Not long ago, most country music fans would have known the punchline to the ol’ joke about what happens when you play a country song backward. You get back your dog, your job, your house and your wife.
The inherent implication — that country is about tragedy, heartbreak and loss — is increasingly at odds with the most popular songs today. Think uptempo numbers predominantly performed by men.
And their song topics, which consistently extol the physical attributes of their love interests or chronicle the power of alcohol to fuel nonstop good times, often isn’t digging deep. That doesn’t sit particularly well with sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, each a respected singer-songwriter generally lumped into the Americana wing of country and roots music.
The two recently fulfilled a longstanding dream of making an album together with some of their favorite songs — both old and recent — that aim to chronicle life’s more personal quests. And the album, “Not Dark Yet,” uncovers timeless lessons in some unexpected places, such as finding spirituality in a once hard-hitting Nirvana song.
If the contemplative mood on “Not Dark Yet” gets a little somber, it’s nothing, said Moorer, compared with the pessimism she feels about the songs currently leading the genre.
“When I hear those modern country records on the mainstream radio, I hear such a cynicism and darkness, it’s depressing to me,” Moorer, 45, said from her home in New York. “I don’t find that stuff light in any way.
“It feels sinister,” she said, “because when everything is reduced to the same themes over and over, that’s depressing. When it’s seemingly one-dimensional — what a girl looks like, or let’s-drink-these-really-cold-beers-out-of-my-ice-chest — it seems so one-dimensional it makes me want to go put my head in the oven.”
Neither Lynne, 48, who uses only her first and middle names professionally, nor her younger sister are about to pull any punches to curry favor with the country music powers that be.
Their feelings about affairs of the heart and what’s important in life are central to their first collaborative album, due Friday, which draws its title from their version of Bob Dylan’s ominous “Not Dark Yet.” They’ll be doing a handful of shows together in the fall, including Oct. 2 and 3 at Largo in L.A.
For the work, they rounded up meaty songs from the classic country wellspring of artists including the Louvin Brothers (“Every Time You Leave”), Merle Haggard (“Silver Wings”) and Townes Van Zandt (“Lungs”), as well as unexpected choices such as Nirvana’s “Lithium,” Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” and the Killers’ “My List.”
“I’m a sucker for a great pop song,” Moorer said. “I count [The Archies’ 1969 pop hit] ‘Sugar Sugar’ in my top 10 things I like to listen to. But that’s not what I want to hear when I’m on my death bed. …We wanted this record to feel like you were more than knee deep, because I know that we both want that from our musical experiences. Neither one of us can stand something that sounds surface for very long.”
There’s nothing surface in the way Lynne and Moorer handle “Every Time You Leave,” in which the singers voice this heart-wrenching confession: “Every time you leave/You tear the soul from me/I die a little more each time we part.”
In “Lungs,” they connect fully with Van Zandt’s plea for support, both emotional and physical.
They don’t hide their affection for sunny pop music, and happily recall growing up listening to the infectious hits of mainstream pop acts such as the Beatles, the Bee Gees and ABBA that their mother cherished. But that’s not the direction they took with their first duet album.
Instead, these veteran songwriters relished the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich imagery of writers as adept as Van Zandt, Dylan, Kurt Cobain and others.
“There were specific writers we wanted on the album,” Lynne said in a separate interview at her West Hollywood home, where she’s lived for the last two years since moving from her longtime desert residence in the Coachella Valley’s Rancho Mirage. “I said we’ve got to do a Townes song, because there was no better Texas poetic genius than Townes.
“The lyric to that one — ‘Oh won’t you lend your lungs to me, mine are collapsing’ — that’s what Sissy and I do for each other,” Lynne said. “So that was totally relevant in our singing relationship and in life as well.”
Beyond the basic familial connection, Lynne and Moorer are deeply bonded by the tragedy of their teen years, when their alcoholic father shot and killed their mother and then turned the gun on himself while their daughters were in the house. Lynne was 17, her sister was 14.
Consequently, they’ve worked closely over the years offering support to other victims of domestic violence, and the album includes an acknowledgment to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“I think that’s just a place where Sissy and I lend our voices because we so very well can,” Lynne said, sitting with her feet up on the back porch of the 1920s vintage house that also contains her home recording studio where most of “Not Dark Yet” was recorded. “We want to help as many people as we can by being spokespeople for something that never seems to go away.”
Some listeners are likely to draw connections between that family tragedy and, say, Dylan’s forebodingly bittersweet ode to perseverance, but Lynne said that watershed event was “not necessarily [influencing] the songs we chose.”
Moorer said the raison d’etre is more in line with the practice in traditional country music of choosing songs that allow listeners to process life’s ups and downs.
“I think a good murder ballad [on country radio today] would be quite refreshing, and would give me hope,” she said. “Maybe you need a reminder once in a while that someone’s in a worse position than you are.”
How many listeners will find their way to “Not Dark Yet” is a bigger question today than it was when Lynne and Moorer were launching their separate careers a quarter-century or so ago.
“I think there’s a certain part of the population that will search out that stuff, and I’m part of it,” Moorer said. “Dollar signs are some language I don’t speak.”
With this project, they join a long list of celebrated duos in country and pop music, from the Louvins and the Everly Brothers to Johnnie & Jack and Simon & Garfunkel.
The common thread being that the vast majority have been male duos.
“There are far fewer female anything in music,” Moorer said. “Somebody had to take care of the babies, and the business and wipe the guitar player’s [butt]. …Women who want to be artists have real hard choices to make. It’s amazing to me that women are criticized after they have children for continuing to work, or not continuing to work.
“Men would never be asked ‘Are you going to continue to work?’” she said. “Questions about what women should and shouldn’t do just kind of [tick] me off.”
The siblings are already in the planning stages of a follow-up, this one likely to contain more than the single original song they wrote for “Not Dark Yet,” the album’s closing track “Is It Too Much.”
Although Moorer just finished an autobiography, and Lynne is also working on a book as well as a loosely autobiographical film musical for which she’s composed more than two dozen songs, family will come first for the time being.
“We are really just focusing on this right now,” Lynne said. “We’ve been really busy preparing for it, and we’ve been so pleased with people being interested in it. I feel in a way like it’s been a long time coming, and it’s a good feeling.”
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