Lovell Sisters find sound all their own

Pity the poor Lovell Sisters.

They’re not a coal miner’s daughters. They haven’t done time. They weren’t born blind. There are no down-and-out backstories here.

You need drama? Try this:

At an age when many of their peers let their iPod shuffles do their important thinking for them, the Lovells — who play an exuberantly original hybrid of bluegrass and acoustic music they describe as roots or Americana — have had to learn to say “no.” To a powerful record company’s idea of the path to stardom. To music teachers’ expectations. To anything they’re not comfortable with artistically — no matter how commercially viable it could make the trio from Calhoun.

“There’s a difference between pushing popular culture and pushing music,” Jessica, 23, said during a lunchtime interview with Megan, 20, and Rebecca, 18, in Kennesaw. “When you figure out who you are, and where and when you won’t budge, that’s when people try to change you.”

They make a pretty persuasive case. In just more than five years, the Lovells have released three CDs. The sisters have gone from a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter an offbeat radio teen talent contest run by Garrison Keillor to playing to-die-for professional gigs at the Grand Ole Opry and Bonnaroo. They’ve signed with and later said “so long” to a Nashville music label when they decided they’d rather make records their own way, despite the added hardship.

All of it practically before the youngest one got her driver’s license. And with plenty of legends taking note.

“They completely steal everyone’s thunder,” said rock/new wave icon and unabashed fan Elvis Costello, who heard Jessica, Megan and Rebecca Lovell perform for the first time in 2007. This was at MerleFest, a Americana music festival in North Carolina where Costello, Earl Scruggs and Alison Krauss all were on the bill.

Still, the Lovells stood out.

“I love how they’re not trying to be anyone else’s idea of what they should be,” Costello said.

Playing tribute to roots

It’s not as easy as it sounds. And not just because all three girls still live at home with their parents — David, a pathologist at Gordon Hospital, and Trissa — and their 6-year-old brother, Thomas, who recently announced he’d rather play in his sandbox than go on being their roadie.

It was only February 2005 when they flew for the first time with their instruments. The destination was Minnesota and the “Prairie Home Companion” talent competition, which they startled themselves by winning. First prize was a trophy, but, Rebecca said, “What we really won was a career.”

Now, being the Lovell Sisters means traveling for weeks at a time, performing at huge festivals and small clubs (they sold out the incredibly hip Joe’s Pub in New York a couple of weeks ago and will be at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur on Sept. 11), playing everything from their own songs to a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe.”

Hendrix? How old are they?

“We watch ‘Woodstock’ a lot,” Jessica said. “Plus, there’s stuff of him all over YouTube.”

Such Twitter Generation research methods notwithstanding, the sisters say it was the classic rock their father played them growing up that contributed to their diverse musical interests and influences now: Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Chris Isaak.

Backing out of record deal

In conversation, they seem much like they are on stage: serious, but also surprisingly playful at times. Riffing off of each other, but also toning it down when one of them has something more interesting to say or play.

“The No. 1 most common question we get is, ‘Are you really sisters?” said Megan, who usually cedes the lead vocals to her siblings on and offstage. “That, and ‘Do you fight?’ ”

Um ... do you?

“It’s a fine line you walk being sisters and business partners,” Rebecca said. “It’s different from, ‘You took my hairbrush!’ You have to constantly think, ‘Be nice,’ in a way you might not when you’re not working together.”

The sisters were in complete agreement on taking arguably the most risky and tumultuous step so far in their young careers. About 18 months ago, the Lovells formed their own label, walking away from their development deal with Lyric Street Records — a Nashville division of Disney Music whose roster includes Rascal Flatts, Billy Ray Cyrus and the pop country sister act SHeDAISY. Such deals tend to offer newer acts expertise at developing sound and popularity, but the artists often give up a certain amount of autonomy. The Lovells left before making any records at Lyric Street.

Both sides describe the parting as very amicable.

“They are going to have a great musical impact on their generation,” predicted Lyric Street senior vice president Doug Howard. “Where the girls were musically and what they wanted to pursue was more organic than the direction we had planned.”

Translation: The Lovells wanted to be more than just popular, well-marketed singers.

“When you have to question whether you’re going to be allowed to play your own instruments on your own record, it’s kind of weird,” Jessica said.

“It was a very hard decision for them to make to walk away from that,” David Lovell said. “They could have been at the label for years. ... We always encouraged the girls to write their own music and figure out what works and doesn’t work in making records. But most music labels aren’t set up to do that. They’re set up to hook artists up with songwriters and producers.”

The Lovells ended up writing about half the songs on their new album, “Time to Grow,” which they co-produced with Grammy-winning recording engineer Brent Truitt.

The trio recently performed at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where Costello had persuaded them to fly up and play with him.

“They asked me who I’d like to be on the bill and I said, ‘I heard this group. You might want to get them,’ ” Costello said of the festival’s organizers. “I was coming off the first leg of my tour for [his new album] ‘Secret, Profane & Sugarcane,’ and I got in touch with the girls and said, ‘Would you consider learning a handful of the songs, and you could play your own version of it with us?”

But “the girls” didn’t stop at merely learning the instrumentals to the six songs Costello proposed.

“‘American Without Tears’ doesn’t have vocal harmonies on the album, but they came in with their own version,” Costello said about one of his earlier pieces. “They figured it out themselves, and it was great.”

‘It’s hick music, maybe’

Such tales don’t surprise Nashville veteran Truitt, who fondly describes the trio as “workaholics. ... They lock themselves up in their bedrooms and by some mysterious process come out with new tunes.”

While it can be dangerous comparing anyone to the Dixie Chicks these days — a CMT.com review of “Time to Grow” that ended with “Watch out Dixie Chicks ...” set off a feverish back-and-forth in the comments section — Truitt is willing to go there.

“Musically, they’re distinct, but they’re similar in that they’re three girls that can actually sing and play,” said Truitt, who’s played mandolin on tour with the Dixie Chicks and on CDs with Krauss and Dolly Parton. “That’s pretty rare. There’s a lot of female acts that can sing well, but they don’t write music and play instruments.”

The roots of the Lovells’ “go their own way” reputation began taking hold in 2003, when family friends took them to a bluegrass festival in Chattanooga. After several decades worth of taking classical violin and piano lessons and playing in youth symphonies in metro Atlanta and North Georgia, the sisters collectively dumped that first love and took up with — gasp! — the fiddle and its equally blue-jeaned ilk.

“It was really sudden,” said Megan, who swooned as soon as she locked ears with the dobro lap guitar.

“Our classical teachers were shocked,” Jessica recalled their reactions. “ ‘You’re going to stop your lessons and play the banjo? No!’ ”

Chalk it up to instrumental elitism. Or maybe just the understandable shock that comes from encountering three thoroughly modern young women sporting trendy jeans and the latest versions of cell phones who nevertheless spend much of their waking time immersed in ... oh, what’s the word?

“It’s hick music, maybe, when you’re in that classical, stuck-up thing in your head,” suggested Rebecca, who won the mandolin-playing contest at MerleFest 2006 — the only woman ever to win an instrument competition there in 15 years. “But this is the music people get up and dance to in crowds or sit on their front porches and play together. How often are a hundred people going to come over to your house and play a symphony piece together?”

Now that would be dramatic.

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What they said

The Lovell Sisters on:

Life without stage parents

“A lot of people are like, ‘Your parents must be in the music industry’ or ‘They must have pushed you into this.’ That’s not true! Our parents have been so supportive of us as individuals, and they always wanted us to try different things. Mom supported us with time, and Dad supported us by paying for all of it!”

— Jessica

What to call the type of music they write and play

“I don’t know who said it, so I will. The best music is music you can’t really describe, but you say to your friends, ‘I can’t really describe it, but you have to listen to it.’”

— Rebecca

Loving the dobro guitar

“It matches my personality. I don’t sing lead vocals, so I think of the dobro as kind of my way of singing.”

— Megan

Writing songs

“Inspiration comes from many different places: You see something that inspires you, or it comes from what someone says or the phrases they use, or from sitting around and being patient. It sounds very mystical, but it comes sort of piecemeal. It’s like making a quilt. It wraps itself up into its own little entity.”

— Rebecca, whose song “Distance” won the grand prize in the 2008 John Lennon Songwriting Contest

Appreciating Elvis Costello

“[The night after the Winnipeg Folk Festival] we went to Pasadena to do a show and he was, oddly enough, playing in California at a casino. We checked out where he was playing, and there was a Sisters Cupcake Company in town. We sent him and his crew ‘Sisters Cupcakes with the sisters.’ ”

— Jessica

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If you go

Upcoming Lovell Sisters’ performances in Georgia:

7:30 p.m. Sunday, Kennesaw State University at the Legacy Gazebo Amphitheater, 1000 Chastain Road, Kennesaw, 30144; 770-423-6650; www.kennesaw.edu/arts/events

7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Sept. 11, Eddie's Attic, 515-B North McDonough St., Decatur, 30030; 404-377-4976; www.eddiesattic.com