The Waymores are a duo on record and in real life.Photo by Lindsay Garrett/Courtesy of Hello Wendy PR
Of all the genres, male-female duets seem most prevalent in country music. Think of the classic sides from June and Johnny, Conway and Loretta, George and Tammy, Kenny and Dolly and Tim and Faith. Sometimes the duo is a couple in real life, and sometimes just paired on record.
It’s the former designation for Willie Heath Neal and Kira Annalise. The Marietta, Georgia-based acoustic duo known as the Waymores even launched their shared career with a cover of the John Prine/Iris Dement duet “In Spite of Ourselves.”
“I don’t know why it’s that way. I think because so much of country music deals with relationship issues, even more than rock,” Neal says. “It’s always neat to get the perspective of both the man and the woman.”
On a shared Zoom call from their home, the pair says it’s traditionally the man who starts off the song with the woman then responding. But they made a conscious effort to flip-flop that for several tracks on their upcoming release, The Stone Sessions (Chicken Ranch Records).
“I liked getting to start out on some of them!” Annalise laughs. “Plus, it’s easier to go from lead to harmony than harmony to lead.” Songs include “Heart of Stone,” “Die Right Here,” “I Don’t Like the Liquor,” “Road Worn,” “Bat Shit Crazy” and “Ode to the Animals.” On the last, the duo name check their real-life pets, named after country musicians. Thus, the line “Loretta is a dumb old dog.”
The 10-track record features the pair singing and playing on duets and individually, along with a band and producer/pedal steel player Steve Stone. The record is named for him as a tribute to his participation. It’s full of classic country and honky tonk sounds and features mostly originals from the duo. Americana artists Dale Watson, Katie Shore and Johnny McGowan also guest.
But the project—their follow-up to 2019 debut EP Weeds—didn’t even start off as a full-length record. The Waymores found themselves at home with forced time off from touring during the pandemic. So they started writing more together and released a couple of songs, mostly to fight off boredom. But their new publicist, Wendy Brynford-Jones, put a halt to that.
“She told us to stop doing that and this drippy thing and go ahead and make a whole album!” Neal says. “And we listened to her!” So, they recorded acoustic guitars and vocals in a studio together, then sent the tracks to the other musicians and Stone for polishing.
Annalise says they normally play about 200 dates a year and were scheduled to set foot on a plane for a UK tour in March 2020 when everything shut down. But despite the loss of substantial income, there were other benefits.
“We were angry at first like a lot of other musicians. We were lost. But when you’re on the road that much, you don’t have time to be an artist,” she says. “So, the silver lining was that it gave us that [forced] time to write. Neither of us realized how badly we needed a break.”
Neal adds “We’re always writing, even on the road. But this time we were able to just get a bottle of whiskey and [concentrate] on it. The hindsight is that it gave us time to be artists again.”
The pair first met in 2007 when both were in the “freewheeling ensemble” and mostly cover-song group performing as the No Count Palookas. Neal had already been playing in a series of punk, country and psychobilly bands (including the wonderfully-named Damned Old Opry) as well as solo gigs. Annalise was a new mother just starting to sing professionally.
They continued performing in separate units along with the NCP but joined forces as the Waymores in 2013 (the moniker a well-known nickname for Waylon Jennings). By that time, they had also started a romantic relationship. Breaking out in the closest big city, though, has proven a rockier road.
“Atlanta’s a tough market. We’re from here, and sometimes we can’t get the love that we do in other states and cities. Not just playing shows, but getting press,” Annalise says. “There’s a large portion of great talent in this city, and maybe that’s why. Plus, a lot of them are content just being around here and playing here.”
Not to mention that downtown parking “is a real pain” when your only vehicle is a tour bus.
The Waymores will hit the road soon. And while there are several scheduled Texas dates, they do not include Houston. Annalise says they had one local gig scheduled in 2018 or 2019, but it was cancelled due to massive flooding in the city (the fact that the city suffered drenching and dangerous weather events in both of those years is a catastrophe of its own).
Photo by Lindsay Garrett/Courtesy of Hello Wendy PR
“We really need a spot to play in Houston,” Neal—who has performed solo at the Continental Club before—says. “Our record company is in Austin, so we spend a lot of time in Texas. Bear with us, we’ll get there!”
The upcoming tour is ostensibly to help promote the April release of The Stone Sessions. But unfortunately—and tragically—the record’s namesake won’t be around to share in any of its hoped-for success or potential career breakthrough for the Waymores. That’s because—as Neal shares—Steve Stone passed away just two days before this interview.
The story is that toward the end of the recording, Annalise was dealing with a vocal nodule problem. She scheduled herself for surgery and they had to rush the final sessions. While providing backing vocals, Stone expressed having a similar vocal issue and pains, so Annalise put him in touch with her otolaryngologist.
Unfortunately, when the medical professionals checked out Stone, they discovered he was “riddled with cancer from top to bottom.”
“He was such a huge part of this record from engineer to producer to player to arranger,” Annalise says. “Harmonies are not something that come natural to either one of us, and he helped us there a lot. We were hoping he’d make it to the album’s release, but he didn’t. He went downhill quickly.”
“You’re actually the first [outside] person we’ve told that to, and his funeral is today” Neal says, to which Annalise adds “We’ve got a show tonight, and it will be in his honor.”
Finally, there’s something to be said in the Waymores’ story about determination—especially coming from its feminine side. There’s a curious line in their official bio about their transition from a purely professional relationship to a personal one: “Willie was determined to stay single because he was used to being alone but [Kira] fought for him and put in the effort.”
When asked about the odd note, Annalise lets out a laugh.
“Oh yes! I had to fight some women off! And he was very determined to not have a girlfriend and told me all the time why,” she offers. “But I just said ‘Sorry, you’ve got one now!'”
It must have worked, as they’ve been together for nearly 14 years now and are still according to her “very honeymoonie.” The couple live with her son from a previous relationship, and he has an adult daughter from another one.
Heath pleads his perspective. “Touring was my life, and my lifestyle didn’t allow me to commit. I didn’t want the headache of having a steady girlfriend at home,” he says. “I always joke that it sucks when you go on tour and your wife’s at home pissed off at you. Now, I go on tour and my wife’s in the passenger seat pissed off at me!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.