You may know Riley Downing from his work with acclaimed New Orleans combo the Deslondes, or perhaps from his similarly rootsy and wide-ranging catalog of songs with the Tumbleweeds – indeed, the Missouri-based singer-songwriter’s ability to set gripping, evocative narratives within soundscapes that weave together country, blues, folk, r&b, bluegrass, rock, soul and whatever else catches his ear is something that, once you hear it, is hard to shake free from. Same goes for that voice – deep, dusty and drawling, it’s an instrument that can stop you in your tracks with its character and expressiveness, as well as through Downing’s knack for laying out complex emotions in plainspoken, direct language.
For Downing, it all stems from an organic and intuitive approach to songwriting and playing. “I just try to write and sing about life as I live it,” he says simply. All those little bits of life are on full display on Start It Over, his first-ever solo album. From the protagonist in the opening country-soul jam “I’m Not Ready” (“Everybody’s rushin’ / I’m movin’ at my own speed”), to the cratedigger in the breezy “Start It Over” who seems as enamored of his old records as he is with his girl (“She was a 45 woman and I’m a 45 man”) to the overworked nine-to-five-er caught in a cycle of long days at work, late nights at home, followed by hungover mornings (“Long line of trouble / Troubles old and new / Once I was happy / But those days are through”) in the psych-folk lament “Crazy,” the 12 tracks collected on Start It Over unravel in a way that feels instantly relatable, as if Downing could be talking about you, me, or any one of us and doing it with the ease and empathy of a man who’s clearly been there, done that, and lived to play another day.
Following his last record with the Deslondes, Downing returned home to Missouri, helping out his brother with his plumbing business, embarking on some short solo runs and otherwise playing “mostly for old friends and old dogs and whatever other critters were within earshot,” he says. At some point, Downing and his Deslondes band mate, John James Tourville decided it might be fun to collaborate and release a 45 rpm single.
And so Downing and John James (that’s JJ to you) began a long-distance collaboration, adding longtime Deslondes producer Andrija Tokic (that’s Dre to you) into the musical chain as well. The three hashed out songwriting, arrangement and production ideas by passing demos back and forth from their respective homes – Downing in Missouri, JJ in North Carolina and Dre in Nashville – during the months of lockdown. As far as approach, everything was on the table. Downing recalls one of his demos being met with the suggestion that it needed a “Lou Reed/Fats Domino sound.” He laughs. “I couldn’t even imagine what that sounded like, but I had fun trying my best to imagine it.”
By the time the three met up, at Dre’s Bomb Shelter Studios in Nashville, everyone had been quarantined at home for two months, with nary a gig or jam session to be had. What they did have, however, was songs. And also, courtesy of Dre, a crack team of musicians. Who was along for the ride? Meg Coleman (Yola) and Jimmy Lester (Los Straightjackets, Blaze Foley) on drums, Dennis Crouch (Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, co-founder of The Time Jumpers with Vince Gill) on upright bass, Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs) on electric bass, Jeff Taylor (George Strait, Elvis Costello, The Time Jumpers) on keys, Peter Keys (P-Funk, Lynyrd Skynyrd) on Mellotron, Billy Contreras (George Jones) on strings, Derry DeBorja (John Prine, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit) on Farfisa, and a host of backup singers, including Kyshona Armstrong, Maureen Murphy, Nickie Conley, Eric Brown and Vaughn Walters.
“The musicians that Dre picked out were just phenomenal,” Downing says. “They have endless amazing credits, they’ve all done great things and they were 110% in it.” So much so, he continues that “some of these songs on the record were first takes. And if they weren’t, then it was maybe take two or three.”
That first batch of tunes – five recorded in three days – included “I’m Not Ready” and “Start It Over,” as well as the strutting “Deep Breath,” the road-dog anthem “Never Coming Home,” and “Hey! Mister.” From there, the floodgates opened.
The trio continued to work together closely (but once again, from afar – there was a pandemic going on, after all) staying in constant communication to craft the next set of tunes, with Downing handling the writing and JJ and Dre working unwaveringly to bring his songs to life within vibrant and unique soundscapes. Over the summer, an impromptu road trip between JJ and Dre to transport a Hammond organ and speaker cabinet from Denver to the Bomb Shelter allowed the two to spend some additional time together doing pre-production, and they even made a quick stop in Missouri on the way back to Nashville for a quick check-in with Downing.
A month later, the three reconvened at the Bomb Shelter – this time for a relatively extravagant six days – to lay down the seven remaining songs. “I’ve known and worked with both of these guys for more than 10 years and have also lived with each at one point or another,” Downing explains of his connection with JJ and Dre. “We’re all old friends, so it was easy to get along and keep moving forward.”
Once again, the trio, along with the stellar backing musicians, captured inspiration in the moment, with JJ and Dre embellishing the tracks with all manner of instrumentation, from pedal steel, mandolin and fiddle to Mellotron, Farfisa and even guzheng (that’s traditional Chinese zither to you).
The end result reflects the mingling of past and present, traditional and unusual, that has long characterized Downing’s musical makeup. “I might be old-fashioned, but I’m not old-timey enough to not live in the modern world,” he says. Regarding his influences, Downing continues, “It’s a little bit of everything – I could probably make a long list and it’d be all over the place. I grew up going to country shows with my grandparents, but I was also angsty and played punk rock in high school. And then at the same time, I was getting into old folk and blues and stuff like that. So I never think in terms of a song having to be in ‘this’ genre or ‘that’ genre – I’m open to doing anything. I just enjoy writing and playing music.”
That joy comes through loud and clear on Start It Over, which, even in its most serious and somber moments – and also given the fact that it was recorded during a pandemic – radiates with a sincere appreciation for life and living in the here and now. As Downing puts it in “Deep Breath”: “Try to get your head screwed back on tight / Take a deep breath – it’s gonna be all right.”
This attitude, Downing says, was intentional. “There was so much going on in the world socially, politically and health-wise while we were making this record that I didn’t really know what kind of music people would even want to hear. But I knew I didn’t want to write a bunch of sad songs where you just stare at the fire and feel bad for yourself. I wanted the record to be about looking at things up on the upside – you know, ‘take a deep breath and we’ll all get through this.’ ”
As for Downing, while he may be through the recording of his first solo album, he assures that it’s certainly not his last. “I’m just going to keep working like I’ve been doing and communicating with Dre and JJ,” he says.
There’s a plan to get started on a new Deslondes record, “and hopefully by the time that’s done,” he says, “I’ll have another solo album ready to go as well.”
Bart Budwig is a prolific songwriter and renown audio producer/engineer from Enterprise, OR. “He sounds like John Prine, plays like Hoyt Axton, and looks like, well..Bart Budwig. He’s a cosmic country lawn gnome. He’s cherubic, cheery, and an old soul. Songs spring from the dreams of his noonday naps, and punch the keys of his typewriter above the OK Theater in Enterprise, Oregon.” – Sean Jewell, American Standard Time (2018)
Mr. Budwig has performed alongside or in support of artists such as Mason Jennings, Justin Townes Earle, John Craigie, California Honeydrops, Damien Jurado, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Fruition among others, and has produced or engineered records for Gregory Alan Isakov, Joseph, Horse Feathers, Blind Pilot, and the Shook Twins.
There is a cult-like fascination growing around Kassi Valazza following the self-release of her 2019 debut album Dear Dead Days and her surprise 2022 EP Highway Sounds. She is seated squarely at the vanguard of new American songwriters strengthening and broadening the sound of country music as she tours with celebrated acts such as Melissa Carper and Riddy Arman. The Southwestern native resides in Portland, a hotbed of songwriters producing albums that both bear the torch and bend the arc of American roots music, where she recently signed with Fluff & Gravy Records — a label known for launching Anna Tivel and Margo Cilker.
Valazza’s forthcoming new album Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing is a spellbinding collection of songs that dangle like protective magic talismans, catching dreams and glinting light. She hypnotizes listeners with a sturdy, yet gentle, voice and painterly songwriting imbued with an independent spirit. Though her music plays country cousin to British folk, calling to mind greats like Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention) and Karen Dalton, a Southwestern American streak carves its way through these solemn, sweetly sung melodies like a canyon.
On the upcoming 10-song set, multi-instrumentalists from Portland’s TK & the Holy Know-Nothings appear in varying roles as Valazza’s backing band: Taylor Kingman (guitars, bass, vocals), Jay Cobb Anderson (harmonica, guitars, pedal steel, bass), Lewi Longmire (pedal steel, piano, bass, trumpet), Sydney Nash (organ, Farfisa, cornet, Wurlitzer), and Tyler Thompson (drums). The group’s swirling psychedelia combines with Valazza’s gutsy and graceful vocal poetry for a singular sound that washes over the listener like a flash flood, heavy and without warning.
Album opener “Room In The City” introduces Valazza’s high-lonesome, but never lonely world with sharp harmonica and reeling organ. She sings of a touring musician’s longing for home, and a distant lover, with lyrical imagery of open skies, whistling winds, and sepia-toned rock formations: “Did you think I’d be out here feeling lonely? / If I said I thought so too it’d be a lie / When I talk to you it’s hard to be withholding / And I was born to chase this blue out of my eyes. / In the still, I often wonder about your breathing / I rise and fall to its rhythm late at night / Clay canyons turn to plaster in my grieving / And our ceiling overtakes the sky.”
Using the physical world around her to paint metaphors from the soul, Valazza carries us through her mind and heart, ever the effortless narrator. “Watching Planes Go By” spins a cautionary tale about the dangers of standing still in life and accepting one’s own fate. The song sets a curious and cosmic atmosphere of psychedelic folk-rock as Valazza reflects on the struggles of moving on, “Autumn leaves turn to yellow / and green turns to jealousy / Watching days go by.”
On “Corners,” fingerpicked acoustic guitar dances with bounding bass and twinkling piano, as twanging telecaster and a gentle backing choir flow behind Valazza like a stream through a lonesome vista. “The clouds move slower than they ever seemed to / Still, they find a way to pass me by,” she sings on her breezy lament about the longing that comes with an unhealthy love, “My friends, though, they wonder what I’m used to / To love a man who never treats me right.”
“Smile” opens with a familiar telecaster honky-tonk squawk and a half-time trot, but Valazza sings in deference to traditional bar-room tales. Hers is about acceptance when love is not enough, about being satisfied having met someone at all, and keeping only a farewell note as a souvenir. “I guess I could have left the light on / Or stayed awake to see you home / But good intentions go unnoticed / And I fare better on my own.” In her careful hands, the typical loved-and-lost tale becomes an ode to self-realization and the liberating feeling of going it alone.
As her journey winds down to “Welcome Song” — the album’s final Valazza-original preceding a perfect closing cover of Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses” — tension from her nearly behind-the-beat band pushes and pulls the listener into a whirlwind of stream-of-consciousness lyricism. The opening verse, “As I was laying on my floor / Hiding dreams from the t.v. / I heard a knocking at my door / While my eyes faked sleeping,” paints an immaculate mental picture of both the physical surroundings of the narrator and what she’s feeling and thinking at the time. It’s clear that every line Valazza writes carries extreme weight, every simple word is carefully chosen and placed with intention.
Kassi Valazza Knows Nothing captures the romanticism of country crooners with the intuition of a realist poet. Exploring themes of love and longing through metaphors from the natural world, Valazza manages to cut straight to the heart of the human experience, her lucid songs full of delightfully languid characters that haunt the hallucinatory soundscapes her band creates.