It started as a musical love story should — with a song. Joel Timmons, singer and guitarist for horn-driven Charleston roots-rockers Sol Driven Train, was walking around the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Festival in Tennessee with Sol Driven Train drummer Wes Powers when he was stopped by a sound he couldn't ignore.
"We heard some great bluegrass, and we headed towards it," Timmons says. "And as we turned the corner we realized it was five beautiful women playing, so then we were even more enthusiastic about it."
The band was Della Mae, a fiery all-female bluegrass ensemble that at the time featured one Shelby Means on stand-up bass. Timmons knew the second he saw Means that he had to meet her, so he made his move after Della Mae's set.
"I saw this cosmic cowboy-looking dude walking towards me, and I was like, 'Who is this guy saying he really loved my show?'" Means says. "It felt like we had a little soul reunion or something."
And then . . . well, that was about it for a while, actually. The two went their separate ways. They even played the festival again the next year and didn't speak at all. But Timmons couldn't forget the bass-playing beauty that had stolen his heart, not even after he wrote a song to try to get her out of his system.
"Wes [Powers, bandmate] told me I was living in a pipe dream," Timmons says. "So I'd written a song called 'Pipedream,' trying to rid myself of this fantasy. I never knew her but I couldn't get her out of my head, so I let my imagination take it all the way."
"Struck blind by a vision/Of things that would pass," Timmons sings on the swaying acoustic ballad, creating a tale of courtship, love, marriage, and children, all with a woman he'd only really met once.
And when he heard that that woman was playing with Della Mae at the Awendaw Barn Jam a few months later, he called up the promoter and talked himself onto the bill. He almost played "Pipedream" during his set, but he didn't quite have the courage. After speaking to Means again when the Jam was over, he decided to take a deep breath and email the song to her.
"After I emailed her, it was like radio silence for two weeks," Timmons says with a laugh. "I was like, 'Oh well, I had to take a swing.' But she got back to me and said that was really sweet, but she had a boyfriend."
But you know that's not where the story ends, otherwise we wouldn't be here, would we? Means' relationship ended, and she and Timmons began the chaotic process of trying to date and get to know each other while both their bands were on the road. "We had to figure out when we were going to be off tour and we could meet up," he says. "There were a lot of logistics in that first year we were dating."
And during that time, in addition to falling in love, the two began playing songs together. They played cover songs at first, but before they knew it both of their respective day jobs had fallen by the wayside and they were playing a stripped-down mix of folk, roots-rock, and bluegrass, creating an intriguing hybrid of Means' propulsive bass, Timmons delicate acoustic work and rockabilly-tinged electric playing, their vocals intertwining around one another. During that period in late 2014, they settled on their name: Sally & George, as a tribute to Means' grandparents.
But even by then, they weren't sure about making an album together. Timmons didn't even live in the same city as Means for a long while; she was in Nashville and he was in Charleston. When he finally moved to Music City, it seemed logical to move full steam ahead with a new project, but they were still hesitant.
"I definitely wanted to take it easy," Means says. "I'd been in situations before where you start a band with your boyfriend and something goes wrong and the band has to end."
"It felt like another step in being vulnerable with Shelby, playing music together," Timmons says. "What if musically the chemistry isn't there? And what if we get our feelings hurt? We're both sensitive artists. It was definitely a scary plunge to take."
Ultimately, though, the music they were writing together was too compelling to resist, and they slowly began making the album that would be called Tip My Heart, recorded over two years starting in Wyoming (where the duo was visiting Means' parents) and moving through Charleston and Nashville.
And the album was worth the wait. With the exception of a spine-tingling, bare-bones version of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game," the album is all originals written or co-written by Means and Timmons. The production is raw but warm, shining the spotlight on the pair's tightly interwoven harmonies and the frisky interplay of their instruments. The album tells a loosely themed story of their romance, from "Pipedream" to the simple-but-heartwarming mandolin-spiked tale of domestic bliss, "Love is Gonna Live." The title track debuted on NPR's "Songs We Love" back in January.
"We wanted to go slow and not hurry into an album," Means says. "It was our debut project, so we wanted it to be as good as it could be. We initially thought it was going to be an EP, then we realized we had 16 songs to choose from. It kind of morphed. It was cool to let it create itself, and it just turned out to be a collection of love songs."
The Charleston portion of the recording was largely done in the home studio of Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst, a.k.a. Shovels & Rope. Timmons says that, in terms of both their relationship and their music, Sally & George could scarcely have had better role models than Hearst and Trent.
"We were lucky enough to be in Charleston at the beginning of last year when Cary Ann and Michael were home with their baby," Timmons says. "They opened up their home for us to come and record for a few days. They're an inspiring couple for sure in terms of what they've been able to accomplish as a duo. The passion in their music is something we really admire."