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First Look: The Secret Sisters' PBS special from Hollywood

September 2, 2010 | 12:54 pm

Secret Sisters 2-Lester Cohen 9-1-2010 

Could it really be that in this age of pop music, often built on calculation and manipulation, that there’s still a place for bona-fide innocence?

There is, at least in the parallel musical universe that producer T Bone Burnett is creating, one that has recently expanded to include the utterly endearing sibling duo of Laura and Lydia Rogers, a.k.a. the Secret Sisters.

“Our last name isn’t Secret,” elder sister and lead singer Laura said Wednesday night during their charming performance at the Music Box @ Fonda in Hollywood, a show being taped for a PBS special slated to air early next year.

“We’re new to this stage thing,” she told a couple of hundred invited guests, many seated at tables with white tablecloths in the supper-club atmosphere. “Really new; shockingly new. If you knew how new, you wouldn’t be here.”

Yet they were. The Muscle Shoals, Ala., singers having attracted some friends in high places in the last year, Burnett chief among them, for a sound that harks back to an era of family musical acts such as the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the Carter Family. Burnett introduced them, occasionally joined the impeccably tasteful band he helped assemble for the show and brought a couple of high-profile pals along for the ride: Jakob Dylan and Elvis Costello.

The emphasis was on music-making rather than television production as the Secret Sisters happily coursed through 18 songs, mostly from the classic country vein, including Hank Williams’ jaunty “Why Don’t You Love Me,” Buck Owens’ effervescent “My Heart Skips a Beat,” Bill Monroe’s heartbroken “The One I Love Is Gone” and a couple of Johnny Cash staples: “Ring of Fire” and “Big River.” The latter has been chosen as their debut single, one raucously produced by another unrepentant roots-music enthusiast, Jack White.

They’re more than a vocally adept cover band -- although adept they are, with faultless tandem harmonizing that seemed to elicit mystical musical frequencies from the exquisite blend of common-DNA voices.

They opened the show with “Tennessee Me,” one of two originals that Lydia said made the cut for their Dave Cobb-produced album, due Oct. 12, and which was stylistically in lock-step with the vintage material at which they excel.

They retreated into a support role for the numbers with Dylan, who offered “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” from his recent Burnett-produced album “Women + Country,” and Costello, who served up a pair of songs from his forthcoming album, also produced by Burnett, “National Ransom.”

This could all start to look pretty self-serving for Burnett, if the artists and material he’s working with weren’t so unassailably inspired.

A cynic might also argue that anyone who can remotely carry a tune would sound inspired with the kind of instrumental support Burnett assembled for the Rogers sisters: guitarist Jackson Smith, pianist Tony Harrell, steel guitarist Russ Paul, bassist Dennis Crouch and drummer Chris Powell. That may be one reason they let the band take a break and sang the intricately terraced harmonies of the 1920s pop standard “Tonight You Belong to Me” with just Burnett on guitar and light banjo and upright bass behind them.

Besides, even a cynic would find it difficult not to succumb to the sweetness and -- dare we say it? -- purity that’s at the heart of the sisters’ music, qualities that overflowed in their closing number, “A House of Gold,” the country-gospel classic in which Williams wrote that the rewards of the material world pale next to the riches that come with true spiritual faith. That perspective might just be the Rogers’ -- and Burnett’s -- real secret.

-- Randy Lewis

Photo (l-r): Elvis Costello and Lydia and Laura Rogers at the Music Box @ Fonda in Hollywood. Credit: Lester Cohen