The 2011 Folk Alliance Conference in Memphis will prove to be one of the most musically diverse weeks ever since Folk Alliance started and Tumbledown House who now split their schedule between Montana where they started and Arizona where they now call home will bring their Early Wild West Gothic tales of brothels, drinking, murder and gambling backed by a sound that at times is reminiscent of Devil Doll’s first album, Queen of Pain and other times Edie Brickell and The New Bohemians word play to Tennessee.

Much of the time the stories are drawn from true life characters that inhabited the rough and tumble towns from South Dakota to Montana, in one piece an actual poem adaptation of “My Papa’s Waltz” written in 1942 by Theodore Roethke gives a picture from a child’s view of dealing with a drunkard Father.    This is serious if not sometimes picturesque stuff that shows off a muse steeped in history and forgotten lives.

Gillian Howe, from Bozeman, Montana and Tyler Ryan Miller, who after leaving Arizona State University where he had completed a few semesters studying Jazz guitar,  met working at a local brewery in Portland, Oregon where they were both drawn to the local music scene and started what became Tumbledown House.

Tyler said “When we started looking at each others’ music, we were both writing the common themes of introspection associated with the Portland Indie Scene, I was really into the Elliott Smith- Nick Drake thing, but, when we started writing together a whole new thing came out. Gillian had all these great stories and I just concentrated on the music.”

Gillian: “It was like Tyler could read my mind. He could play what I was hearing in my head. I didn’t have to have to deal with my basic guitar playing, Tyler was able to bring the song to life and I could concentrate on the lyrics.”

The lyrics although they seem to be written about true life stories about people like “Lazy Susan” in the song “Sweaty Tennessee” they are both drawn on real life facts and fiction as well. “ The song “Brothers McGhee” has true characters based on a story featured at the end of the song about Stick McGhee from Kingsport, Tennessee and I was able to create a fictional story at the beginning that just lead into the true to life story at the end.”

Their first self titled disc on Silent Coyote Music features fine guitar work by Tyler with complex jazz chords, but not in a modern style, with hints of Ragtime and Thirties era Jazz.”I’m a big fan of John Schofield and especially Kurt Rosenwinkel, he can hear melodies in his head, but you wouldn’t know I was into that because it’s not reflective of what I am doing now but I reach into my background to do what I am doing now.”

There are various players on the album with one real standout being Clay Scott on violin with the haunting lines that sound like they were recorded during Robert Johnson’s days in a hotel in New Orleans much like the early Blues and Jazz sides in the Twenties and Thirties.”

Although new technology was used to record the disc, “We sent the files to Massachusetts for Justin Kipp to do his drum tracks and the album was mastered in Brooklyn, New York by Paul Gold who did Grizzly Bear’s Yellow House which is one of my favorites”, the lyrics and feel for the most part bring out the 1800’s American Boomtown stories and their colorful lives.

El Tiradito Shrine

The next album is going to have more of a big band feel drawing musicians from the local Arizona scene as well as a new song drawn from a famous shrine in Tucson;  El Tiradito Shrine also known as the “Sinners Shrine” it is now marked as a Tucson Historical Site.

Gillian: “Everybody sticks a prayer in a hole in the wall and prays for the sinner in their life. It saved the whole Barrio because a highway was suppose to go through there and they marked it as a Historical Site. When you go through there at night there are candle lights flickering form all the lit candles and it is beautiful. We wrote “Little Castaway” about that place.”

Although this will be their first official dates in Tennessee they did get the opportunity while passing through Nashville to play at The Bluebird Café open mic night. Two of the songs on the album, “Sweaty Tennessee” and “Brothers McGhee” both tell tales about Tennessee people.

Tumbledown House’s  official showcase will be Friday at 6:30 in the Knoxville Room of the Memphis Downtown Marriott, but if you are not able to make it, they will also be playing several times between Wednesday February 16th and Saturday the 19th.

– Brad Hardisty, Nashville, TN