Amy LaVere, the upright-bass-playing Memphis roots-pop chanteuse, has played with plenty of terrific guitarists since emerging as a significant solo artist with her 2006 debut, This World Is Not My Home. But, in that time frame, LaVere hasn't played with someone who specializes in a vintage, twangy rock-and-roll and country sound the way John Paul Keith does. And with Motel Mirrors — the duo's recently formed side-project band, which celebrates the release of a seven-song eponymous debut EP this week — Keith's sound clicks with LaVere's so perfectly that you're likely to wonder why it took these local roots faves so long to find each other.
Though both have been popular fixtures on the local scene — Keith's third album since landing in the Bluff City, Memphis Circa 3AM, arrives on September 17th — they didn't know each other well until last fall, when Keith first approached her at Craig Brewer's annual Halloween party about working together.
"I was trying to take over her record," Keith says now, with a laugh. "I've always wanted to work with her. I always thought it was a natural fit. On her records, she never quite does that country or rockabilly thing."
LaVere agreed to a meeting — "she humored me," Keith says — and made it clear her album, with Luther Dickinson producing, was in good hands. But LaVere was interested in working together and was looking for a way to play local weeknight gigs without interfering with her solo draw, which dovetailed with Keith's own needs as a solo artist.
"Before we'd even wrapped the meeting, she's taken out her phone and date book and was scheduling gigs," Keith remembers. "She was texting me band names before I'd even gotten home."
Keith, LaVere, and drummer Shawn Zorn — a regular member of LaVere's band and a sometime fill-in with Keith's One Four Fives — played their first gig as the Motel Mirrors at Mollie Fontaine's Lounge a few weeks later. And now they have Motel Mirrors — a brisk, lovely collection of four originals (three from Keith, one a co-write) and three vintage covers.
"We got together and jammed on some stuff, and it was apparent we had to do duets," Keith says. "It's stupid if we don't. This has to be like a Conway [Twitty] and Loretta [Lynn] thing."
With Zorn completing the trio, LaVere and Keith worked up a covers setlist in short order, featuring classic country duet crowd-pleasers such as Twitty and Lynn's "After the Fire Is Gone" and "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly" and the Kendalls' "Heaven's Just a Sin Away."
"We knew within the first rehearsal that it was a fit, a total no-brainer," Keith says.
Working up original material for the project was more challenging, with both Keith and LaVere readying solo albums at the same time (LaVere's is expected to be released late this year or early next year) and with writing duets taking both into new songwriting territory.
"I wanted to make sure it was romantic," Keith says of the project. "That's the central thing that's interesting about a man and a woman singing together: She & Him do it. But there's not a lot of that. It's kind of gone away. We also didn't want it to be kitschy or campy."
Keith came up with three strong originals for the Motel Mirrors record, which was recorded at Ward Archer's Music + Arts Studio and is being released, digitally and on 10-inch vinyl, via Archer Records. The opening "Meet Me on the Corner" is a dark-end-of-the-street anthem, with Keith and LaVere trading lines in anticipation of an illicit rendezvous. "Suddenly You" is a jaunty paean to newfound love that features LaVere's slap bass in a way that's been more common onstage than on record. "The Best Mistake I'd Ever Make Again" is a no-longer-a-couple's fond look back at their "all-time favorite sin." With "That Makes Two of Us," the duo refashion a preexisting but unrecorded LaVere song into a post-breakup give-and-take.
Adding to those originals are three covers. They turn Buck Owens' "Your Tender Loving Care" — which he re-recorded as a duet with Susan Raye — into a surging rocker. "As Far As I'm Concerned," with Keith and LaVere echoing each other delicately, is a little-known gem from country pioneer Red Foley. And most striking of all might be "Dearest," which you could I.D. as a selection from '50s R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia even if — like most — you're only familiar with their lone megahit, "Love Is Strange." Keith and LaVere play it straight here, Keith mastering the distinctive guitar sound and his and LaVere's voices blending perfectly. It's dreamy.
While classic country duets were the original inspiration, the Motel Mirrors' real sound is modeled more after the Everly Brothers, who layered doubled vocals and acoustic guitars over a simple rhythm section.
After playing a series of weeknight residencies at local clubs since late last year, the Motel Mirrors will play their first ever weekend Memphis show at the Young Avenue Deli to launch the record.
Motel Mirrors Record Release Show, with Mark Edgar Stuart
Young Avenue Deli
Saturday, August 24th, 9 p.m., $8