The Secret Sisters: Old Time Soul

The Secret Sisters bring a throwback sound and sensibility to Nashville

Photo: Universal Republic

At the urging of a friend, Laura Rogers went to an open-call audition for singers in Nashville late last year. The fresh-faced, then-twenty-three-year-old had just graduated from Middle Tennessee State University and was working as a nanny. She sang a few bars for the panel, then left, thinking it just a mediocre effort. But when she got back to her apartment, she received a call asking her to come back.

She did, sang some more, and, sensing an opportunity, told the panel about her sister, Lydia—two years her junior and also a singer—who was studying to be a graphic designer in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Lydia left in the middle of class, arrived at the audition, and the pair sang two songs: “Tonight You Belong to Me,” a 1920s song popularized in the Steve Martin movie The Jerk, and a Rufus Wainwright track, “Do You Love an Apple?” Before they were finished, jaws were on the floor, and by January, the Secret Sisters, as they’re now known, had a record deal.

It’s a story that dreams are made of, and proof that for every slick pop-country star like Taylor Swift, Nashville can still make room for authentic old-school performers. With their Bettie Page hair and lipstick and vintage dresses, the Sisters look—and sing—as if they’re straight out of the 1940s. Their glorious harmonies fill the duo’s self-titled debut, executive-produced by multiple Grammy winner T Bone Burnett.

Growing up, the Rogers sisters got much of their vocal training singing spirituals. “We went to a church that had no musical instruments and no choir,” Laura recalls. “Everyone participated and everyone took a harmony, and we all sang together. It was a quick lesson in how to make voices work.” The sounds and songs on their record blend perfectly, from Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra covers to their own originals such as “Tennessee Me,” a lilting, spooky number about a friend of Laura’s who rebuffed her romantic interest. “He just didn’t like poor old Tennessee me,” she says with a laugh. “I hope he regrets it now.”

Along with Burnett, another music icon who fell in love with their timeless sound was Jack White of the White Stripes, who produced their first single, a roaring cover of the Johnny Cash classic “Big River.”

White is famous for his disdain for any digital recording equipment, preferring analog machines and recording straight to tape. “He is just a genius,” Lydia says. “Everything he does is true to the music. We were just in awe.” Burnett, who has worked with a slew of greats, was equally blown away by the Sisters. “They are the real deal, what music should be,” he says. “The Sisters are as pure as it gets, and I’ve been doing this for forty years.”

Their vintage dress and image certainly contribute to the duo’s aura, though when they’re not on the job, you’re likely to find them in regular jeans and holey T-shirts. But their look isn’t just for show. “We want to honor those old-time sounds, and dressing the part is one way we do that,” Laura says. “The world is a scary place right now, and we want to give our audience a sense of nostalgia—a time when things were simpler—and hopefully make them happy.”