You have to give Malibu Storm credit. How many other bands make a transition from bluegrass to country music — and then choose a Def Leppard song as its first single?
Of course, this particular melding of musical styles doesn’t sound as far-fetched when you consider that members of Malibu Storm once shared stages with Ralph Stanley at bluegrass festivals yet picked Rascal Flatts’ producer when it came time to record their new album on Rounder Records.
Twentysomething twin sisters Dana Burke and Lauren Mills and 19-year-old brother Michael Alden got national exposure with “Photograph,” the first single from their self-titled album, released on Aug. 10. With trendy hairstyles and sharp clothes, they have the visual appearance you might expect from a hip, young acoustic group from California.
Their interest in bluegrass music began after the sisters found their father’s old banjo in the garage of the family’s home inland from Malibu, Calif.
“He bought a banjo when he was in college because it was on sale at Sam Goody’s for 20 bucks,” Burke said. “When I saw it in the garage at 10 years old, I had no idea what a banjo was supposed to sound like. Now I do. But back then, to me, a cheap $20 banjo was the best banjo I’d ever heard. I didn’t have anything to compare it to.”
She quickly began mastering the bluegrass banjo style after listening to records by Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Before long, her sister was learning to play the fiddle.
“Even before we learned banjo and fiddle, Lauren and I were always singers,” Burke said. “I remember being 5 years old, and Lauren would be able to just pipe in a harmony part with no lessons or anything. She sang perfect harmony at age 5.”
These days, the Malibu Storm members want to be referred to by first name only, but Dana and Lauren were in their early teens when they began touring the bluegrass circuit as the Schankman Twins. They eventually began recording, including their own independently-released album and a version of Johnny Cash’s “Home of the Blues” that wound up on the 1999 compilation, Cash on Delivery: An Alternative Country Tribute to Johnny Cash.
The sisters met one of their earliest supporters — bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley — during a festival in Nevada.
“Lauren and I were backstage when the concert promoter came up to us and said, ‘Ralph Stanley wants to meet you girls,’” Burke recalled. “We walked onto his tour bus. It was the first time I’d ever even seen a tour bus before.”
Stanley was drinking a cup of coffee when he said, “Hey girls, you mind playing a song for me?” They responded by performing one of his songs, “How Mountain Girls Can Love.”
“He was sitting there, just staring, sipping his coffee while we tried to do the best job we could do,” she said. “After we were done, he put down his coffee cup and said, ‘So, girls, what time do you want to come up and play with me today?’”
It was their first of many guest appearances with Stanley. “We’ve actually played quite a few times with him around the country,” Burke said. “That’s a real treat because we’re big fans of his. He’s such a bluegrass legend, it’s an honor to get to play with him even to this day.”
With their brother playing bass, the stylistic move toward country was a natural progression. “We always listened to country music on the radio, as well as bluegrass,” she said. “Country is more commercial sounding. We’d sing along with the radio to any type of music. Even though we love bluegrass, our voices lend themselves to singing country.
“Eventually, we even started doing songs that would be considered country — just with banjo and fiddle and bass. Throughout the years, fans would say, ‘You guys are going to be in country one of these days. I can see you doing that.’” We just progressed little by little more in that direction as we evolved as musicians and singers. By the time we signed with Rounder Records and got hooked up with [Rascal Flatts producer] Mark Bright, things fell right in place. We knew exactly where we should be at that point.”
In recording the new album, the three musicians insisted on playing their own instruments. “A lot of times with some artists who play their own instruments, they’ll still hire someone,” Burke said. “We consider ourselves to be good musicians, so we wanted to play our own instruments.” Explaining the other objective for the album, she said, “We wanted it to be a country record, but at the same time keep the banjo and fiddle in there.”
With a story similar to another acoustic trio from Texas, the members of Malibu Storm are aware that they’re being compared to the Dixie Chicks.
“They used to tour as a bluegrass band and eventually progressed to what they wanted to be, as well,” Burke said. “Some people might think we started playing banjo and fiddle after they came out. What’s funny is that they were doing the bluegrass circuit just when we were doing it, as well.”
As for their version of “Photograph,” she said, “We jam on some of the most random songs in the world sometimes. We thought the song lent itself really well to the instruments that we play. After we played it, we tested it out at a concert we played. The audience went wild for it.”
Members of Def Leppard wrote and first recorded “Photograph” with their record producer, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, for the 1983 album, Pyromania. These days, Lange is best known as Shania Twain’s husband, producer and songwriting partner.
“People Michael’s age don’t remember that song at all,” Burke laughed. “It was before they were even born. So they think, ‘Mutt Lange wrote it? Oh, it’s a country song.’ When they saw that Mutt Lange wrote it, they went, ‘Great country lyrics.’ They had no idea it’s a rock song. It just shows you that it’s the version of it that makes the music, not the song.”