It’s the morning after the city of Austin announced the complete cancellation of the SXSW festival when Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore are on the phone from New York City. The day prior also marked the release date for their new album, No Time For Love Songs, and they’d played a gig in Brooklyn.
That means the duo – musical and marital partners – will have to alter their plans, along with hundreds of thousands around the world who were set to converge on the capital city. But they still plan on making the trek back their home state for a series of related gigs, day parties, and record store performances.
“Apparently, we’re letting a whole pseudo-flu stop a music festival!” Masterson says. “Public safety is a great concern and you don’t want to act too happy because people are suffering but…isn’t the Rodeo going on there in Houston? Do cowboy hats protect people from coronavirus?” Editor's note 3-13-20: This interview was conducted prior to the current state of the coronavirus impact and the announcement of the Houston Rodeo’s cancellation.
“The clubs still want the shows to go on – that’s revenue for them,” Whitmore adds. “It’s a disaster. But I have a feeling things will still go on, they’ll just be a bit smaller.”
Houston will get to see a lot of the couple over the next couple of months, with an in-store at Cactus Music, a headlining show at the Mucky Duck, and then an opening slot for the Jayhawks.
No Time for Love Songs is the country/folk/rock pair’s fourth album as the Mastersons (they also have a regular gig in Steve Earle’s band, the Dukes). It was produced by Shooter Jennings and recorded at LA’s legendary Sound City Studios – just ten minutes from where the couple now lives.
And the singer/guitarists are both serious about the sentiment behind the title track. They offer that in this time of social, political, and environmental upheaval, the well-worn phrase “we’re more divided than ever” might actually be true. But the genesis of the song actually came from an even more well-worn country music cliché.
“We were driving and listening to a new song on the radio and it was someone howling about whiskey. And I said ‘If I hear another song about whiskey, I’m going to stab myself!” Whitmore remembers. “Chris said ‘That’s kind of harsh, but we can work with that.’ There’s so much going on in the world with politics and things, and we knew we were going to write more songs about that.”
Ironically, the end result is kind of a love song — albeit meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. But what the Mastersons don’t think is funny is a noticeable shift away from empathy and kindness in everyday life.
“People are being mean these days, and it doesn’t help that the person at the top of our government is the worst,” Whitmore continues. “And it’s the left too, they can’t get together. All the Bernie Bros are being mean to the moderates. And people make decisions based on fear, that’s what I was thinking when I voted in the primaries.”
For his part, Masterson puts a lot of the blame on social media. “People used to be able to disagree, go behind the curtain and vote, and come out and still be decent people to each other in their community,” he says. “Now, people will sit behind a computer and type things to people that they would never ever say in person. There’s a lack of decency and kindness and empathy, and that was on our minds when we wrote these songs.”
That train of thought weaves into other songs like “Spellbound,” “Eyes Wide Open,” and “Pride of the Wicked.” Another theme explored in the tracks mostly sung by Whitmore in a high, clear voice that brings to mind Judy Collins, is the loss of loved ones in “Circle the Sun,” “The Silver Line,” and “The Last Laugh.”
That last song is perhaps closest to the couple, written in tribute to their friend, Chris Porter. The rising Alabama-based singer/songwriter – along with a member of his band – was killed in an auto accident in 2016 when an 18-wheeler plowed into the back of Porter’s tour bus, which was then stuck in traffic.
In fact, the Mastersons thought so much of Porter, that they continued to see him frequently on a social level after Porter and Whitmore’s sister broke up their romantic relationship.
Just as relayed in the song lyrics, they remember the last time they spent with Porter, sitting outside of their home, drinking wine, and talking into the night.
As Porter was a heavy smoker, Masterson laughs at the memory of later cleaning the ashtray, which “looked like a porcupine” due to the amount of cigarette ash and butts it contained.
“It’s a way for us to commemorate our friend and celebrate his sense of humor,” Whitmore explains. “He died right before the election. And after it was such a hard time for me, especially as a woman. And we just thought of him and how his sense of humor helped us get through the times. We’d make jokes on how he would react to things.”
The couple both have Texas roots, with Whitmore born in Fort Worth and raised in Denton. And while Masterson was originally from Louisiana, he lived in the Houston suburb of Kingwood from the age of 3 to 17.
His obviously super-cool parents would take him to art galleries in Montrose, and concerts at the Mucky Duck, Red Lion, and Anderson Fair. There would also be family trips to see blues artists like Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at Rockefeller’s.
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“I got to meet Johnny Winter there when I was eight!” Masterson remembers. When he began playing publicly as a teenager, he added venue stops like the Fabulous Satellite Lounge and the Bon Ton Room to his circuit.
“When you tell people you’re from Texas, they’ll say ‘Oh, Austin’s cool.’ But I love Houston. I wouldn’t be the musician I am today if it weren’t for the city.” In fact, the couple did their first in-store at Cactus in 2012, Masterson says and he’s especially looking forward to this visit.
“Holding a copy of your vinyl at the record store you grew up buying records at?” he says. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that.”
The Mastersons play at 7:30 p.m., March 24, at the Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. For information, call 713-528-5999 or visit McGonigels.com. $25-$28. They’ll have a performance and signing at 3 pm, March 22, at Cactus Music, 2110 Portsmouth. For information, call 713-526-9272 or visit CactusMusicTX.com. Free.