While our core focus here at Team GDW is to promote Canadian music to a much wider audience, there are times where we feel strongly about sharing music from non-Canadian artists too. Indeed, our occasional “Commonwealth Connections” features have concentrated on musicians from the UK, Ireland, and Australia over the years, especially those that have gained popularity in the USA and Canada, or are attempting to break into North America. And given that we have a diverse and vibrant folk-roots music scene down here in the US, every once in a while, one of our own deserves some love too.
Back in late 2016, we had the pleasure of attending a local show that featured The Rough & Tumble, a husband-wife Americana-folk duo, whose catchy tunes and multi-instrumental skills were combined with some very quirky humor and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. Re-acquainting myself with this duo of Pennsylvanian native Mallory Graham, and Californian Scott Tyler, a quick glance at their Facebook page shows no shortage of that same self-deprecating humor that we quickly learned to love; “The Rough & Tumble are as easy to detect as a stray dog on your doorstep – and as difficult to send home,” their profile bio reads. “The dumpster-folk, thrift store-Americana duo…have been hobbling around the country in their 16’ camper since 2015.”
We purchased one of their earlier albums on a whim during that 2016 show, and it was exactly as we expected it to be; fun, humorous, and purposely designed to not be taken too seriously. Light hearted escapism, at its finest! But with the upcoming release of their latest album, “Howling Back at the Wounded Dog,” on September 6th, The Rough & Tumble are exposing us to a significant shift in their musical direction, offering up a stunning set of songs, with a previously undiscovered seriousness and maturity to their music. Having spent some time listening to these ten new tracks over the last few days, I must confess that this is an absolute gem of an album that finds the duo not only facing some deeply dark and personal demons, but raising their game to an unprecedented level too.
Commencing with “The Hardest Part,” the opening lines captured my attention immediately. Mallory’s voice is so beautifully pure here, complemented by Scott’s harmonies during the chorus, yet the subject matter is deeply personal for both partners. The duo know exactly how to layer the song with increased intensity and instrumentation, holding your attention for the duration, and closing with a gorgeous outro that hints of reconciliation; a proverbial light at the end of a dark tunnel, if you will. If you are still craving more of Mallory’s powerful vocals, skip to “Mining Shaft,” which offers beautiful dual harmonies that wrap around Mallory’s delightfully slow paced lead. Pay extra attention to Scott’s soothing guitar work, and some lovely rolling piano keys that precedes the slight, deliberate, echo in Mallory’s voice when summoning up the courage to face old demons and hollering ‘down the old mining shaft.’
The Rough & Tumble are always willing to push the boundaries of the folk-Americana genre, and incorporate some great sounds into the album. “High Fly (Didn’t I Wait)” has a great up-tempo beat to easily satisfy the country music crowd, although I notice a slight Cajun influence that has me drawing similarities to the traditional French-Louisiana sounds of tracks such as “Fais Do-Do.” Jumping to “Anywhere With You,” there is a slight shift to a pop-country sound, with the duo offering their signature harmonies once more. And just where you’d expect a violin or accordion solo, the unlikely pairing of acoustic guitar and xylophone is vintage Rough & Tumble. And don’t miss out on the slight gospel lilt during the subsequent vocals that follow the instrumental break.
Gospel influences are certainly at the heart of “Call Mercy,” which is one of the most powerful and lifting tracks on the album, which once again sees some slow-paced and stunning vocals from Mallory. Go ahead and check your forearms for goosebumps as she cries out the lines, “Call God as your witness \ He’ll swear on his life \ No resurrection can make this wrong right \ If you ask for forgiveness, he’ll likely get quiet \ Like the sound of a church on a Saturday night \ Like the sound of a church on a Saturday night.” And just when you think that it gets no better, prepare for the full onslaught courtesy of the phenomenal gospel harmonies that follow; which, like me, you’ve secretly yearned as the song progressed.
For those looking for something a little more fun, you can’t ignore “Howl at the Moon,” with a lively beat, some lighthearted lyrics, and occasional sound bytes from their canine companions. And yes, I shall point your attention to the amazing vocals from Mallory here, but with this track, she really packs a punch with her delivery, drawing comparisons to both Carly Thomas (Canada) and Brandi Carlile (USA), at least for me. If it is the vintage Rough & Tumble sound that you crave, “Good Friends Go Home” will not disappoint. With the return of the Cajun vibe, Scott not only takes the lead on this one, but craftily adds a little Rick Springfield riff with his acoustic guitar prior to the vocals. Hints of “Jessie’s Girl,” are etched in my head now. Scott also handles the lead vocals on “Threshold & The Runaway,” which once again sees the duo blending their serious nature respectfully with their earlier musical roots.
Curious to learn more about this outstanding album and the stories behind their new direction, we are incredibly grateful to Mallory Graham for taking some time to chat with us about “Howling Back at the Wounded Dog.”
You are getting ready to release your brand new “Howling Back at the Wounded Dog” album. When did you originally conceptualize this album, and how excited are you to share these new tunes with your audience?
This album has been strangely in the works for a while. We’ve had a rough year – losing our road dog, Butter, our best friend dumping us, personal grief between the two of us, and uncovering some very dark parts of our history that have been long covered. We’d been writing scraps of this album along the way, but it wasn’t until last November that we realized this was an album about loss, and also an album about figuring out who your pack really is. Shortly before we lost Butter, and much more after, we had taken to actually howling when we had feelings of grief that were too big for us to carry. Literally howling – long, loud cries into the void. And it made us feel better, especially when the other would howl along with us.
As we healed, we found that we continued howling, anyway – when we were happy, angry, sad – just as a way to feel like we were part of something. With that in mind, when we collected the songs together, they looked like a long howl into the wilderness, aching for someone to howl back. As we’ve been playing these songs out, we’ve found that people are howling back. It’s become a really beautiful thing, finding our pack out there. So to get these songs in people’s hands outside of the live performance is a thrill, and feels like a gift to us, too.
I make several references to your pure and stunning vocals found throughout this album, especially as found on “The Hardest Part,” “Call Mercy” and “Mining Shaft,” in particular. This serious side of your repertoire is amazing. What prompted the duo to push further in this direction?
The move felt inevitable! We are writers first, and have always been grateful to the craft as a way to process and inventory our insides. We also write what we know, and in this project in particular, challenge ourselves to a level of honesty that is occasionally painful, but necessary. As we mentioned, we spent a lot of time in the last couple of years uncovering some dark history. Much of that were my own experiences that I hadn’t yet dealt with.
To put it very bluntly, I was abused physically, sexually, and emotionally by a church worship leader from age 15 to 19. For the last 15 years, my brain has gone through a process of suppressing, and then recently unearthing it. As I did this, the pain was nearly unbearable. I spoke with friends, read books, and wrote (and is where “Mining Shaft” came from). It brought me to a healthier place. Then, last summer, I actually tracked the perpetrator down and confronted him. It was terrifying, but felt like the right thing to do.
Following that confrontation, we wrote “Call Mercy.” As I was writing it, it didn’t feel like a great song, but just a way to process what I’d just been through. Scott kept bringing it up, insisting on it. When we pulled it up from the songwriting notebook last November, it finally caught up to me that it was a good song, and one that other people could really benefit from. “The Hardest Part,” on the other hand, comes from [friction] between us. We were actually still fighting as we were writing it. It’s easily one of the most intimate songs we’ve ever written about us. And the surprising part of it for us, still, is how hopeful it is. But then again, we have an awful lot of hope for us, even when we can’t stand each other.
You take several steps beyond your folk-Americana roots with this album, mixing in country, Cajun and gospel influences at times. Did these influences dictate your song writing process, or develop as ideas that were added once the songs were already down?
Country and Gospel are both genres that come to us from childhood. I grew up on a straight diet of country and gospel, while Scott’s gospel influences are well mixed with church hymns. In writing this album, we were writing from a place with our defenses down, which means our natural, or perhaps nurtured, state surfaced. Cajun, however– that’s a surprising reference! If you’re referring to “Good Friends Go Home,” that was definitely an arrangement choice. We really cashed in on an old organ in the studio to accompany us with a fun, retro, and borderline cheesy Bossa Nova beat. At that point in the recording process, we were tired of building the drums and wanted something to catch the fun, lovey-dovey spirit of the song.
There are some really great plays on words found in “Threshold & The Runaway,” – “You’re a house out on the market \ I’m not bidding on this place.” What can you tell us about the origins and discovery of this pretty awesome metaphor?
Oh, you’re really digging into our psyches, now! This particular song is about our best pal, who dumped us after a seemingly benign disagreement. We pulled the metaphor from the relationship itself – he’d been on the fence about buying a house for a long time, and kept going back and forth about it. This while also being on the fence about a woman he was dating at the time. It seemed that a lot of his troubles were being solved by finding something new instead of fixing the old. After we became the castaways in a succession of others, we realized that there was nothing we could’ve done differently. We were just a threshold to pass through in his life, and we didn’t want to be part of that house anymore, either. It was also an apt metaphor to come by as we spent time in Nashville at the time, seeing overpriced houses on the market forcing the old residents out.
“South Dakota Skies” is a great track to close the album. Two phrases in this song leapt out to me – “I had my eye on your Pennsylvania smile \ California stars be wasted if they tried.” Is there an autobiographical element and story here, and if so, what awaits you both at ‘The Reservoir?’
Yes! Gosh, we love this song. We really wanted to close with this one, too, as the album starts with “The Hardest Part,” it feels great to close with a positive yip of a coyote in a state that we’ve grown to love so much. It is mostly autobiographical, me being from PA, and Scott from CA. It’s a song about casting off where we are from in favor of the adventure we are on, wherever it may be (and it takes us yearly to South Dakota).
The Reservoir is a real place, but also an emotional one. We park every year at the Pactola Reservoir in the Black Hills outside of Rapid City/Hill City, SD. You’ve never seen a view like the one we wake up to there, and have never had swimming so clean and cool. Our first year in the camper, we boondocked there several nights in a row. We spent our nights watching the sunset behind the hills and the water. When we are really feeling the pinch of the road or the struggle of our relationship, it’s a place we go to in our minds to remember why we do this, why we stay together, and that we both want to be on the same road; wherever it goes. Eventually, we end up back at the reservoir– a storehouse of rest to sustain us the rest of the year.
You took your tour north to our Canadian friends not too long ago, and teamed up with Piper (Hayes) and Carson (Ritcey-Thorpe), who are well known to us and have been featured here at Great Dark Wonder. How did you connect with these wonderful people, and are there any stories you’d like to share from your time spent on the road touring with them?
We have found real friends and true delight in Piper & Carson! We met them at a folk conference (Southeast Regional Folk Alliance) in 2018, and we were both featured showcase artists. We connected immediately, and made plans to tour together right away. We spent the week on Carson’s dad’s organic farm outside of Hamilton, ON, with them, cooking vegetables we picked on the fire, showering outside, and almost never wearing shoes. Exactly what you might expect from a quartet of folkies, but was actually a new experience for us.
Sometimes it feels like we are completely alone out here. We meet so many people on the fly, that finding long, deep relationships can be a challenge with our changing proximity. Piper & Carson grounded us. We were a great pairing, too! We played a house show at a friend’s/fellow musician’s house in Hamilton (Keith & Lindsay Jolie), and even got to play Toronto’s First Post Office thanks to Side Door. It was a full and welcoming experience from the Great North– and we are returning the favor as we head on the road with Piper & Carson in the Southwest United States in the winter of 2020.
There is no point asking if you plan to tour with the new album, given that you are the coolest pair of nomads that we know, living life to the full out there on the road. With the new album complete, and ready to be taken on the road, where can we expect to find The Rough & Tumble anytime soon?
We are heading to Alaska next year, which means we have the opportunity to explore Canada’s Northwest! We have a date set in BC in early June already, with a few in the works on our way back down from Alaska in Alberta. We are still working out definitive dates, but keep our calendar up to date at www.theroughandtumble.com. We are also calling out for house show hosts, venues, and suggestions. Canada is still a new adventure for us– one we are eager to take.