Americana duo Rough & Tumble’s Mallory Graham and Scott Tyler say they had such a good time playing Ted’s Fun on the River, they couldn’t wait to book their small listening-room atmosphere for this week’s Cinco de Mayo performance.
“Ted’s is a real treasure for bands like us,” Tyler affirms. “Audiences don’t feel like an audience so much as people we’re having a conversation with. A lot of the subtlety in our show can stand out and be appreciated when you turn the sound system down a little and allow yourself to be two people playing songs in a room with some other people. Magical things happen that way, and you can walk out of a room of complete strangers feeling like great friends afterward.”
Once based in Nashville, Graham and Tyler are true road warriors nowadays. They’ve shared their tour “bus” with their 85-pound furbaby, Puddle, since 2015. They sold everything they owned to buy a 16-foot camper, quit their day jobs, and left Nashville to tour full time. During this time of upheaval and change—wondering where their home was and what it looked like—new beginnings were borne. It inspired a full-length record, “We Made Ourselves a Home When We Didn’t Know,” which they released in February 2018.
“Three years later we’ve learned a lot about what it means to make a home out of a cardboard box on wheels, parking in truck stops and Walmart’s and state parks,” Tyler quips. “It was a natural title for us—all the songs naturally became in some way about home and place.”
In their seven years together, The Rough & Tumble have released four EPs, a soundtrack to a short film about PTSD, and a 24-song album about under-appreciated holidays. Their full-length record took shape in ways other projects never did.
“This feels like a real grown-up record for us to make,” Tyler clarifies. “It’s kind of an album about the struggle of loving someone—loving someone past the conflict and the hard conversations, when the convenience of the relationship is gone and you’re left only with the need to be intentional. . . . We were able to shape the record a little bit more and be more intentional thematically.”
Such themes run deep throughout the album. Down to a lovely cover illustration, Graham says they wanted to depict a creature known for carrying its home on its back: a snail, juxtaposed with another, a bird. “[We] see the risks and rewards of both when they confront each other,” she explains.
Graham describes using Andy Warhol’s inkblot method for black lines of the snail/tree/nest configuration. Dulled hues of the picture were created by a blend of concentrated watercolor and film photograph of a thrift-store comforter from their shared camper bed.
“The text we chose [is] a typewriter font,” she continues, “because living in a camper with limited electricity has us resorting, literally, to the typewriter we keep stored under our bed for lyric sheets and formal letters.”
At home on this album, so to speak, is “Take Me With You.” The only song to carry over from another EP, Graham and Tyler felt it was important it be included.
“‘Take Me With You’ was written around the same time as a lot of the other songs,” Tyler notes. “The sentiment ‘next time you feel like leaving, take me with you’ really resonated with us, and as we looked at the other songs on this record we saw it repeated in different ways, like ‘When we go I want to go like they did…’ and ‘Oh babe, I’d rather throw it down with you than throw you out and go without you now.’”
“Appalachia Greener” encompasses the struggle between wanting to go home (to what’s familiar), while knowing it’s not home in many ways anymore, to no longer belong or feel comfortable—yet wanting to leave or confront realities of growing up. Somewhat, it resembles family conflict, according to Graham, “and how distance from home makes you a stranger to the people who think they know you but don’t anymore.”
Both Graham and Tyler write all of their songs together from composition to arrangement to performance. They have fun with collaboration, especially the recording process. They worked with a new producer on “We Made Ourselves”: East Nashville’s Dave Coleman.
“[Coleman’s] home studio had a way of bringing out the improvisational storytellers in us,” Tyler says. “There were new, fun instruments everywhere that allowed us to illustrate songs in ways that felt important to the story of the songs. We also worked with a rhythm section for most of the songs, which was a different thing for us to be playing with a live band, since the songs were taking shape.”
They finished tracking their album with a rhythm section made up of old friends Mike Shannon (bass) and Chris Leonard (drums). Inspired by all the fun they had playing again, Graham and Tyler decided to dig up what would become their record’s final track. “Let’s Get The Band Back Together,” is a half-written tune “about the good old days and getting priced out of Nashville,” according to Tyler. “It turned out to be a great addition to the record, and we even got our first real rock n’ roll electric guitar solo out of our pal, Marc Herring. It’s really fun to play live, too, as we’ve found ways to translate rock n’ roll to a two-piece band.”
Graham and Tyler enjoy incorporating the odd, the weird and the strange when it comes to soundscapes. They regularly use the accordion, melodica, and bottles filled with glass, corn and rice. They also managed to work a kazoo and mouth trumpet into “Cohabitation Physics.”
“There’s a bowed glockenspiel, a bolt being rolled around a washtub and then processed backward, wine glasses, and an alto saxophone,” Graham lists. “I like to make music in a way that is less official and more about narrating a story and sometimes you have to step outside of traditional instrumentation to tell that story effectively.”
“I think we’re learning there is more to us than we realize,” Tyler observes. “We have talents we haven’t found yet, just like there are places we haven’t been yet. We’re learning to trust each other more as well as we get there.”
Like their lives on the road, Graham says they’ve remained in a perpetual state of motion creatively. In addition to a weekly live cast, Instagram photo series, personal blogs, and a food blog called “The Rumbly Tummy”—for which they created a cook-and-color book—the two already have a few songs ready for the next record.
“We love what we do and being in a place where we can create,” Graham continues. “So the question isn’t if we’ve started but when will we ever stop.”