Survival Instinct

"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.

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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."

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.

Another asset is the input of Clay Blaker, who's become a fast friend of Sisters Morales, not to mention a key collaborator. Two songs written with Blaker's help -- "This Heart's Not Mine to Give Away This Time" and "Let Go of Your Heart" -- made it onto Ain't No Perfect Diamond. Neither would sound out of place in the sort of healthy country music environment Lisa and Roberta Morales have always envisioned, a place where sturdy songwriting, emotional authenticity and a strong sense of one's roots have supplanted the headset microphones, diamond-studded bustiers, conveyer-belt sentiments and studio-generated pop that currently define Nashville. When -- and if -- the climate changes, the members of Sisters Morales plan to be a part of the transformation.

"It's all bubble gum right now," Lisa says. "Eventually, though, there'll be a place for us."

Until then, rest assured they'll be right here waiting -- a little gun-shy, maybe, but a whole lot smarter.

Sisters Morales perform at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, October 25, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. Tickets are $8. For info, call 528-5999.

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