In a city famous for larger-than-life entertainers and great horn players, drummers and pianists, Andrew Duhon is a rarity: A poet turned singer-songwriter.
Duhon appreciates the New Orleans music he grew up with, but the songs he writes are more in the vein of Jim Croce, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Bob Dylan than Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Fats Domino and the Meters.
“A horn player or a drummer fits right in,” Duhon said. “They have all the upperclassmen around them to tell them exactly what they need to know.”
Despite his lack of songwriting mentors, Duhon, a 27-year-old from Metairie who lives in Mid-City New Orleans, found local inspiration for his lyrics.
“This place has a genuine nature about it,” he said. “It has a vibe and willingness to offer you real-life lessons as soon as you’re ready to relinquish your pride and go and get them and listen to what the city is willing to teach you.”
Duhon released his masterful second album, “The Moorings,” last month. He just made his fourth appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and, following a trio of shows on the West Coast, he’s performing Saturday at the eighth annual Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo Festival and May 23, at d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street.
Duhon’s other upcoming gigs include his debut at Bonnaroo Music & Arts in Manchester, Tenn., in June.
“I’m looking forward to bringing my band,” he said of Bonnaroo. “Because now is the first time that I’ve played with a band that isn’t just me putting together the best players I know to make a landscape around the tunes. We’re really playing as a band.”
Much of the time, though, Duhon takes the solo route.
“It’s financially and emotionally less exhausting than touring with a band,” he said. “The other thing is, when you’re by yourself, you’re bound to be more open to strangers and opportunities and changes of course. Solo travel becomes a cycle, inspiring songs that inspire albums that inspire travel.”
Before he wrote songs and played guitar, high school assignments to read the poetry of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Robert Frost opened new realms to Duhon.
“I realized that this thing called poetry, or art, could be a channel wherein my human condition could relate to someone else’s human condition,” he said. “The words on the page could overflow and become more than the sum of their parts. There was something really beautiful about that. And it seemed like honesty, not trying to be clever with words, was the most important part.”
The deep blues of Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt provided his early inspiration to put words and music together.
“There’s a song with a woman clapping and the only thing she sings is, ‘Oh, Lord. My trouble’s so hard. Oh, Lord. My trouble’s so hard.’ There are only two lines and no instrument, but it’s so powerful and magnetic. I wanted to put words to music and tell a story in a song.”
Dylan, Prine and Croce became Duhon’s absentee mentors. Open mic nights were his proving grounds.
“Carrollton Station is my first memory of seeing people connect with what I do,” he said. “Still to this day, I cherish Carrollton Station as a place where I can bring brittle new tunes and play them for a few people and get a few reactions.”
Duhon is encouraged by his career’s ascending trajectory.
“I’ve heard things through this or that person in the festival world,” he said. “Somebody at Tipitina’s might say, ‘Man, you got a lot of people in your corner.’ That’s exciting. But I don’t know what to do with all that stuff except try to write a better, more true and genuine song. That’s the goal of it all.”
And words still take priority.
“Even today, I’m comfortable admitting that the music is the least of what I do. I’m ignorant about the musical part. It’s the writing that I believe in, that pushes me on.”
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