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Larkin Poe Roll With the Changes
Sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell, the guiding forces of Larkin Poe, keep claiming more of the scarce mainstream real estate left for roots-minded rockers. Recent album Peach (Tricki-Woo Records) furthers momentum for an act that in recent years has backed the likes of Elvis Costello live at the Ryman and performed in stadiums as Bob Seger’s opening act.
Before Megan, age 28, and Rebecca, 26, charted their current path, they performed with older sister Jessica, emerging as teenagers in Calhoun, Georgia-based bluegrass band the Lovell Sisters.
Surprisingly, the sisters had to travel far from the Armuchee Bluegrass Festival and other northwest Georgia happenings to encounter genuine mountain music.
“Our mother and father actually had us in classical violin and piano lessons, so we were little classical kids,” Rebecca says. “We were going to symphony a couple of times a week and performing at churches and weddings. Some buddies of ours when I was about 13 and Megan was 14 took us to a bluegrass festival in east Tennessee. We just fell in love. You’d think growing up in rural Georgia that that’d be something we’d be involved with from a younger age. We experienced bluegrass in its raw and awesome form, and it ran away with our souls. We became instant converts.”
The Lovell’s newfound love of bluegrass led to banjo lessons at a shop in Ringgold, Georgia. The sisters used relative isolation – they grew up on 70 acres of land and were home schooled – as a means to practice often and an excuse to travel to bluegrass festivals. Within a couple of years, Megan became the youngest person and the first woman to win a mandolin contest at MerleFest, an annual event in North Carolina named after the late Merle Watson.
The sisters credit the internet as a valuable tool for learning about roots music greats and their playing styles, citing the genre’s most visible woman, Alison Krauss, as an inspiration. “We grew up during the rise of streaming, so we could find anything,” Megan says. “Having that allowed us to delve into the world of music and start to learn about Americana and blues music.”
Krauss first recorded bluegrass music as a young teen. As did Keith Whitley, Ricky Skaggs, Marty Stuart and numerous other future superstars. Even beyond those legends, bluegrass seems to be the subgenre of roots music that best fosters young people’s talents. “Roots music and the source music of the South is music of the family,” Rebecca says. “It’s music that people traditionally get out on their front porch and play together. It was very much a tradition that was passed from older to younger generations. We didn’t experience that firsthand ourselves, being the first generation of music makers in our family.”
From 2005 to 2009, the Lovell Sisters released two albums, appeared on A Prairie Home Companion and played the Grand Ole Opry. Those years on the road allowed Megan and Rebecca to bond with their older sister, who’d eventually pursue other interests and quit music altogether.
“Making music wasn’t her ultimate life goal,” Rebecca says. “I think it’s hard sometimes to say, ‘This isn’t for me. I want to start something else.’ Getting to start Larkin Poe, it worked out the way it was supposed to.”
As younger teenagers, the sisters were glad to have a slightly older bandmate to handle their business affairs. “To have her on our team in the beginning, she showed us how to stay organized,” Megan says. “She got us on the road. She was basically our manager as well as playing on stage with us. It had to be exhausting to look over your two bratty sisters!” Rebecca, for what it’s worth, quickly interjected that they weren’t that bratty.
With Jessica off the road, the remaining Lovell sisters decided to keep the family business rolling. “As the baby sister, I still tour with my big sister,” Rebecca says. “I’ve got to say that it was such a gift that we got to basically by accident fall into a touring band that brought us all so very close. We’re already a very close family, but this has made Megan and I closer over the years… Making music with family is different. There’s a deeper connection there we’re able to tap into sometimes that I don’t take lightly. I feel so thankful that we’re able to share that kind of closeness.”
The sisters went on to explain that with every missed birthday or holiday spent on the road, they at least have each other through the ups and downs of a touring musician’s life. Their tour van gets to be a miniature Calhoun, sans all the cow pastures (writes the guy from Floyd County).
The beginning of a new band in 2010 coincided with the sisters exiting their teenage years, allowing them to grow up in front of new and established fans, musically and otherwise. “When we started Larkin Poe, I would’ve been 18 or 19,” Rebecca says. “Megan was 20. We were coming into adulthood, but we were still very, very young. Part of the creative process of Larkin Poe has been experimenting and innovating in the public eye. By the time we started Larkin Poe, we already had a following. We started out very heavily bluegrass-oriented. Through the years of touring as Larkin Poe, we’ve gone from being bluegrass to being Americana to being folk-pop to being a little heavier roots rock to being straight-up rock ‘n’ roll to doing some very heavy hip-hop beat-inspired music. We’ve sort of done everything, and I’d chalk that up 110 percent to our creative curiosity as people who have gone through major life changes.”
Those various creative twists and turns caught the attention of producer T Bone Burnett. This connection opened many mainstream doors in recent years, from collaborating with Steven Tyler on his country album (who at MerleFest would’ve predicted that for an old-time mandolin player?) to opening for Queen.
Since then, the sisters’ wide palette of reference points has pleased an audience that craves all things authentic. Recent song “Look Away” has blues-rock elements, but it also incorporates electronic beats. It’s not some experimental B-side or deep cut, either, considering it has a music video. Much of Peach relies entirely on traditional blues and rock elements, so it’s not like dance beats are the new normal. Still, the elephant in the room must be addressed – hip-hop beats don’t seem very rootsy on the surface. But if the Highwaymen could sing over synths and Angaleena Presley can collaborate with Yelawolf without losing their credibility, what’s the harm as long as it’s authentic?
“As artists, it’s our job to deliver with the best of our ability what feels real and honest to us,” Rebecca says. “I think we’re all familiar with the pop star phenomenon where these people are delivering corporate music to fans who, maybe you dig it, and maybe you don’t. It’s certainly not their soul on the line. For us, to the best of our ability we are trying to dig into our souls and give people the show that feels right.”
The sisters often record videos of themselves learning new songs or covering old favorites and post them to Facebook. Their “Highway to Hell” cover posted shortly after Malcolm Young’s passing is especially powerful, if you’re looking to hear Rebecca belt out a classic rock standard. A less likely gem came the day of the solar eclipse, when the sisters’ harmonizing turned Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” into a beautiful acoustic number.
As the views piled up for an earlier video, Bob Seger found it and reached out to the sisters with a flattering request. “He actually saw one of the cover videos we post on social media and asked us personally if we’d come join him on the road,” Rebecca says. “The fact that he’s still engaged and curious and trying to see who’s new and who’s up-and-coming was really inspiring.”
As a new year dawns, the sisters look forward to touring on Peach for part of 2018, then starting the album cycle process all over again with a new set of songs. By then, who knows what creative interests will mark the next album. The sisters can make that next curveball work, roots-oriented or not, as long as they feel it. As long as it’s real.
Photo by Robby Klein.