There's a dead end that stops short of the Mississippi River levee at the end of Deslonde Street. The pavement gives way to grass, and the river bends away from downtown New Orleans and goes straight past Sam Doores' backyard.
Depending who you ask, Deslonde could be named after a rebel slave, Bertrand Gravier's wife Marie, or the French province La Londe. To Doores, it's the birthplace of The Deslondes.
"The band started here; we started writing, recording and rehearsing here — we've all lived on Deslonde," Doores says. "It's right where the river bends, people hang out and trade tunes. We have a lot of bonfires in the backyard. I used to host songwriter nights around the fire. We'd have speakeasies, bands, dances, cookouts — it's like being in the country but right in the city. It's the best of both worlds."
The band's self-titled debut album arrives June 9 on New West Records. The Deslondes fills its 40-minute span with soul, gospel, campfire blues, sad songs filling empty roadhouses, New Orleans-inspired rhythm and blues, rambling men and lonesome wanderers — wrapped up in country music and held together by a spit-shined belt buckle.
"The foundation of the city is a mix of a million things together, coming out with its own personality and character," says Doores, pulling his well-worn brown boot from the levee. "The group of friends we have and the musicians we play with all play a bunch of different styles and everybody likes to play with each other and learn from each other. ... Everybody's doing everything."
Doores hitchhiked and busked into town in 2007 and, eventually, put together the Tumbleweeds with bassist Dan Cutler.
"I was just a folkie doing the acoustic Woody Guthrie-wannabe thing, and I wanted to start a band people could dance to," Doores says. "He was playing the bass really well and singing high harmonies and he liked country music, and I wanted to start a honky tonk band."
The Tumbleweeds were among a small, young downtown scene digging into classic country and folk. In 2011, the band and members of Hurray for the Riff Raff held a Classic Country Night residency at Desperados, a now-closed Frenchmen Street pizza place, that turned into weekly rave-ups. Wide-brimmed songwriters, teenage runaways, their dogs, tourists and drunk pizza fiends saddled up for song debuts and standards.
"I remember thinking it was going to be a total flop," Doores says. "There wasn't much of a country scene in our group of friends. ... We were surprised at the reception of it. That's when I realized, there's a dancing culture here. Our friends like to go out and dance. Everyone had a love for country because it's related to all the old folk and jug and gospel and all the stuff people were influenced by, and it's also got this rhythm you can two-step to. It just became a scene."
With a new lineup — including Riley Downing, Cameron Snyder and John James Tourville — the band changed its name to The Deslondes. Tourville joined the band after busking and learning lap steel and fiddle in New Orleans. While gearing up for a tour with Alabama Shakes, the band picked up Snyder in Washington.
"We couldn't get enough guest lists for everybody we wanted to get in, so we said if he played tambourine and sang and played percussion with us, we could get him in," Cutler says. "He came back all the way to New Orleans with us and has been here ever since."
As for Downing, who is one of the most prolific songwriters in the band and sings with a hardened, low drawl, "We kind of plucked him out of Missouri," Cutler says.
The Deslondes also is a reunion — Doores and Snyder played in Broken Wing Routine several years ago, and Snyder and Tourville played in the Longtime Goners. Doores and Downing met trading songs around the campfire at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma.
Live, the band often performs with all members at the front of the stage, locked into harmonies and turning dives into Oprys, anchored on one end by Snyder's minimal percussion kit and the other by Tourville's lap steel and fiddle.
Recorded in Nashville with producer Andrija Tokic (who helmed Hurray for the Riff Raff's Small Town Heroes and the Tumbleweeds' 2012 LP Holy Cross Blues), the band's debut opens with a rolling, bass-handed piano lick introducing Downing's deep twang on "Fought the Blues and Won." Snyder's "Low Down Soul" is a sleepy, downtrodden tearjerker, and his fat snare locks a Stax-inspired rhythm on "Still Someone." Cutler's "Louise" plays like a straightforward, harmony-filled George Jones number lit up by Tourville's trusty lap steel. On closer "Out on the Rise," Doores — accompanied by piano, distant percussion and a soft clarinet — turns a bare soul number into a gospel-tinged, Dixieland-inspired ballad.
With five songwriters in the band, the Deslondes had to whittle its catalog to a handful.
"We just fisticuff," Doores says, laughing. "We usually try to work democratically about it. Luckily we have five members in the band. It's usually three against two. If we get another member there's no way we'll ever make a decision."