DEERING AND DOWN/BIOGRAPHY
By Geoffrey Himes
On February 16, 2011, Deering & Down found themselves in a Marriott Hotel conference room in their hometown of Memphis, performing a showcase for the Folk Alliance Conference. It didn’t take long for the duo to banish the corporate impersonality of the room and the asexual earnestness of the singer-songwriters prowling the halls. For Lahna Deering and Rev Neil Down, folk music is something different; it’s one set of Mississippi farmboys inventing rockabilly at Sun Studios and another set inventing electrified blues at the same place. It’s all about personality, sex, smoke and fevered dreams.
You could tell as much just by looking at them. Rev wore his hair slicked back like a rockabilly cat, a soul patch under his lip like a bluesman and a black string tie like a hillbilly veteran. Tall and slender, Lahna wore a red-sequin blouse and black stretch capris; her bright red toenails stuck out from her black heels with bows; her bright red lips stuck out from beneath her green eyelids. They looked like they had just walked into the hotel from a David Lynch movie.
When they started playing, the music sounded like the soundtrack for such a film. Down hit an electric guitar lick that didn’t contain many notes but managed to dig under the listener's skin like the moisture around Memphis during flood season. The song, appropriately enough, was “Been a Lot of Rain." Lahna, playing rhythm on her acoustic guitar, sang about the rain overflowing the banks and into the streets with an eerily calm acceptance, as if extreme conditions were her natural circumstances. “There’s been a lot of rain," her silky soprano cooed; “there’s been a lot of pain.”
When the man in the song keeps pressuring her, she responds cooly, as if partially offended and partially amused, “I don’t even want to meet in the middle, ‘cause I know you’re gonna try and jump me to the end." When Rev went off on one of his barbed-wire guitar solos, Lahna slipped into a slinky snake dance, bending her knees to the left, her hips to the right and her shoulders to the left, as if she had reshaped herself from the letter “I” to the letter “S." She flowed through those straight-aways and curves like water through a river's banks. Ray Bonneville, the great Texas roots-rocker sitting next to me, said, “Whatever ‘it’ is, she’s got ‘it.’”
As Deering & Down played one hypnotic dream-song after another, it was clear that this was a classic male-guitarist-and-female-vocalist duo in the tradition of Buddy & Julie Miller, Delaney & Bonnie Bramlett, Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, Charlie & Inez Foxx and Ike & Tina Turner. There were echoes of all those antecedents in the way Deering and Down played off one another—her bell-like soprano against his distorted guitar fills, her hymn-like yearning against his gritty realism. This was a duo that only needed the right record to launch themselves into the wider world.
That record is now here in the form of “Out There Somewhere." It’s the result of a long journey for the two musicians.
Lahna was born in Surrey, British Columbia, but she mostly grew up in a farmhouse in Port Townsend, Washington, the daughter of a stewardess and mining engineer. Her father came from a family so dedicated to making music that they photocopied hundreds of folk songs, country numbers, Beatles tunes and church hymns with lyrics and chords into hand-bound books they called the Deering Family Songbook, Volumes 1, 2, 3 and more. By 14 Lahna was playing acoustic guitar and singing her own songs at the Boiler Room, the alternative coffeehouse in Port Townsend.
“’Pulp Fiction’ came out when I was 12," she says; “I was too young to see the movie, but I was allowed to get the soundtrack. It had Dusty Springfield’s ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’; it had surf music and country music. All my girl friends and I would go home after school and put on that Dusty song and just wear it out. It was this whole world of music that just seemed more serious than Vanilla Ice and the New Kids on the Block that our classmates were listening to.”
She ended up in a Portland, Oregon, experimental high school, an institution so alternative that Lahna was able to spend a lot of her time in the school’s rock'n'roll band, Lavish, writing and singing her own songs. Some of the songs she co-wrote with her friend Mile Thieson for Lavish later surfaced on the first Deering & Down album. After graduation, she found her way to Skagway, Alaska, where her mom had moved after her divorce.
Meanwhile, Rev had grown up in Anacortes, Washington, the son of a crane operator and a classical pianist. At age 13, Rev had bought himself a cheap guitar with the strings half an inch off the frets; by the time he’d conquered it, he could play any other guitar with ease. His early musical education came from his older sister’s record collection: Beatles, Stones, Stax, Creedence, Al Green.
“When I was a kid of 17,” Rev remembers, “I saw Albert Collins play a show at a local Catholic school in Seattle where I was living then. He really moved me; he was hitting on some cylinders in the sonic engine that I didn’t even know existed. Afterward I went to an all night coffee shop out on Highway 99, and Albert Collins himself came in and sat down next to me. I said, ‘Mr. Collins, I saw you tonight and I still can’t find my socks ‘cause you blew them off.’ That was the beginning of a pretty cool relationship; we kept in touch for years, and he’d actually sneak me into places I was too young to get into.”
After high school and a brief fling at junior college, Rev pursued music full-time. He became the leader of a garage-rock band called Universal Jones; he pitched songs in L.A.; he made a 1998 album, “American Friends,” with Jerry Scheff, who had played with Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Doors; he jammed with Jamie Oldaker and Dick Sims at Leon Russell’s church in Tulsa. It was all good schooling, but he never seemed able to break through to the next level. When he moved to Skagway, it felt so welcoming after L.A. that he decided to stay for a while.
“I played here for years with my own band," Rev says. “Alaska has a lot of great players, perhaps because there’s so much time to woodshed in the winter. I had just put out ‘American Friend’ when Lahna's mom saw me playing at the Eagles Hall in Skagway. She told me she had a daughter who sang and played guitar. I thought, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ When I saw Lahna, I thought, ‘Well, she’s visually blessed; no way can she sing and play.’ Then I heard her and I thought, ‘I guess she’s audio and visually blessed.’ I let her play with me and gradually she took over.”
“I met Rev the first summer I was up there," Lahna remembers. “He had these beautiful women backing him up, so he called his band Rev Neil Down and the Revettes. He was wearing this ten-gallon cowboy hat and he was totally rocking out. I was going, ‘This guy is totally awesome.’ Rev invited me to come over and jam and then to sit in on some gigs. Soon people were saying, ‘Hey, you guys sound good; you should play together.’
“I was impressed that she was writing songs and they were good songs," Rev continues. “She had a lovely voice. She was actually playing guitar; she wasn’t just a strummer. When we played as just two people, people in Alaska said, ‘Gee, you guys sound like a whole band.’ It was hard to find other people who were as serious about music as we were. You can’t expect everyone to share your dream; if one person does, that’s pretty miraculous.”
“I remember being nervous around him," Lahna adds. “I told myself, ‘I've got to get over whatever it is that's keeping me from being the way I want to be when I’m around him.’ Because I really liked what he was doing to the music. He was taking it further than where it had been. The people I’d been playing with were good but they weren’t that good. Rev could play riffs like the ones you heard on records. Because he was really good, I wanted to be good too.”
Soon they were making the two-hour drive through the mountain pass to the nearest decent studio, in Whitehorse, Yukon, to make an album as a duo. When “Coupe de Villa” was released in 2001, it enabled Deering & Down to play all over Alaska and northwestern Canada. When they played the Dawson City Music Festival in the Yukon, some tourists from Switzerland were so impressed that they invited the duo to come stay with them in the Alps and play some gigs there. So in 2002, Deering & Down picked up and moved to Europe.
“We were surprised that it ended up really happening," Rev confesses. “After we’d played in the Alps for a while, I decided to go to Ireland. I figured that Switzerland may not be that close to Ireland, but it’s a lot closer than Alaska. My good friend Henry McCullough, who’d played with Paul McCartney in Wings, was living in Ireland and he’d promised to help me make a record if I ever got over there. So Henry put a band together and we made a record in Ireland.”
That album, “When a Wrong Turns Right," was credited to Rev Neil Down, but Lahna is singing harmony all over it. Back in North America the duo settled for a while near Tampa, Florida, and pondered where they should establish a permanent base for their career. They tried L.A., but in a typical story, they got taken by a show-biz hustler who made a lot of promises that were never kept.
“After a few pay-to-play gigs in L.A.,” Lahna confesses, “we came home with nothing more than a few business cards. We told each other, ‘You know, we need a place to live and call home.’ So we picked Memphis. On the way out to L.A. we had cut this song at Sun Studios and the whole vibe there was so cool. The folks at Sun were so open and generous compared to the folks in L.A.
“Memphis may be a sleepy town, but it’s like an onion; you keep peeling back the layers and you can get as deep as you want. You might start crying but it’s still deep. There were shivers around every corner. For someone who doesn’t like malls, it was great, because there are so many old buildings. Time stands still there; you can still feel the presence of Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis, the Civil Rights Movement, Sun Records, Al Green and Stax."
One day Rev decided he was going to go to Royal Studio and meet Willie Mitchell, the man who had run Hi Records and had produced all those classic Al Green records. “It wasn’t what you’d expect,” Lahna recalls, “where the bars would come down and you’d need the password to get in. Willie was super-inviting and so was his son Boo. When Rev left, one of our songs, ‘Oh So Good,’ came on the radio. He said, ‘This is a sign. Let’s go record two songs at Royal.’ I said, , ‘But we don’t have any money; we’re not ready.’ He said, ‘Let’s just go do it.’”
They did it. They recorded 13 tracks at Royal, including three with Al Green’s legendary backing band: the Hi Rhythm Section of drummer Howard Grimes, guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges, bassist Leroy Hodges and keyboardist Charles Hodges. Green’s legendary producer Willie Mitchell mixed five of the tracks and co-arranged the horns for two tracks (Willie tragically passed away before the record was completed). His son, Boo Mitchell, co-produced the album with Deering & Down.
“I was twitterpated," Lahna says of those sessions. “I was trying to be cool on the outside, but I was going ‘My God, my God,’ inside. Howard Grimes said he prayed before he came to the studio that we would have a hit song, and then they just nailed it."
Many of Memphis’s finest musicians contributed to the album, including mandolinist Jonathan Ciaramitaro, steel guitarist Louis Meyer, the keyboardists Rick Steff and Lester Snell; the bassists John McClure, J.D. Westmoreland, John C. Stubblefield and Dave Smith; the drummers Kurt Ruleman, Paul Buchignani, Roy Berry and Steve Potts; and the horn players Lannie McMillan, Gary Topper, Mark Franklin and Kirk Smothers.
“We’d go around town and listen to people play and invite them to be on our record," Lahna explains. “Poppa Willie Mitchell said, ‘You’ve got all of Memphis on your record.’ It was true, but that’s part of being a duo: You can cross paths with some really great people, and when you do, you’ve got room to invite them aboard."
“Memphis is almost like an island community," Rev adds; “it’s a tough place to visit, because they’ve seen everything, you know. But once they see you’re not just passing through, they make you feel at home. It’s been a pretty incredible adventure really.”
It’s fitting that the album that came out of those sessions is called “Out There Somewhere," because that's where these songs take us. Whether it's the hint of sensuality in the spiritual hymn “Dear Lord” or the hint of the spiritual in the sensual “Linda McCabe," whether it's the spooky treatment of a traditional song like “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” or the traditional treatment of a spooky song like the title track, this music takes us to the outskirts of town, into a no man’s land where there’s little difference between the sexy and the sacred, the old-fashioned and the otherworldly, between a soprano bubbling like a spring and a guitar tumbling like rocks.