Music

Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt Make Sweet Music Together

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The folk duo Nancy And Beth was born in the a/c-chilled comfort of a pickup truck’s cab on an unbearably hot afternoon in Austin, Texas. Stephanie Hunt slid into the passenger seat next to Megan Mullally, like her a musician-turned-actor presently seeking to escape a sun-soaked indie film set. Hunt had in hand the ukulele she carted around to pass the time between takes. This particular afternoon in 2011, with the thermometer topping 110, she’d asked Mullally to sing with her for the first time. “The minute we heard our voices together, we stopped and looked at each other wide-eyed,” Mullally remembers. “We could not believe we blended so well.”

Six years later, they remember the same moments the same way and get excited over the same things. Like, for instance, the day they went from being unfamiliar co-workers on the set to mutual sidekicks, weeks before they sang together. Hunt, a native Texan who played Jesse Plemons’s bandmate on Friday Night Lights, offered to show Mullally around town on an afternoon off from shooting (the film, Somebody Up There Likes Me, starred Mullally’s husband, Nick Offerman, with Hunt in a supporting role and Mullally in a cameo). They bought movie tickets and drove around until showtime.

“I must have been really nervous being seen hanging out with Megan, and I rumpled my ticket so badly that it fell out of my pocket and I couldn’t find it,” Hunt says. “I looked under my seat in the car and there was this tiny ball of paper, so wadded up, and we were like, That could not be your ticket!” It was, although, as Mullally reflects, “I didn’t know it was physically possible for a piece of paper to become that small.” The bond was instant: “We just about fell over laughing.”

The partnership began in earnest in 2012, when Hunt was opening for Offerman at a comedy show and Mullally joined her for a single song. It has steadily evolved since. “Eventually we were doing every song together, and then we very gingerly added some choreography,” Mullally says. “And that snowballed, and now we have choreography for every song.” As of April 7, they also have a self-titled debut album of ten bluesy covers, sung in the same perfectly matched tandem they discovered in that frigid pickup.

“That’s the underbelly of the whole thing, Stephanie and I and our rapport,” Mullally says. “It’s the ephemeral, indefinable thing about the band that sets it apart. And it’s something we don’t think about or talk about, it’s just what it is. It’s weird because no one has ever said we’re like mother-daughter. You’d think people would constantly be asking if Stephanie is my daughter, but they never do.”

Shared humor aside, Nancy And Beth is not a comedy act like Garfunkel & Oates or the Lonely Island. Because both women are lifelong musicians — Hunt taught violin in high school, and Mullally played in bands before she started acting — their songs are bluegrass-influenced covers of a wide array of American genres, from country to swing to Atlanta trap. “We’re celebrating performing music in the old-fashioned way that performers used to get to do it, singing other people’s songs you love that haven’t been heard for so long,” Hunt says. “There’s a restriction to writing and performing your own songs where you’re painfully self-aware, but with Nancy And Beth we just love music.”

Songs make the cut per a charming and highly subjective process. “Did Stephanie tell you about the Freakout List?” asks Mullally. She did: When the band started to become A Band, she and Mullally both made a massive playlist of songs they loved, irrespective of genre or era, and played them for each other. “The ones where we play it and we’re just like, ‘Yes!’ are the ones we perform,” Hunt says. “It’s a really pure, childlike place of joy that drives our decision-making,” adds Mullally.

That’s how the Nancy And Beth tracklist wound up as diverse as it is. It shuffles eras and genres, with George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today” popping up four tracks after Gucci Mane’s “I Don’t Love Her” and Rufus Wainwright’s “Vibrate” following the Clovers’ r&b romper “One Mint Julep.” A motley assortment, but American to its core. The only constant through the ten selections is the women’s twinned voices: Mullally’s a little more nasally, always on the melody, just ever so slightly edging over Hunt’s smooth harmonies.

And then there’s the choreography, which Mullally decided to add to spice up a performance on Conan in 2012. Before becoming an actor, she’d studied at the School of American Ballet, but dancing was new to Hunt. “At the beginning everything was really loose — we’re kinda dancing and kind of not,” Mullally says. “But now it’s full-on that it’s definitely happening. It goes from one extreme to another, sometimes very showbiz but in some songs very small.”

It’s simple, but not easy. “I learn a lot about body control from Megan,” says Hunt, who took social dancing lessons as a teenager but not classical technique. “She has such control of her body and her lines. I didn’t realize how many tiny muscles there were in every pose.” As the two get ready for a national tour, she’s taken up kickboxing to stay in shape.

The cover of the album sets the duo’s synchronicity in stark relief: It’s a straight-on photo of the two of them standing next to each other, full frontal and expressionless, the looping cursive of “Nancy And Beth” fig-leafing the required parts. And from the neck down they’re nearly indistinguishable — same height, shape, size, everything. “Age is irrelevant,” says Mullally. “This is about friendship, shared womanhood, just two humans hanging out on the planet. Our voices are so perfectly matched, and so are our physical selves.”

So what if they’re thirty years apart and at radically different stages in their careers? “We’ve never said this out loud, but it feels like a game that we’re playing together,” Hunt says. “It’s just girls hanging out and doing this thing that’s fun.”

Nancy And Beth play Joe’s Pub on Monday, April 10 and Tuesday, May 9.