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Touring musical duo negotiates fiery political landscape

The husband and wife musical duo of Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore, known as The Mastersons, believe artists have an obligation to speak up.

“We’ve heard that old, ‘Shut up and sing,’ thing before,” Mr. Masterson said, “and we just don’t buy into it. Art should be provocative, and that isn’t always what people want to hear.”

The Mastersons appear in Claremont at 7 p.m. next Monday, June 25 as part of Scripps College’s Levitt On The Lawn series at Bowling Green, 1030 Columbia Ave. Tickets are free, but registration is required at scrippscollege.edu/events or (909) 607-8508.

The duo, both 41, have released three records, beginning in 2012 with Birds Fly South, followed by 2014’s Good Luck Charm and then last year’s Transient Lullaby. The band’s soulful sound incorporates pop, blues and country.

Throughout their evolution they’ve made superb use of their unique close harmonies (think of a slightly more traditional John Doe and Exene, from X), great melodies and stellar musicianship from Ms. Whitmore on violin, mandolin and other string instruments, and Mr. Masterson’s electric, baritone and acoustic guitars and harmonica. They took a darker turn with Transient Lullaby, with a more moody, atmospheric sound.

“Sometimes records are a response to a previous effort,” Mr. Masterson said. “I think Good Luck Charm was a record somebody might put on when they were getting ready to go out at night, and then Transient Lullaby you’d put on when you get home.”

The duo’s frenetic touring schedule, both as headliners and in their other job as members of acclaimed singer-songwriter Steve Earle’s band, The Dukes, has put them in the unique position of seeing the mood of the country from many angles.

Some might wonder if the blue-state/red-state working environments might be a little difficult to navigate. “I think in general we don’t temper,” Ms. Whitmore said. “You might do something a little more one way if you’re in a college town and another way if we’re in another town. But I think we still try to open a conversation. It really helps that we have a boss that definitely doesn’t temper what he says, and our beliefs kind of align with his, so it’s kind of cool playing with somebody like that.”

Working with Mr. Earle—long an outspoken advocate for several liberal causes—is a good fit, but it’s not without its heightened moments. “Steve went off on something in Chattanooga [Tennessee], and there was a row of people that gave him the bird and walked out,” Ms. Whitmore said. “After the show we went out to the bus and there was a brand new tour T-shirt that somebody had lit on fire outside the bus door. It was kind of threatening.”

“I thought it was cool they bought a shirt though,” joked Mr. Masterson.

There can be a price to pay for straying too far from the “entertainer” pigeonhole—as the Dixie Chicks can attest—but the alternative of non-engagement is not in the cards for The Mastersons. Still, they both recognize they walk a fine line.

“Things are really polarized right now,” Ms. Whitmore said. “And you don’t want to alienate people; People do want to come to a concert and get away from the dumpster fire that’s on TV every single day. But at the same time, you kind of want to bring people into a conversation and talk about what’s going on, because it’s really important; our democracy is under fire right now, and it is something we need to talk about.”

They’ve logged countless gigs as headliners and as Dukes in the US, Canada and Europe. Often they pull double-duty, opening shows as The Mastersons, then swapping roles and headlining as members of Mr. Earle’s band.

They’ve lived in Los Angeles for two years now. Between constant touring they’ve also called New York and their native Austin home. “We love Austin, but there’s just more possibility in a place like LA,” Ms. Whitmore said. “It’s been pretty good for us meeting new people. It’s a great community.”

They have “piles of ideas” recorded on their respective phones, they said, snippets waiting to be turned into songs for the follow up to Transient Lullaby. “We’re just kind of looking at that pile right now,” Mr. Masterson said. “A lot of times that pile will tell you where you need to go with it sonically.”

The pair is on the road in Europe, the US and Canada with Mr. Earle throughout the summer, including August 2 at LA’s Greek Theater as part of the LSD Tour (Lucinda, Steve and Dwight) with co-headliners Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam. They will again work a double shift on some dates.

The Mastersons will then head to Europe in October for a headlining tour. “We’re trying to find some time off,” Mr. Masterson said.

There is a window at the beginning of next year where the calendar shows no work. That’s when the duo will get started on the follow-up to Transient Lullaby. “We’re hoping to get our song pile organized and figure out when we’re going to make the next record,” Ms. Whitmore said.

The band will work as an acoustic duo at Monday’s Claremont show. “We’re really looking forward to it,” Ms. Whitmore said. “We’ve been playing for 30-minutes [as an opener on the Steve Earle tour] for a while, so it’ll be nice to stretch out with a nice, long set,” Mr. Masterson said.

The Mastersons appear at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 25 at Scripps College’s Levitt On The Lawn series at Bowling Green, 1030 Columbia Ave. Tickets are free, but registration is required at scrippscollege.edu/events or (909) 607-8508.

More on The Mastersons, including music, merchandise and tour info, is at themastersonsmusic.com.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com