“I’m Not a Very Good Cowboy,” a short film by George Cessna, begins with Cessna listening to a cassette tape telling him he must have cowboy boots and a cowboy hat in order to write a country song and ends with him in glasses and a baseball hat yodelling about the death of the last cowboy after watching clips of old country stars on TV. There are no more cowboys, or country bands. There is no way to make a living at music. There is no hope. So, let’s get drunk and play some songs.
“I wish I didn’t like it,” Cessna, a solo artist and one of the singers and songwriters in the Sterling Sisters, says of the country music he grew up on. “I had a really hard year this year and in a way country music was like the best cure, like they have a song for everything and you feel it so much more. On the other hand, it kind of ruins you—like I’m going to drink a lot of beer and sit in my room and cry. It will ruin your life and save your life.”
I first met Cessna in 2013 at the Midway, the one non-strip bar on the Block, a great dive, with walls lined with pinup photos of the old dancers who used to drink there back in the red light district’s glory days. We had just awarded The Sterling Sisters “Best Country Band,” and when various disreputable staff members stumbled in for an impromptu Best of Baltimore afterparty, there was the then-21-year-old Cessna in a battered baseball cap hunched over the bar like an old reprobate. We were both drunk (open bar) and immediately sank into one of those long conversations that lifelong fans of country music often fall into, riffing on the brilliance of George Jones or Roger Miller, racing from one song to another like we were in hot contention for the Wurlitzer Prize.
Neither of us remember much about the conversation, of course, except that it happened, but since the Sterling Sisters are playing the Metro Gallery on Aug. 9 and Cessna and his fellow songwriter and singer in the band Scout Paré-Phillips will be performing solo shows at Holy Frijoles on Aug. 18, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with them, especially given the fact that Paré-Phillips has found a lot of success and good press in the wake of her recent “Record Store Day” recording with Jack White.
“I got a call out of the blue from Jack White ,” Paré-Phillips says from the car, driving towards Minnesota on a solo tour that will put her in Baltimore just before the Aug. 9 gig. “He did a project for Record Store Day and he basically is just really a nifty guy and likes to do things as high tech as possible and wanted to release the world’s fastest record. So he recorded a few songs off his new record, which wasn’t out yet then, and needed an opera singer kind of girl and called me, so I recorded with him.”
It is the tension between Paré-Phillips, who has an operatic voice, high-folk sensibility, and a severely sexy look, and the shambling Cessna, a lanky kid who grew up steeped in the country-tinged rock of his father’s band Slim Cessna’s Auto Club, that makes Sterling Sisters thrilling to listen to. When something is called “new country” it is usually neither new nor country, just warmed-over pop. But Sterling Sisters, if they can be called country at all, are entirely original because Cessna’s high and lonesome voice and Eric Paltell’s pedal steel contrast so sharply with Paré-Phillip’s harmonies, which sound more like something from an ancient Greek tragedy than EmmyLou Harris.
Most of the members of the band— which also includes Andrew Haas on banjo and Corey Hughs on drums—just graduated from MICA, and, with Paré-Phillips pursuing photography, modeling, and her solo career in New York, there is reason to fear that their beautiful 2013 album “Hale” might be their last.
“The Sterling Sisters is the perfect band for me,” Paré-Phillips says, alleviating any such concerns. “George and I are such a perfect writing couple.”
The two met as freshmen at MICA. “We started a band together because she heard that I liked Nick Cave and the Birthday Party,” Cessna says sitting over beers at a table by the jukebox at the Mount Royal Tavern (full disclosure: He and Paltell tried to ply me with drink). “So she got all excited. We did that and it was noisy. She sang and I played guitar.”
They continued in this initial, proto-Sterling Sisters for a while, but then Paré-Phillips gave Cessna a folk recording she had made at the same time he was thinking about recording a country record. “We got together to do that and my roommate Andrew was learning banjo just for fun so we sat down and just wrote maybe our first two songs. ‘Raised You in the West’ was our first song. It was sort of a joke but we wanted to take it seriously, try it out in a show.”
“I got kicked out of their first show,” says Eric Paltell, who now plays guitar and pedal steel, one of the defining features of the Sterling Sisters sound. “I was—”
“He was drunk,” Cessna chimes in, sipping his beer.
“Relationship problems can’t really encompass the amount of problems I was having,” Paltell concedes. “I brought George a guitar amplifier and then they kicked me out.”
“He came to a show later on and then he mentioned that he was interested in learning pedal steel, so we said let’s do it,” Cessna says.
“It’s the worst instrument I’ve ever had to play. I love how it sounds, but I hate it,” Paltell adds. “It’s the worst instrument to have to set up, tune—it’s like, why? Who invented this? There’s an infinite number of things that can go wrong and I think they’ve all happened to me. It’s terrible to travel with.”
Last year, the band toured the country with Slim Cessna’s Auto Club puts on a fiery live show and has something of a cult following.
“It was hard and nerve-wracking,” Cessna says of the experience. “I still felt like I was going up there as a gimmick. ‘Aw that’s cute, Slim’s son.’ ‘Aww, he looks like Slim.’ I wanted to be like Hank Jr. I either wanted people to be like ‘this is better’ or be like ‘this is so much worse.’ And I don’t think it got that. I’m still looking for my Jr. moment.”
That wry self-awareness and sense of searching is part of what defines the sound of the Sterling Sisters. But the band’s music is also suffused with a deep sadness that comes, in part, just from being young—“to be young’s to be sad’s to be high” as Dave Rawlings has it—and in part from graduating from an expensive school in a terrible economy with not many prospects. “I just got done with a painting job. That sort of freefall, scary-life-decisions kind of mode. I don’t really feel like I should be making huge decisions in my life. That’s what everyone says. But I feel like everything matters,” Cessna says of his post-graduate life.
But there’s something else there—the existential sadness that country music has always mined, the rowdy drunken sadness that might best be called “lonesome.” You can hear this mix in their original compositions, or in their cover of Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” Miller gave the song’s tragic lyrics a bounce-y feel in a major key, but, in Cessna’s hands, it becomes a horrifying minor key lament so that when he sings “oughta take a rope and hang me,” you can feel the cold wind blow through your bones.
There’s another scene in “I’m Not a Very Good Cowboy,” where Cessna is standing on a roof, wearing a white cowboy hat, a black suit, and a bolo tie, with the sun setting into the harbor behind him. There’s something beautifully awkward about the scene, which cuts to other shots of him riding through the city, in a convertible car, playing a guitar. The film, Cessna’s senior thesis as MICA, was intended as an investigation of his love of country music. But, these Baltimore scenes remind us how country and western music was never really about the country or the west, it was about pining for some lost paradise from the lonesome streets of a godforesaken city where you find yourself alone.
Everyone in the Sterling Sisters insists that they’re not a country band—“when y’all gave us ‘Best Country Band’ that was great, but then I was like ‘I want best rock band,’” Cessna says—but if country music has a future, its fate rests on the shoulders of people like Cessna and Paré-Phillips, who are able to see all its contradictions.