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ThaMuseMeant – one last time

Stewart Oksenhorn

When Nathan Moore first picked up a guitar, at age 14, he jumped right into writing his own tunes, bypassing completely the stage of learning songs by his songwriting heroes – Bob Dylan, John Prine and the like. In his first-and-only band experience, eight years with Santa Fe-based ThaMuseMeant, Moore was too busy – writing, touring, recording – to go back and learn the fundamental folk singers’ repertoire.

Finally, now, at the age of 30, Moore is working his way through the American folk songbook. ThaMuseMeant, the four-piece band in which Moore has sung and played guitar, banjo and harmonica, is shutting down operations after four CDs and eight years of nearly nonstop touring. The band is about to take its last trip through the mountains – including a stop at Hannibal Brown’s tonight, Friday, Feb. 9, and a final gig at Santa Fe’s El Farol, where, appropriately, the band played its first gig in 1992 – and Moore is preparing by sitting on the front porch at his Stanton, Va., home, strumming a guitar and learning some old tunes.

“My music education is now. I feel like I’m 14,” said Moore, a native Virginian who caught the music bug thanks to “a deep relationship with my dad’s boxes of 45s.

“I started making music right out of the gate, when I picked up guitar. So I’m only learning songs now. All my heroes learned hundreds of songs. I’m trying to inundate my consciousness with how songs are formulated, how they’re written.”

Learning how to play “Blowin’ in the Wind,” however, is not the reason Moore, with the mutual agreement of his mates -singer-bassist Aimee Curl, mandolinist-fiddler David Tiller, and drummer Jeff Sussman – is disbanding ThaMuseMeant. It is nothing other than the harshness of life on the road that is behind the breakup of the band. ThaMuseMeant has played approximately four gigs a week since the early ’90s; a “big break” in touring, said Moore, was maybe 10 days off. For most of the past eight years, Moore has had, literally, nowhere to call home – no home address, no apartment to retreat to between tours, no community to feel a part of.

“For me, personally, I just wanted to come home,” said Moore, who will move back to Stanton, some 30 miles from Charlottesville, deep in the Shenandoah Valley, when this final tour is done. “I’ve been on the road for so long. For the last few years, we’ve been based on the road. For a few years, I haven’t had an address. So that explains a lot.

“If the road weren’t so hard for me, I’d still be doing it. It was permanent displacement. I’m a person who desires a sense of home and community.”

This is one breakup that cannot be attributed to the ephemeral creative differences or personality conflicts. From the time Moore first saw the duo of Curl and Tiller, playing acoustic music on Austin’s famed Sixth Street, he was hooked on the musicians as well as the music.

In the late ’80s, fresh from a stint at college, Moore went looking for a place to make music. He chose Austin, regarded as the live-music capital of the country.

“The one place I heard about music the most was Austin. That seemed to be the place to go,” said Moore. “I got a one-way ticket to Austin.”

A year later, Moore was almost wishing he had gone for the round-trip fare. “I didn’t relate to the music being made,” he said. “Not until I ran into Dave and Aimee on the street did I realize I went to the right place. That was the best music I’d heard there. It blew me away. And it turned out they were both from Virginia as well. We started hanging together and bonded.”

In 1992, the threesome headed to New Mexico. Much of the idea was to separate themselves as much as possible from the music business, thinking the further from the business they could get, the more their artistic sides could flourish.

“It turned out to be true,” said Moore. “Our isolation from the music business allowed us to come up with our own sound.”

That sound is an interesting one. Playing mostly acoustic instruments, ThaMuseMeant – rounded into a four-piece with the addition of Santa Fe-based drummer Sussman – found a sound that blended bluegrass, old-time Appalachia, modern jams, and country swing. And despite his lack of studying the traditions, Hall’s songwriting skills are powerful. ThaMuseMeant went on to a fair amount of success. They never lacked for another gig to play. They became the first independent band to play on the H.O.R.D.E. Tour, and were featured at such gatherings as the High Sierra Music Festival and South By Southwest. Moore looks back on the band’s eight-year run as an unqualified artistic success.

“Definitely,” he said. “It’s a strong source of pride for me. It was nothing but a series of successes. I guess the music was a success because it was always growing. There was always a hurdle we could see ahead of us that we could get over and look back at. It was never stagnant. It was always expanding and growing. We achieved so much in our relationship with the muse. There was never a feeling of going backward.”

Moore’s thoughts are borne out by “Grow Your Own,” ThaMuseMeant’s most recent CD, released last year. The playing is strong; both vocalists, Moore and Curl, have interesting, not overly polished voices. Moore’s writing is impressive: “Plastic Pony,” with its romantic imagery and harmonica and fiddle sounds, is powerfully reminiscent of Dylan’s “Desire” album. “Red Lights” is a rowdy country stomper, fueled by Moore’s jamming, quirky banjo leads. It’s not the kind of album that signals the end of a road.

And it may not. Though Moore is submersing himself in folk repertoire, Tiller is getting heavy into jazz, and Curl is headed for New York, Moore sees a future of some sort for ThaMuseMeant. He says he could see, somewhere down the road, doing a few months of touring with the band each year. What he doesn’t see is getting back on the road for years at a time.

“But I’d gotten good at that kind of lifestyle. I’d gotten down a lot of chops,” said Moore.

After the final tour ends, Moore will no longer have to contend with a life lived in a van, out of a suitcase. Instead, he’ll have the opposite problem: what to do now that he has a home, and a sedate life? He’ll learn a bunch of songs, play some solo gigs, Beyond that, he’s not sure, and he’s not overly concerned. But some others are.

“My dad said, `I’m not worried about you on the road. I’m worried about you here,’ ” said Moore.


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