Talk about growing up in public.
Over the past few years, the Peasall Sisters—Sarah, Hannah and Leah have earned GRAMMY and CMA Awards for their part in the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou? movie and soundtrack, and performed at such esteemed venues as Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall with the acclaimed Down From the Mountain tour, in addition to the Grand Ole Opry.
But even after all that time spent in the spotlight, the Peasalls are still all about family. They remain down-to-earth teenagers who live with their tight-knit family, including parents Michael and Sally and three younger siblings in White House, Tenn.
That atmosphere of familial warmth permeates the sisters’ second album, Home to You, which features members of two other famous families—producer John Carter Cash and guitarist Randy Scruggs—in crucial supporting roles. “It really is a family record,” says Sarah, the threesome’s mother hen. “I think we all knew that, and wanted it to stay that way.”
Sure enough, if you ask the girls about their favorite music, these modern day Carter Sisters list a history of family groups spanning a century, from the Cox Family to the Carter Family to the Whites, Nickel Creek and the Dixie Chicks—not to mention the influence of their own multi-instrumentalist grandfather, Jimmy Brasher, author of Home to You’s “The Old Church Yard.”
Recorded in the rustic comfort of Cash Cabin Studio outside Nashville, where John Carter’s father Johnny Cash recorded his final masterpieces, Home to You is suffused with the warmth, security, spirituality and easy access to history offered by the presence of close relations. In fact, another family tie led to John Carter Cash’s participation: his wife, Laura, was Leah’s fiddle teacher. One day while the other girls were waiting for their sister’s lesson to end, John Carter asked if the group would sing a song to help test the home studio he was installing. He liked what he heard, and asked the Peasalls to back Emmylou Harris for a track (“On the Sea of Galilee”) on last year’s Carter Family tribute The Unbroken Circle.
Their collaboration comes to full flower on Home to You. “The whole thing went so smoothly,” says quiet, thoughtful middle sister Hannah. “We had our little bumps—for instance, it rained every day we were in the studio! But John Carter can smooth out all the bumps. He makes it very easy.”
The result captures a vocal blend—Sarah’s alto, Hannah’s soprano and Leah’s tenor—that is equal parts genetics and road-tested musicianship. “We pretty much have been singing together all of our lives,” says Hannah. The sisters first performed onstage at a church service while visiting their father’s parents at a retirement home in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. At the time, Sarah was 10, Hannah was 7 and Leah was 5. “I remember we had ice cream afterwards,” says Sarah.
The thrill of entertaining an audience took hold—or maybe it was the ice cream—and the girls kept it up. “We started performing in churches and nursing homes,” recalls Hannah. The group used to be called Precious, because that’s what all the little old ladies in the nursing homes would say—‘Oh, they’re so precious!’”
In 1999, they auditioned for parts in the Coen brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? Although the filmmakers decided they didn’t look “pitiful enough” to play Depression-era characters onscreen, their voices were heard in the movie, and their career took flight.
Although they already have plenty of fans, Home to You marks a big step forward in the Peasalls’ confidence and maturity. “I used to hate session work, because you have to stand still for so long,” says Leah, the acknowledged tomboy of the family. “Now, it just kind of comes naturally.”
Another new development in their recording career is the inclusion, for the first time, of Peasall originals. The album kicks off with Sarah’s title cut, inspired by a family friend’s conversion to Christianity. For “Gray County Line,” Sarah put words to Leah’s music, cribbing the title from a sign she saw on a roadside in Arkansas.
But perhaps closest to the girls’ hearts is “Logtown,” written by Sarah and mother Sally, whose side of the family hails from the Gulf Coast town of Logtown, MS. Established in the 1800s, the town practically disappeared from the map in the 1960s after NASA took over the area for missile testing. “To this day, there’s nothing there except the cemetery where all our family is buried and the gravel road that leads down to the Pearl River,” says Sarah. “It’s a haunting and sad story, but at the same time it’s kind of a happy thing—they sacrificed so that America could go forth with the space race.”
For Home to You’s other tracks, the girls turned to tunes taught them by grandfather Jimmy (who the girls call “G.G.”) and suggestions from producer Cash. The sprightly “Rushing Around” and “Freight Train Blues” are best known in Roy Acuff’s renditions; “I Never Will Marry” is a Carter Family number; and “Fair and Tender Ladies,” “The Old Account” and “Carrick Fergus” are traditional songs.
The a capella closing number, “Where No One Stands Alone,” is a decades-old gospel number that re-emphasizes this devout Baptist family’s commitment to spreading the good word. “To us, it’s not just having religion,” says Sarah. “It’s having a relationship and living a lifestyle. I don’t think it’s something we have to think about. It’s who we are.” The Peasall's take on this gospel track was recently selected by O Brother creators Joel and Ethan Coen as a key song in their forthcoming film, True Grit, which further illustrates the girls' uncanny ability to deliver haunting vocals with a cinematic flare.
You’ll hear that and much more of who the Peasall Sisters are on Home to You, in all their effervescent spirit and glorious complexity. These are teenagers with nearly a decade of musical experience; thoroughly modern kids completely at home with songs many times older than themselves; three individuals with distinct personalities who slide together in instinctual, natural harmony.
Add it all together, and it sounds like home.