeting him at the point in his career where he’d made every kind of album under the sun … his punk, his country, his bluegrass, his Bacharach, the Sugarcanes. Seeing his genuine delight really changed how I responded to music.”
“In Europe, also the U.S.,” Rebecca explains, “we were driving behind the tour caravan in our little sedan. It was Elvis’ Detour Tour, where he’d get up and tell stories, play songs, then he’d get us up. Time and time again, Elvis Costello just pushed the two of us, but then you do it. You rise above, no matter how hard the stage or audience.
“He trusted us creatively and musically. Our age, or our clothes, or our instruments didn’t factor in at all. If you can do that work and commit to the art, you can dig in beyond that, and …”
She pauses. Neither Lovell wants to fangirl, nor do they want to suggest the graver lessons were missed. They both realize playing behind a master endows lessons through active learning and absorption.
Rebecca picks up again, almost a little shy. “There were so many conversations in catering, or on the bus. It was about music education – but both ways. He’s very much curious about where music comes from, the way it evolved, how roots brought rock ’n’ roll forward, how bluegrass and folk and country and blues were the cornerstones. All the incredible things that are tangled up in what music is; it’s getting ever closer to the source, to really understanding the cultures and the places the music came from.”
That same curiosity fires Larkin Poe.
It’s part of what inspired them to secede from a record business only too glad to throw money at two attractive girls with formidable chops. Unafraid of hard work, they decided to start their own label so they could call their own shots. Rebecca explains, “one of the things we strive for is not to put ourselves in a box. Our parents are big music lovers. From Alison Krauss and Union Station to Ozzy to Queen, they loved it all. And we realize most people do, too.
“Elvis told us at one point, ‘You don’t have to be a genre. You shouldn’t make a monochromatic record. You do a lot of things well, so you should do a lot of things, make a rainbow record.’ So for as much as is still unwritten, we’ve shifted for sure.”
The finger-snappin’ sanctification of the disaster-tracking “God Moves On the Water,” the double-Dutch rhythms of Elvis’ next-door neighbor euphorically recounting his life and the kid he grew up with in “Tears of Blue to Gold,” the brazen almost metal/gospel witness “Holy Ghost Fire” and the slide-driven Southern roots homage “Back Down South” come as supple sound bombs. Kinetic, they grab the ears, the ass, the pulse, making them all race and buck in the way the best rock should.
“The thing about writing,” says Megan, “you can write a riff, and play a riff – and it’s instantly memorable. But you need the song if you want to last. It’s a way to pull everyone in and create a community.
“That’s why it was important to pay homage to the forebears. There’s a certain amount of reverence for the blues guys who paved the way for the Allmans, James Brown even. That’s what (‘Back Down South’) is all about: the ones who paved the road for humankind by raising their voices and channeling their inner turmoil.
“To throw it back to Son House and Junior Kimbrough, writing a song that’s throwing light to them whether people get it or not, the universe will.”
Megan seamlessly picks up. “I don’t know that I believe in prescience, but (these songs) feel very timely. It seems to be the right record at the right time for right now. We didn’t intend for this, but we think these songs are going to be good companions.”
The conversation then shifted to female identity, records and songs loved. “I’m The Only Hell Mama Ever Raised,” the trouble caused by a pair of shoes distracting from the music and stylists who advise them to wear color. Ultimately, this outfit is an old band T-shirt, faded jeans and sneakers. Classic rock wear beyond gender; even the notion of “eyeliner, because that’s who I am” works as much for Chris Robinson or David Bowie as it does the Lovells.
Turning to John Prine, both sisters wax rhapsodic about the recently deceased songwriting icon. The former mailman serves as an unlikely talisman. Megan explains, “He served as a medium for other people, creating a spider web to step into. One of our overriding goals is to bring people together from different places, and to John Prine, it’s that thing of bringing all kinds to the same moment.”
Not a small goal, especially playing a form of rock that exists in its own realm. The Lovells, who know this, start talking at the same time. Then pausing, letting one speak, then the other.
“In our career, we’ve taken the longer, harder road,” Megan acknowledges. “But the more authentic we are, the more response we’ve had. The more we push into what we love, the stronger people come back at us.”
“It’s not typically something we focus on specifically,” Rebecca picks up. “But when you’re part of the problem, you can’t see it. If you’re looking from outside it, you can be the best thing you’re capable of – and it’s funny …”
Another pause, another confession.
“From some of the personnel we’ve hired to people who’ve worked with us, or even people showing up based on the poster, they all say the same thing. ‘Wow! You guys can really play!” They think it’s a compliment, but it’s so meaningless and based on other people’s ignorance.
“Look, we’re women … we play guitar … we run a record company … we tour … we’re all in. Our life experience isn’t very traditional. We went against the grain, but sharing this with your sister? Megan and I have put a lot of energy into this.”
“And when we’re old and gray,” Megan finishes, “we will always have our experiences. We are very much on the same page, not just business and music, but the way we treat each other. When you’ve got all that, what else is there?”
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Photo Credit: Robby Klein