“I set down with my back against the wall looking all through the troubled, tangled, messed-up men. Traveling the hard way. Dressed the hard way. Hitting the long old lonesome go.
Rougher than a cob. Wilder than a woodchuck. Hotter than a depot stove. Madder than nine hundred dollars. Arguing worse than a tree full of crows. Messed up. Mixed-up, screwed-up people. A crazy boxcar on a wild track. Headed sixty miles an hour in a big cloud of poison dust due straight to nowhere.”
—Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie
Twelve years on from Katrina, no one could have expected the diaspora of twentysomethings headed to, not just from, New Orleans—a flood of young cultural expats looking for something they couldn’t find at home.
For Sam Doores, nominal frontman for a very democratic five-piece of Americana musicians called the Deslondes, his personal journey began with a copy of folk legend Woody Guthrie’s biography—practically a sacred text for the generation of restlessness that produced the ’60s counterculture movement, and one that still held enough power to get Sam to ditch all his possessions and start train-hopping and hitchhiking with nothing but his guitar. “I can’t imagine what my life would look like now if I hadn’t read that book,” he says now.
It was a journey that took him to Austin, Nashville, Woody’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, and back to his West Coast home, but the Crescent City kept calling him back until he finally put some roots down. The Deslondes are the result of five different journeys to discover America, and their musical pastiche, while rooted in traditional country and folk music, incorporates everything from Memphis soul to the New Orleans piano tradition. Their brand-new second album, however, is entitled Hurry Home, suggesting, both in title and content, that their vagabond days are numbered.
Sam Doores was kicking around Austin just after Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast when he met New Orleans saxman Dominick Grillo, then with King James & the Special Men and lately with the Frenchmen Street All-Stars. It was Dominick who first convinced Sam to come to New Orleans, and while he didn’t return with them at the time, the suggestion took hold. Soon he found himself crashing on the couch of Sean Kelly’s Irish Pub. “I was only 19,” he remembers. “But I never got IDed. He let me stay there if I’d play guitar—Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Dylan, and of course some Irish stuff like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers. Anything that sounded good on acoustic, really. But he wanted me to keep it upbeat. Not too many sad songs.”
From there he graduated to an apartment tucked away a few blocks over on Madison Street, then to the musicians’ havens of Bywater and the Treme. There was a brief hiccup of responsibility where he returned to his West Coast roots and enrolled in Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College, but that lasted all of three months before the lure of the City That Care Forgot drew him back in. “I always loved Down By Law,” he says now, referring to the 1986 classic Jim Jarmusch film about escaped New Orleans convicts. “The city kept calling to me.”
The third time back was the charm—Doores found himself on a street called Deslonde in the still-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward back in 2010. “Me and my buddy used to just go there and sit on that levee, waiting to watch the sun go down,” he remembers. “There were two houses left that were uninhabited, and my friend eventually got up the gumption to leave a letter in the landlord’s mailbox, asking if we could move in. He said yes. But we had to do a lot of work on that house.”
He’d finally found a home, but that didn’t stop him from making the yearly trip back to Okemah for its Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, and that’s where he met guitarist Riley Downing. Armed with a batch of originals similar to Doores’ own, they soon picked up extra musicians, including bassist and former schoolmate Dan Cutler, and became the Tumbleweeds, releasing an excellent debut in 2012 called Holy Cross Blues, named after the section of the Ninth Ward where Sam had watched the Mississippi roll. Full of originals (and a jaunty take on Leonard Cohen’s “Passing Through”), it showed a remarkable natural affinity for worksong, country blues, bluegrass and honky-tonk weepers, and it was good enough to get noticed by Alabama Shakes, who asked the Tumbleweeds to join them on tour.
That lucky break led to two major changes. The first happened when Sam ran into old hometown friend (and former collaborator) Cameron Snyder in Seattle, who despite being known for his chops on piano and upright bass was asked to join them on tour as a drummer. “It just felt right,” Sam claims now. “Although he’s still playing just a snare and a kick drum.” The other, more unsettling change was learning that the Tumbleweeds name was already taken. Again turning to their adopted neighborhood, they rechristened themselves the Deslondes, proper pronunciation of “dez lawns” and all. “Now I get to explain how to pronounce our name to everyone I meet,” he chuckles, grumbling like a native son.
Around that same time, Sam and Dan made another important fan connection—fellow Guthrie enthusiast and one-time train hopper Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. “I first met Alynda at the Dragon’s Den just after I dropped out of college,” Sam recalls. “When I walked in Alynda was singing some of her songs, just her and a banjo in front of the stage with no mics… I was floored. We ended up trading stories and songs all night.” Such was her mutual rapport with the pair that they ended up part-time members, touring with her and backing her on several albums including Look Out Mama and her major-label debut Small Town Heroes. “We’re sort of like sister bands,” Sam muses. “But then both bands started getting more work. We all got busier and busier. With the Deslondes, Dan and I were two of the songwriters and so we had more creative control. Breaking out on our own was a natural progression.”
Now free of any other obligations, the newly-christened Deslondes set about recording their debut proper, rehearsing and laying down basic tracks at the Living Room in Algiers. When the tracks were done, off they went with the band to the Bomb Shelter in Nashville to be polished by Shakes and Riff Raff producer Andrija Tokic.
The dozen songs on 2015’s The Deslondes were less folk and more country, perfect for sand-covered dance floors and swinging-door saloons, and all set off by the band’s secret weapon, pedal steel guitarist and fiddler John James Tourville. (He was also found on a Tumbleweeds tour: “He was just learning how to play fiddle and steel at the time,” says Sam. “I remember being blown away at how quickly he was improving and developing his own style.”) And while classic country was definitely the main motif—“Less Honkin’, More Tonkin’” was specifically designed as a homage to classic George Jones—for the first time there were hints of other influences working their way into the mix: Sam’s piano on “Fought the Blues and Won” struck many with its authentic New Orleans stroll.
Now comes Hurry Home, recorded in Tigermen Den in the Bywater—not quite a mile across the canal from Deslonde the street. An old corner store repurposed as an event center, it proved to have the perfect downhome ambiance. But first the band had to agree to meet in yet another bastion of cultural weirdness—Athens, Georgia—in order to write. That’s because the Deslondes have once again been strewn to the four winds—not only did wanderlust kick in again for many of them, some are also married and raising children.
“Settled down” they aren’t, though. At least, not yet. “Everybody in this band is just so itchy all the time,” says Sam. “It’s our common thread. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and it’s so complex, feeling tired from that but yet still having it kind of running through your blood.” Suddenly Dan pipes up over speakerphone, where the band is relaxing after “driving as fast as we can through the desert with no air conditioning” to make a radio interview in Tucson: “I’ve never lived anywhere more than three years. I don’t feel like I’m from anywhere.”
Hurry Home is even more accomplished, perhaps due to the entire band sharing the writing and the microphones for the first time, and it wanders musically, too: There’s a large amount of Tex-Mex in the mid-tempo songs and surf whammy in the guitar, the uptempo numbers come off more rockabilly than bluegrass, and Cameron adds a swirly, squirrely Booker T.–type organ to his resume. This is all by design: “We’ve always loved the Stax and Sun labels,” explains Doores. “We really wanted to add that element.”
It’s still refreshingly real, with the familiar country twang and occasional Appalachian harmonies intact. And everything was recorded live in the studio in good old analog, on a Tascam 388 8-track reel-to-reel (though it was “bounced down” to digital in Nashville strictly for mixing and mastering, according to the band). Yet Hurry Home feels different for another reason, one that the band is ready to identify before it’s even brought up. “It’s more subdued, thematically,” says Dan.
“What is the theme of the album?” he goes on. “I don’t think we had an inkling of a theme. But at some point we started figuring the songs had a thread—nostalgic, longing, a bit more introspective. With our first album, there were some points where it was bombastic but uplifting.” He talks about the cover of the new album, a picture which was painted by Riley’s father, Tim, of the South C Highway near the Missouri town where Riley grew up. “When I look at it I think, we travel around, see the old idealistic life, and our own lives seem distorted.” Dan calls the dichotomy “that old push and pull… there’s always that desire, finding that kind of balance of a healthy home life but pursuing our dream.”
It’s telling that the video for the album’s leadoff track, “Muddy Water,” features the band wandering near the Mississippi on the other side of the Holy Cross levee at the foot of Deslonde Street as adults, but also as children. “The fact is, we’re from all over the place,” says Dan, as the band prepares for its next West Coast gig in a tour that will take them through Canada, around to New York, and then even to Sweden. “We tour so much and we just pull musical influences from everywhere. The only thing we share in common besides the music is a longing for home.”
Still, the Deslondes remain a band no matter where everyone is—and also an idea. Sam explains the bond: “Riley, Dan and Cam have all lived with me at the end of Deslonde at different times. They all have their own spots now, but It’s always been a gathering place for friends, bands passing through town, campfires, recording, house shows, rehearsals… we just naturally grew out of all that.” But as long as they share their love for the impossibly vast network of genres known as “Americana,” they’ll still have reason enough to occasionally go back to traveling the hard way. Dressed the hard way. Hitting the long old lonesome go.