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Chris Masterson: "I Don't Think People View Ripping Songs As Theft"

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New York by way of Texas husband-wife duo The Mastersons are too perfect of an idea to never happen. Chris Masterson has performed and produced for many others (Jack Ingram, Son Volt, Bobby Bare Jr.) while also releasing a bit of his own material in the past. Same for his wife, Eleanor Whitmore, whose skills with the fiddle, among other instruments, have made her a go-to player and recording artist in her own right.

The couple moved to New York City in 2008, and soon found a community of musicians that helped the transition from Austin. They also realized there were some songs that belonged on a collaborative album. Last year, they became a part of Steve Earle's band, touring the world with him throughout 2011. They even found time to perform on Shooter Jennings' latest album. While they'll be recording a new album with Earle very soon, Chris and Eleanor are taking time to tour and promote their fantastic album, Birds Fly South.

The duo will be performing with Whitmore's sister, Bonnie, tonight at Dan's Silverleaf. We recently caught up with them as they were pulling into New Orleans for a night off during the tour. It also happened to be the day after NPR intern Emily White ignited discussion by admitting she had rarely paid for the music she has in her collection. As professional touring musicians, both were ready to chime in on that topic, among others.

I couldn't help but notice you both posted responses to Emily White's NPR blog about ripping thousands of songs. As touring artists, I'm curious to know what went through your mind as you read that post? Chris: David [Lowery of Cracker] really hit it out of the park with his response. That's what this girl knows. Her experiences are different from ours. I grew up at the tail-end of people buying vinyl, and then I bought cassettes and CDs, and now vinyl again. I spent earlier years at Cactus Records in Houston, and that's what I know. Emily [White] from NPR is 21, and if you think back to 10 years ago when she was a tween, she had the Internet. We didn't have the Internet at that age. I mean, I learned how to type on a typewriter. Eleanor: It's pretty depressing. It makes me feel like the younger generation feels entitled just to take music and not pay for it at any time. I think they appreciate the music, but they don't seem to realize it can take thousands of dollars to make a record and get it out to the world. Chris: Yeah, we were just checking into this hotel and this guy was in the lobby and said to me, "Hey, you look like a musician, where are you playing?" I told him where and he then said, "If you have a CD, could you bring me one?" I was nice to him because I didn't think he was trying to be rude, but he's incredibly misguided and misinformed. Even though we're on a record label [New West], we buy every unit we sell at wholesale from the label so we can make a little bit of gas money if a few people buy one at a show. Maybe he sincerely wanted to know what our music sounded like. There wasn't any malice intended, I just think he represents what so many people think of music and its value. That sentiment has permeated everything really. People are just misinformed. I don't think people view ripping songs as theft. Eleanor: Right, people don't think anything's wrong with that and they've made it the acceptable standard. Even with live music, people will get to the door of a club to go inside, and when they're told there's a cover to hear the band play, I've seen people walk away instead of paying the $10 to see the show. Chris: Like Lowery said, people will buy the iPod or iPad or that unlimited data plan for the music they don't want to pay for.

You're both Texans that now enjoy New York City as home. What led to that move? Chris: New York City is certainly a muse. It's an amazing pile of kinetic energy and I miss it when we're gone. Eleanor: We love Texas, and I loved living in Austin, but at a certain point, you've played with so many of the people you've wanted to play with. The challenge of New York City appealed to us. It's always been an awesome place to visit and when Chris suggested we move there, I was like, "Let's do it." Chris: It was one of those things on my bucket list. I'm not in the outcomes business, so I didn't know if it would be for a year or for the rest of our lives. Four years and some change, and we're loving it.

You've certainly become sought-after "New York artists" since moving there. After Steve Earle and Shooter Jennings moved to NYC, you were asked to work with them. How did all of that come about? Chris: Shooter and I had met once before when I was playing with Jack Ingram, but we really didn't know each other. One day, I get a call out of the blue from Shooter and he tells me about the record he wanted to make and we locked down the details, and as we were finishing the call, he said, "We're all set; I just need to find a fiddle player." I was quick to say, "Hey, I think I know someone for that." It literally happened that way. Eleanor: A lot of these things are word of mouth between friends and having a lot of projects between different people. Chris: I had known Steve [Earle] for 11 years, and we were just friends. When we met, he had a band and then he started doing his solo thing. Before he and I ever started talking about us playing with him, his wife, Allison Moorer, and Eleanor started working together and did some shows together and we played in her band. It's really interesting how it all worked out.

You've both now spent time as a player on the side of the stage and as the main attraction. Surely there are pros and cons to both. Do either of you have a preference? Chris: I've grown to appreciate both roles as we've embarked on this endeavor. I do really love to be the co-pilot. If I go see Tom Petty, I like watching to see what Mike Campbell is doing. I loved what Don Rich did with Buck Owens. When I'm playing with other artists, I don't stand on my perch and stare at center stage with jealousy. I mean, with Steve Earle, I get to pick up the guitar and play the lick to "Guitar Town." I think that's a pretty cool day job, don't you? Eleanor: When you're on the side, you just get into the moment and you try to serve the song the best that you can, which is your job at that point. I think both roles are pretty cool, though.

So, in those cases, the song is the star, not you? Chris: Yeah, our kind of music rarely requires flashy solos. Eleanor: You want to let the lyrics shine and not get in the way.

What made the songs on the new album feel like songs you should perform together instead of separate solo releases? Chris: The sonic stuff was pretty spur of the moment and live in the studio. Maybe it was the characters and themes and the way we sang together. Eleanor and I had already played on each other's records, so we were already immersed in each other's projects. Eleanor: We would have song-swaps and we started to sound more like a group than we did separate artists. Chris: There were just several songs that sounded like they belonged together. Separate releases under one roof would be quite daunting.

The Mastersons perform with Bonnie Whitmore tonight at Dan's Silverleaf.

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