Andrew Duhon took one geology class in college, the class we all took; you know, rocks for jocks with the football players. While the New Orleans native chose music over science, the class stuck with him.
“It’s one of those things you don’t pursue but you’re glad you took a 101 in it,” he tells me over the phone from Indiana, where his tour has landed for the moment. “You’re on a plane and you see a river system and there are those pieces that are no longer part of the moving system; they end up as lakes, oxbow lakes — false rivers. At some point it’s likely the meander of the river will reconnect that piece but for now it’s just this beautiful piece on its own, this scar. I think it’s a nice metaphor for this record.”
The record, False River, is Duhon’s first new release in five years, since 2013’s Grammy-nominated (Best Engineered Album) The Moorings.
“These songs that were once part of the ever-changing, moving thing have now kind of found their static home as tracks, but also [as part] of the ongoing love story,” Duhon says of False River. “I think this record is perhaps a letter that I’ve been writing for a long time to a lover who’s no longer my counterpart, no longer my partner. I think in that way it’s a nice metaphor for the record.”
It’s a nice metaphor for life in general; pieces of our human river systems break away from the whole, only to be reunited later on down the road, whether that’s an old lover or a childhood friend, a job opportunity we thought was gone forever or the healing of a frayed relationship with a parent. To get mathematical about it, the apparent randomness in every complex system is actually guided by patterns, feedback loops, repetition and self-organization. Life looks chaotic, but Duhon teases apart the meaning in the disarray.
And that kind of work can surely take five years.
In that time, Duhon found something he hadn’t had before: a cohesive band. To record The Moorings, Duhon hired New Orleans musicians Myles Weeks on bass and G. Maxwell Zemanovic on drums.
“They were just hired to learn these songs they didn’t know before the recording session. You expect that relationship to end once the studio session is over; you pay ’em their rate and thank ’em for doing their job and move on,” Duhon says. “But we got along well and they were the best musicians I’d ever played with. When I had gigs I asked them about [playing with me] and before I knew it we had spent four years on the road crossing the American landscape [together].”
Duhon says he thinks there was an unspoken collective goal between the trio, a drive to create something together.
“I think it was because we all knew the experience we had making The Moorings proved to all of us that we needed to spend the time to hone songs that would become a record that we would make as a band that had seen the miles, and not just making a stock record, so to speak.”
Working with Weeks and Zemanovic pushed Duhon’s songwriting on False River in new directions.
“They are much better musicians than I am,” Duhon says with a laugh, adding that Zemanovic got hired to drum for Miranda Lambert’s band soon after False River was laid down.
“I’m blindly throwing things at the wall, but [Weeks and Zemanovic] are great listeners with seasoned ears. From a guitar idea to a melody I might sing differently on one night of a show, it would be their guttural grunts of pleasure that would make me stick a pin in something. The lyrics remain my focus. I believe my path is about being a writer, but without those guys this record wouldn’t be as musically matured. The growth is due in large part to the direction and the help I got from those two guys inspiring brave musical choices.”
The trio also got help from Eric Masse, an East Nashville producer who’s worked with country musicians like Miranda Lambert (see: Zemanovic’s new gig) and Charlie Worsham, but also local indie outfits like Escondido, prog rockers like At the Drive-In’s Omar Rodriguez Lopez and high-profile pop stars like Kesha.
Much like the formation of Duhon’s band, finding Masse was a stroke of luck… or fate, however you want to look at it.
But it started like many great things start: with an afternoon beer at a dive bar in Nashville. Duhon just happened to overhear another patron say he was from Louisiana, and the normally reserved Duhon decided to strike up a conversation.
“I told him, ‘I’m looking for the next Ethan Johns who isn’t Ethan Johns yet — The East-Nashville Ethan Johns who doesn’t charge what Ethan Johns charges.’ He said, ‘You need Eric Masse.’”
Duhon had been searching for the right producer for two years at this point.
“How does that search work? I’m not sure,” Duhon says. “I think you just listen to records and you say, ‘I like this and it’s new enough that the producer isn’t dead. Who else did they produce?’ See if you can follow that to some tasteful vein that’s a common thread through these records that you assume isn’t by chance but by the producer. So many reasons why you can like a record: The room was great. The musicians were great. A songwriter or a band leader could have come in with ideas already. That searching made it hard for me to nail down someone to work with.”
Calling Masse was a “last ditch effort” that paid off, even if Masse didn’t return Duhon’s phone call for a week.
“When he finally got back to me he said, ‘Sorry, dude, I was hunting in the mountains of Montana. What’s up?’”
Masse’s approach to record-producing has that same laid back sensibility. He’s got a studio in the garage in the back of his house he calls The Casino, because, as he told Duhon in that first phone call, it’s where he “gambles with the careers of artists.”
“Then he let out a belly laugh and I knew he was the one because if he was ready to joke about something that heavy, then he not only understood the gravity of it but he also had a sense of humor about it, and I think that’s how I was ready to approach it too.”
False River highlights the musical cliff that Masse and Duhon jumped off together, offering up more than just another songwriter record out of Nashville. Blending Duhon’s buttery vocals and Delta blues sensibilities with Masse’s eclectic musical proclivities, the record is a fresh take on the timeless experience of losing love and finding yourself.
It’s a new chapter for Duhon, not only as a songwriter but also as a human searching for all those human things like love and belonging, roots and family. He’s spent the past two years on the road touring, and he’s unlikely to stop doing that any time soon, but he is wondering what’s next.
“In my future I will have a more settled existence where I can grow maybe a half-acre of something, own some land, maybe it will involve some offspring; I don’t know yet,” Duhon admits. “It’s a pretty selfish life to travel and write songs. I love to share what I find and create but in essence I think it’s a pretty selfish way to be. I’d like to balance the insular, creative songwriter guy with a guy who’s a little older, a little grayer, hopefully a little wiser and more patient, perhaps the guy who could impart wisdom and freedom for a kid to live their own life.”
On the Bill: Andrew Duhon Trio. 7 p.m. Sunday, July 29, Gold Hill Inn, 401 Main St., Boulder. Tickets are $10, goldhillinn.com