Not so long ago it would have been a dream come true for sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers of Muscle Shoals, Ala., to find themselves sitting in the balcony of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium and looking down upon their country music heroes onstage at the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry.
After all, less than two years ago Laura had never even ridden in a plane, much less visited country music’s premiere live performance venue.
But when the siblings settled in on a recent spring day onto one of the Ryman’s wooden benches, which have been polished for decades by the backsides of countless country music enthusiasts, it was simply an interlude, one that pales in comparison to the surreal highlights they’ve experienced since the October release of their self-titled debut album, “The Secret Sisters.”
A few nights earlier the Rogers sisters had not only been in the Ryman, they’d been center stage, opening for Amos Lee. They returned to chat with a visitor about their good fortune shortly before winging off to Australia to share bills with Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello. Then they returned to the U.S. for an appearance this weekend at the Stagecoach country music festival in Indio.
A few months ago they were drafted by producer T Bone Burnett to be part of his Speaking Clock Revue with Costello, Elton John & Leon Russell, mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley, rocker John Mellencamp, actor-singer Jeff Bridges and Southern rocker Gregg Allman, among others.
“We were standing in a hallway before a show practicing Hank Williams’ ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart,’ and the next thing we knew, Elton walked by and started singing a verse,” said Laura, the elder sister who handles most of the lead vocals for this retro country duo. “Then Elvis Costello comes over and he starts singing, and then John Mellencamp and suddenly the whole hall is filled with these legendary people singing with us.”
In a separate interview, Burnett said: “They were just flat-out good, that’s what I liked about them. It’s magical what they do with a song. They’re both killer singers. I really think they’re artists.”
Their album is full of tight sibling harmonizing on country classics, many from the golden era of honky-tonk music in the ‘50s and early-'60s, including George Jones’ “Why Baby Why,” Buck Owens’ “My Heart Skips a Beat,” Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “House of Gold.” The album also includes a pair of originals, “Tennessee Me” and “Waste the Day,” that show they’re also developing chops as songwriters.
Burnett presided over a TV special they taped last fall in Hollywood, at which Costello and Jakob Dylan played supporting roles in a show that will get its PBS premiere in June. That gig took place barely a year after they’d played their first-ever public performance.
The Secret Sisters also have landed opening slots for a variety of acts that don’t fall within the bounds of today’s commercial country music: Ray LaMontagne & the Pariah Dogs, Levon Helm, ex-Nickel Creek member Chris Thile, Willie Nelson and Jakob Dylan. Rock iconoclast Jack White quickly latched onto the women to produce their first single, a White Stripes-ish treatment of Johnny Cash’s “Big River.”
“So much has fallen into our lap, sometimes I feel guilty because I don’t feel like we’ve paid our dues,” said Lydia, 22. Laura, 25, can’t help seeing the hand of fate at work.
“Everything has been so natural and happened so easily,” she said. “I have trouble believing that it’s not meant to be. It’s a feeling not just of being in the right place at the right time, but that this was in the cards.”
Their father sang with an amateur bluegrass band and joined them onstage at the Ryman this month, a high point for the whole family. Not surprisingly, they cite the Everly Brothers as their favorite early rock act but said it was a pair of sibling cousins singing at a family reunion who most inspired them to blend their voices.
It was strictly for the family, however, until October 2009, when they wowed a group of Nashville music professionals at an audition, which led to a major-label record deal. Early last year they recorded the album with producer Dave Cobb, who had worked with Waylon Jennings and more recently with new-generation country outlaw Jamey Johnson. When Burnett heard the results, he promptly threw his considerable industry weight behind the duo.
Initially, they’re playing the retro elements of their act to the hilt — dressing in outfits and hairstyles apropos of the era and employing disarmingly old-school country arrangements.
“We’re in the process now of writing songs for the next album, and we’re really exploring just what we want that to be,” Laura said. “We really liked doing the track with Jack, and we might try to do more along that line. We’re also really influenced by rockabilly.
“We definitely don’t want be an act that has really quick success, makes a million dollars and then fades away into nothing,” Laura said. “That’s why we admire people like Ralph Stanley and Charlie Louvin so much, people who have kept making records and performing when they’re 60, 70 and 80 years old. That’s where we want to be.”