Survival Instinct

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

It just so happens that today there are two versions of Sisters Morales's RCA debut in the can, the first made with Mary Chapin Carpenter co-producer John Jennings at the helm, the second recorded by seasoned Nashville studio vet Steve Gibson. Technical problems involving the music's transfer to tape proved to be the undoing of the initial effort, and both Sisters Morales and the label agreed that it had to be scrapped. In the gap between the sessions for debut one and debut two, a cyst in Roberta's leg was found to be cancerous. To add insult to injury, the Gibson recording -- which the band felt was, by far, the more radio-accessible of the two -- was turned down by RCA, and relations between Sisters Morales and the label disintegrated from there. Neither version of the release, by the way, will ever surface if Sisters Morales have anything to say about it.

"They sign you because they love what you do, and then they try to change you," says Lisa. "It becomes a dictatorship."

What has surfaced instead is Ain't No Perfect Diamond, a brand-new 13-song CD self-produced on a tight schedule (and an even tighter budget) at Pedernales and Arlyn studios in Austin, with a still-ailing Roberta dividing her time between the vocal chamber and a nearby cot. The sisters say this effort -- due out Saturday on the band's own Luna Records -- has nothing do with the band's troublesome tryst with RCA. But its frequently bittersweet vibe -- from the regret-tinged lead-off laments "Couldn't Help But Love You" and "I Can't Keep Holdin' on to You," both penned by Lisa, to the heartbroken candor of Roberta's "The Wheel" and the disc's fittingly titled emotional touchstone, "The Storm" (the only track co-written by the sisters) -- may suggest otherwise.

It stands to note that several of the tunes on Ain't No Perfect Diamond were composed well before the group's troubles started, and that nearly all are variations on the standard makeup/breakup themes. Still, somehow, they reflect perfectly the uncertainty of that dark period, though without succumbing to melodramatics, cynicism or self-pity.

Given the highly personal tone and mostly Americanized feel of Ain't No Perfect Diamond, the two Mexican standards covered on the CD ("La Ultima Noche" and "Noche de Ronda") may seem a bit out of place. Still, they do underscore the beauty of Lisa and Roberta's harmonizing. It's something that's been second nature to the two since childhood, when their father used to prod them to sing with the mariachi band at his favorite restaurant in their native Tucson, Arizona. The two youngest of a family of four, the sisters were weaned on an eclectic mixture of ranchero, country and western and '60s rock. They were only girls when their father passed away, but he helped instill in them a passion for performing.

"He loved to hear us sing," Lisa recalls of her father, who was a die-hard Johnny Cash fan. "He'd tell us, 'Go sing for your supper.' "

After performing together in high school, both as an acoustic duo and in various bands, Lisa and Roberta eventually outgrew Tucson. Leaving at different times, they took separate paths for a while, each sampling a variety of lifestyles and locales. It was Lisa who first wound up in Houston. As a University of Arizona student studying overseas in Germany, she got involved in a C&W outfit there and wound up crossing paths with Texas honky-tonker Clay Blaker. When Blaker returned to Houston, Lisa took his advice and followed close behind.

"It was all a blur," Lisa says of that particular period in her life. "Clay said they needed female vocalists in Houston, and I didn't want to go to Los Angeles. I didn't want to be in a music town. I wanted to develop myself."

So Lisa set up shop here, performing in assorted capacities, most notably as the leader of the Lisa Morales Band in the mid-'80s and as one-half of a durable duo with Marie English. In 1989, Lisa asked Roberta -- who was playing music and going to school in Los Angeles -- to come east and help her out with a project. The stay was supposed to be a vacation -- nothing more. But one thing led to another, and Sisters Morales was the end result.

"I had some shows lined up where I needed a backup vocalist," says Lisa. "She came to visit and then..."

"It was like, lock the doors!" Roberta chimes in.
"We were ready to do it," adds Lisa on a more serious note. "We were finally more secure with ourselves."

The hired help was less secure -- until, that is, about six years ago, when guitarist David Spencer came into the fold. "I had been dating David ... no, scratch that," says Lisa. "He hates that -- he wants to be known for his music."

Originally, the sisters were hesitant to offer Spencer, a relative youngster, a permanent gig with the band. So they decided to hire him temporarily, thinking that a better guitarist would soon come along. A better guitarist never did, and Spencer has evolved into one of the most versatile (he doubles on steel and standard electric), technically accomplished and stylistically accommodating ax slingers in town. Today, his crisp licks, sharp ear and uncommonly good taste are as much an asset to the Sisters Morales enterprise as the rock-steady groove of Tausz and Richards, who've been with the band for more than four years.

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