Survival Instinct

Sisters Morales emerge from hard luck's abyss wiser, if not richer

"It's the same old story," says Lisa Morales curtly, cringing as she shrugs off the tattered flier that's just been thrust in front of her face for comment.

The sheet of paper -- almost two years old -- announces in a flourish of fancy type and confetti-like dabs of gold ink the 1995 signing of Sisters Morales to BNA/RCA Records. But it's reasonable to assume that Lisa and her sibling partner, Roberta, won't be pasting this particular memento into the Sisters Morales scrapbook, given its connection to a series of setbacks that culminated in their being dropped from the label.

"They wanted us to be the Judds," Roberta quips. "But we couldn't figure out which one was going to be the mother."

All kidding aside, the sisters have spent the last 24 months clawing their way out of a downward spiral, from which it's taken much soul-searching and physical and psychic recuperation to fully rebound. Even today, some wounds are still healing: Roberta is just now starting to perform standing up, after countless shows parked on a stool, acoustic guitar wedged in her lap. Newcomers to the band watching Sisters Morales's Press Music Awards performance this summer probably assumed Roberta's sedentary on-stage profile was part of the act -- that she was playing the watchful, restrained guardian to younger sister Lisa's free-spirited gypsy waif. As it turns out, familial role-playing had nothing to do with it. Rather, it was the lingering effects of cancer surgery that kept Roberta off her feet. Indeed, that July afternoon, as the group breezed through a streamlined showcase of upbeat, stunningly accomplished country rock with the sporadic Latino twist, it was all she could do to stay put.

These days, though, with her cancer in full remission and the radiation treatments a not-so-distant memory, Roberta is well on her way to ditching the stool. This afternoon, however, she's a bit groggy, having just endured a plane flight from Mexico City and the brunt of Hurricane Pauline within a period of about 36 hours. She was visiting family at ground zero when the storm hit; they were lucky enough to escape with minimal water damage.

"I woke up at about 4 a.m. Thursday [two weeks ago], and the storm had really hit," says Roberta, who had made the trip to Acapulco by car from Mexico City. "We almost didn't make it. There was a moment there when I said a little prayer. There were rivers of water everywhere."

Back home safe and sound, Roberta sits across from Lisa at a Houston restaurant. Often referred to in passing as the blond one, Roberta hasn't eaten all day, and she's sizing up her menu, bouncing meal suggestions off her sister, who (you might have guessed) has dark brown hair that falls across her face in loose, curly bunches.

"We don't pick at our plates," Lisa says. "We're not shy; we're big eaters."
Between bites, it doesn't take much to get the two of them talking. One relatively modest question begets a deluge of responses; it's not unlike pulling a single, strategically placed sandbag out of an emergency flood barrier. But that's not surprising, considering that the Morales camp has executed a remarkably effective rumor-containment policy over the last two years, keeping quiet about everything until the time for talking was right. As the gossip mill churned, the sisters made sure to do nothing to help it along, saving all their communication with the public for the stage, a place they continued to visit on a semiregular basis even during the worst of times.

As a member of the audience, you'd never know anything was wrong. Whether the job involves headlining for a handful of fans on an off night at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar or warming up the stage for national acts at Rockefeller's, the band's unique chemistry hasn't suffered an ounce amid all the adversity. If anything, its potency only increased as the group's situation became more dire. Think of it as a biorhythmic ritual of survival and self-reliance between two strong-willed females and their nurturing support unit -- which is made up of guitarist David Spencer (Lisa's husband of four years), drummer Rick Richards and bassist Roger Tausz. Rather than splinter from the pounding pressure of fate's hard whacks, they've only gotten tougher.

In a just world, Sisters Morales's deal with BNA/RCA would have delivered on everything it promised: serious financial stability and the national clout, hard-won after eight years of toil -- with mixed results -- needed to break out of Houston. More specifically, it was supposed to mean the release of Sisters Morales's major-label debut early last year, a debut to be recorded with a few of country music's finest. The band's courtship with the label, begun in March of 1995, was a sensible one, and the Morales sisters had every reason to believe that RCA was behind them 100 percent when they inked a deal more than six months later. But things didn't pan out even remotely the way the sisters had hoped.

"With record companies, it's a hurry-up-and-wait thing," says Lisa. "They want your songs, but then they don't; they want your sound, but then they don't."

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