Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sam Doores & Riley Downing on The Tumbleweeds and "Holy Cross Blues"

Sam Doores is songwriter and multi instrumentalist from New Orleans. He put together the original line up of the Tumbleweeds together in 2010 with Dan Cuter, Tony Fricky, and Matt Bell. The band soon gained a following in local bars and clubs, toured through Canada and the North East, and then embarked on a national tour with Hurray For The Riff Raff.

Shortly following these chain of events, Sam met up with an old friend, Riley Downing and the two rekindled a personal and musical friendship, resulting with Riley joining the Tumbleweeds. With Riley in the fold, the band added more original material and then made a few trips to Nashville where they recorded songs with Andrija Tokic (who recorded Alabama Shakes and Hurray For The Riff Raff).

Although the band originally started as Sam Doores and the Tumbleweeds before Riley joined them, when Riley Downing performs with them they prefer to take on the name Sam Doores, Riley Downing & the Tumbleweeds. Sam and Riley continue to perform together as well as pursue their own projects.

To coincide with my recent interview with Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray For The Riff Raff, I've decided to follow that feature with my interview with Sam and Riley. I am excited to share this conversation with you, where we dig into the history of the Tumbleweeds, their collaborative nature, and the making of their new album, Holy Cross Blues (Dollartone Records).

Hi guys, thanks so much for taking the time to participate in this interview. Can you each discuss some your previous projects before meeting up?

Sam Doores: In high school I played drums in a few different bands—a punk band, a rock n roll band, and a jazz/ Afro Cuban ensemble. But I also sang in a gospel choir twice a week. Musically, I was most excited by the gospel music, but I loved the community we had in that little punk scene.

When I was about 17 I got exposed to Woody Guthrie, Dylan and Townes and that rocked my world. I bought an old acoustic guitar and started rambling and writing for a handful of years. I mostly flew solo, but I did run with a 3-piece band called Broken Wing Routine for a while and another called Sundown Songs, singing originals and old folk and blues tunes.

Riley Downing: I got a guitar when I was 14 and didn’t know how to tune it till I was 16 and made a CD when I was 15 so it was an interesting learning process. I was in a handful of punk bands in my teenage years but still listened to all sorts of music and liked to play and write on an acoustic guitar.

After high school I was in a folk-punk band with my buddy Ronnie Aitkens called Tamper Dan and the Dirt Merchants. We lived out in the sticks in this busted trailer thinking we was living the dream but we never even played a show, just did some travelin’ playing what songs me and Ronnie had wrote together.

How and when did you guys discover each other's music and begin playing together?

Sam: I first heard Riley around a campfire at the Woody Fest in Oklahoma in 2008, I think. We were all passin' the guitar around and when it finally made it to him I was blown away. Him and Ronnie Aitkens sang a song together they had wrote in their band Tamper Dan and the Dirt Merchants, something about "I ain't a hippie but I'll give a tree a hug." I thought it was the best thing I'd heard at the whole festival.

We each were doing our own thing at the time and it didn't dawn on me to see if he wanted to start a band until I had put the Tumbleweeds together in 2010. I told him we had a two-month tour lined up with Hurray for the Riff Raff and he was welcome to hop on board.

How and when did you decide to collaborate and make a record together?

Sam: When Riley joined the band, I already had some of my stuff recorded with the Tumbleweeds, but now we had all these great new tunes Riley was bringing to the table. So we did a Kickstarter to raise enough funds to get in the studio and get his stuff on tape. Luckily, we had met Andrija Tokic right around that time while he was recording the Alabama Shakes. He knew exactly where we were comin from and what we were going for and really helped us find our sound in the studio.

Having recently discovered Hurray For The Riff Raff last year, I was eager to hear your Holy Cross Blues record (since the Tumbleweeds are billed as Alynda's band/ collaborators). Can you discuss the overlap in the music community and your connections to Hurray For The Riff Raff?

Sam: In New Orleans we have tight knit group of friends who all travel and play music together (on the streets mostly). Everybody plays in three or four bands and most people play three or four instruments as well.

When I first moved to town Ms. Alynda Lee of Hurray for the Riff Raff was the first songster I met, and Hurray for the Riff Raff was the first band who ever invited me out on the road to open up for them. So Alynda and I have been musical companions for about 6 years now, and for the last few I have been a member of her band.

Dan Cutler, the bass player for the Tumbleweeds (also one of my longest musical companions) also plays in Riff Raff now. So he and I get to record and tour with both bands and feel awful lucky to be able to do so.

Can you each describe your own individual approaches to songwriting?

Riley: Sometimes the music will come first and the words later, or vice versa. Words for me or an idea for a song usually come after a good stretch of interesting living or traveling, or sometimes just to clear my mind of a heavy feeling or memory or just plain ol' fashioned fun to pass the time.

Sam: I don't think either one of us have found a formula for it. I know that I just try to keep on my toes. Sometimes I'll be walking down the road and a melody will hit me and then I gotta change my plans that day so I can try and get it all down.

Other times the blues gets you and you just gotta write a song. A few of my songs were inspired by a book I was reading or a new record I heard. Sometimes I'll write half a song and then bring it to a friend and they'll help me finish it.

Which artists have influenced and inspired you most?

Sam: Well, I never would have started writing songs if it weren't for Woody Guthrie. He's my biggest hero and hearing his simple songs pack such a punch made me feel like I should try and do that too. Through Woody, Dylan, Townes and Tom Waits, I got into the old weird Harry Smith Anthology and Lomax field recordings. I'm also a huge Otis Redding fan and am deep into all that old soul and R&B stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I gotta mention The Band too. They might be my favorite band. Hank Williams, Neil Young, John Lennon… It goes on.

Since moving to Nola, I've been more influenced by my friends than anything. And lately there's a bunch of incredible new bands coming out the pike that we've had the pleasure of hanging and sharing bills with like Shovels and Rope, Alabama Shakes, Clear Plastic Masks, The Longtime Goners, Promised Land, Fly Golden Eagle, Buffalo Clover, Spirit Family Reunion, and Banditos. They have all been blowing our minds.

Riley: Mostly my friends and people I’ve met along the way who have been bitten by the bug one way or another. That and all the records I’ve found and been fortunate enough to get played for me. There’s always more gems to find whether it’s one song, a whole B-side, or some random 45.

What aspects of each other's songwriting and playing draw you to each other?

Riley: I guess we both know we just want to write good songs and songs we’re proud to share with people.

Sam: Although Riley and I got different styles, I always felt like we were coming from the same place. I can relate to Riley’s songs and have tremendous respect for his poetic simplicity. Also I always feel like I can contribute musically to the stuff he's writing.

My stuff’s a little more all over the place and not every song I write is a Tumbleweed song. But I do think we're both trying to write stuff that is influenced by older music, but deals with the world and times we're living in. Trying not to be too nostalgic and trying to make music that makes folks feel better.

What are the qualities that most inspire, challenge, and or push you in new directions?

Riley: We’re both always heading out and doing different things and it’s always fun to get together and share what you got or explain to a friend what you were thinking about for this song or that song, then just letting it build up and get a bit more rounded.

Sam: Well, Riley pumps out songs like a madman. When we don't see each other for a couple months and then get back together, he has ten more songs! So that always pushes me to write more and try to keep up. Sometimes he brings me and Dan a new country song and we'll add a doo-wop part to it, or an R&B rhythm. Sometimes I'll write a soul/gospel-styled song and Riley will turn it into a Luke the Drifter-sounding song. We never know how our songs are gonna turn out till they get the Tumbleweed treatment.

In general, Riley brings a little more country influence to the band and I bring a little more folk and soul influence. Dan Cutler brings a whole lot of musicality. He knows music theory and always has great ideas for arrangements and harmonies. Matt Bell and John James really fill out whatever arrangement we have with some steel guitar and fiddle.

Can give a run through of the players in the Tumbleweeds?

Sam & Riley: Dan Cutler plays upright bass, trumpet, and sings all the high lonesome harmony parts. We wouldn't be a band without him. John James plays pedal steel, dobro, fiddle, banjo, and lead guitar. Anything with strings. He's not on the record but he has toured with us a few times now. Matt Bell plays lap steel, dobro, and lead guitar and sings harmonies. He's usually too busy to tour with us but he's all over the record! Tony Fricky plays drums and percussion on our record, but sadly he ain't in the band no more. Riley Downing plays acoustic guitar, lead vocals, and low harmonies. Sam Doores plays rhythm guitar, harmonica, piano, organ, percussion, lead vocals, and mid-vocal harmonies.

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for your new record, Holy Cross Blues?

Riley: Yes and no. In a way, it’s just round one of what we do. Some of them songs were done at different times. I don’t think we’ll ever have a strict order of what song’s comin' next. Just kinda gotta wait and see what happens next and what we can create.

Sam: It's hard to say if one song really set the tone for the rest of this record. I think this record went in a lot of different directions we hadn't foreseen. Each track sorta called for its own treatment. Initially we had set out to make a country album, but our other influences kept creeping in and certain tracks don't sound at all country.

Riley's rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Mornin' I Was Born Again" was an exciting one to record because that one just naturally combined the country with the soul/gospel, and then we were even able to slip in a talking part. I think the track that is the best example of how we want to make our next album would be "Throw Another Cap on the Fire." That was recorded all live on the first take, and that's what we're shooting for.

What have you been listening to lately?

Sam: Hmm... Well I mostly listen to the radio because I ain't got any CDs or digital music. New Orleans’ very own WWOZ gets me through a lotta long drives. Last time I got home to my record collection I was listening to a lot of Mississippi Records releases like the Georgia Sea Island Singers gospel compilation, Irma Thomas, Cast King and Abner Jay. I love really early Jamaican music too like Desmond Decker and Toots, and early Wailers. I have been getting back into that Hasil Adkins record Moon Over Madison. Doctor John’s Gris Gris and Professor Longhair too.

Riley: At this very moment, Wanda Jackson’s Right or Wrong album. Blaze Foley kinda traded places with Townes in my life the last couple years. James Hand, a Texas country songwriter that Sam turned me onto and we saw a few years ago. He’s gotta broken heart and a good sense of humor. Pat Reedy and the Longtime Goners, good friend and hard working musician who runs a damn good band. Ernie K-Doe, New Orleans legend!! Stuff’s hard to find but my good buddy Tariq has been hooking it up for a while. 

Clarence Carter, “Patches” B-side, ya herd. Lee Fields, Faithful Man is the only record I got of him but got to see him in Texas with my buddies the Alabama Shakes and he is definitely a bad mofo full of soul. Charlie Feathers, Good Rockin’ Tonight! album, awwgh is good real hillbilly soul music. Tim Fite too. I got into him when his first CD came out and have enjoyed just about all his stuff from time to time. Lots of old George Jones and a little dystopia if needed.

Can you discuss your upcoming tour plans with Andrew Combs and Alabama Shakes?

Sam: I first met Andrew Combs while I was touring with Hurray for the Riff Raff. We shared a bill at the Bottletree in Birmingham and then proceeded to stay up half the night sharing some tunes and a bottle of whiskey. 

We’re also excited to be going out on the road with our friends the Alabama Shakes in March, from Boise to Jackson, Mississippi, with lots of West Coast dates too. We'llalso be playing at this year’s South by Southwest festival.


  1. Ah, this review popped up in my RSS feed and I'm listening to it now. It's quite good, this record. Thanks for finding it for me. Keep up the good work.

  2. This whole group of musicians,artists that Riley and Sam mentioned and then many that they didn't that are also part of this new..old sound. Are certainly on to something. I have been a music fan and collector my whole life but my son and his friends are the ones that turned me onto the early blues,bluegrass,folk.soul and R&B That has become such an influence to their sound and now me. I have been fortunate enough to have met many of these young artists and heard some play on my back deck. I think it is important to acknowledge their appreciation of those artists from way back in the day. Real Blues. Real Country. Real Music....and each and everyone of these kids (to me) are Gold. .....GO WEEDS and all ye Bands of Yonder Faith! Dad