(Sam Doores. Photos by Sarrah Danziger)
One of the most influential New Orleans albums of the last ten years came packaged in a brown paper bag, like a bottle of cheap booze. Sundown Songs’ 2008 debut, Like A Jazz Band In Nashville, collects twenty austere, rambling, surprisingly deft country tunes – plus one recipe for bacon pie – sung and played by a ragtag collection of traveler-kids who sound like they know more about Woody Guthrie than they do Jelly Roll Morton. They were so poor they had to record at a friend’s shotgun shack, burn the CDs themselves, and cut out the Xeroxed album art by hand. It also meant devising a particularly resourceful and inexpensive, albeit possibly illegal alternative to a jewel case.
“There was a gas station on St. Claude and Franklin that sold beer,” recalls Pat Reedy, a co-founder of Sundown Songs. “There’s a guy in a glass cubicle, and you showed him what you were buying and slipped him the money through the hole. He’d point to a big stack of brown paper sacks next to the counter. We were so broke that we would go in there and grab handfuls of them – more than we could possibly need for the beer – and slip the CDs in the sacks. It was as DIY as could be.” Distribution was equally limited. The band members handed out the first run of discs to friends at a barbecue.
Even such a modest release was perhaps more than Reedy and Kate Cavazos imagined when they started playing country music together at Café Brazil. Sundown Songs proceeded with no plan, accruing and shedding band members and eventually self-releasing a follow-up, Far From Home, before disbanding. Nevertheless, their debut has become an unlikely landmark in New Orleans, inspiring a new country music scene that includes a diverse group of musicians: Hurray For The Riff Raff, The Deslondes, The Long Time Goners (Reedy’s new band), The Good Gollies, The Wasted Lives, and Luke Winslow-King.
“That CD influenced everyone in my world,” says Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra, who played with Sundown Songs circa Far From Home. “A lot of people listened to Jazz Band and their minds were blown. We were all really influenced by the songwriting and the classic country sound.”
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Like A Jazz Band In Nashville is its winking self-awareness. New Orleans is known for many things, but good country music is not traditionally one of them. “We called it Like A Jazz Band In Nashville,” Reedy explains, “because back then there wasn’t a lot of … let’s say tasteful country music in New Orleans. We thought it was like if we all moved to Nashville to play traditional jazz. It didn’t make sense to be here.”
Of course, the New Orleans music scene has been bustling and dancing for three hundred years. Since its establishment as a major port city in 1718, millions of people from all over the world have visited the city, bringing with them various instruments and approaches to music that have simmered for centuries. As a result, New Orleans is a breeding ground for nearly every form of American popular music. And, thanks to venues like Preservation Hall and Sweet Lorraine’s as well as events like Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras, these old styles still live and breathe there – not relegated to museum status but actively practiced on street corners and in bars around the city.
Jazz and its various local strains emphasize interpretation and performance above all else. It’s about improvisation and variation, with one or a group of artists putting a personal stamp on a pre-existing tune that might be an old chestnut or an even older obscurity. That particular priority is incredibly important, as it allows contemporary musicians to continually renew and refresh the city’s hefty legacy. It also means there is a raft of highly skilled musicians competing for gigs in the studio or on the stage, along with a steady influx of tourists who want to sample some local jazz along with the beignets and gumbo.
“New Orleans is a little different from other cities,” understates Alex McMurray, an ace guitar player who has been gigging around the city for decades. “What we have here is a very big instrumental scene. People come down here to play clarinet and play trumpet.” In other words, most musicians in New Orleans earn their keep playing other artists’ music, backing vocalists or soloists in the studio and on the stage. “I don’t make a living playing my own songs. I make a living back up other people.” (Nevertheless, McMurray has released three albums of his own music, featured prominently in David Simon’s HBO series Treme.)
By comparison, country music has not always enjoyed such local prominence. It’s more closely associated with the northern part of the state, where Shreveport hosted the world-famous Louisiana Hayride, where Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Kitty Wells cut their teeth. And yet, a new generation of songwriters has found its way to the Big Easy armed with acoustic guitars, pronounced twangs, and makeshift basses – all with a goal of carving out their own niche in the city.
Almost none of these country musicians is actually from New Orleans, though. Most are travelers who drove, hitchhiked, or hopped freights to the city. “I came to New Orleans by accident,” says Luke Winslow-King, a Michigan native who has released three lively albums that mix country, gospel, and jazz. He was traveling with friends playing old Woody Guthrie tunes: “Our car was stolen on our first day in New Orleans, with all our equipment in it. So we were stuck here for a few weeks, which was long enough for me to fall in love with the place. I enrolled in the classical music program at the University of New Orleans and never left.”
Sam Doores, who briefly played in Sundown Songs and currently fronts The Deslondes, tells a similar story. Born in San Francisco but raised in Kansas, he visited the city with friends and “ended up randomly busking on Bourbon Street, and I got offered a gig at an Irish pub. I was only supposed to be there for two or three days, but I loved being among so many great musicians, so New Orleans became my home.” At first, Doores admits, he felt like a fish out of water, playing country around so many jazz and r&b artists, but eventually “I stumbled on to this whole group of traveling musicians who were young and doing the same thing I was – hitchhiking and catching trains and playing acoustic music on the street.”
If many arrived by accident, with only a very general understanding of local music, they stayed for the abundance of opportunities both musical and professional. Says Segarra, “I fell in love with New Orleans and quickly realized that playing music here was not only possible for a beginner because the community is very encouraging, but also a good way to make a living.” A strong tourism industry has made busking a profitable local enterprise, turning every street corner into a potential stage for an enterprising musician. Every warm body with an instrument has spent hours on the sidewalk playing for tourists and passersby.