While writing the title track for their debut album, "Riverman's Daughter," Alyssa and Doug Graham were inspired to go on a river adventure.
The husband and wife musical duo abruptly left their New York City apartment and hightailed it to Minnesota to the head of the Mississippi River. There they began a 2,500-mile journey following the Great River Road, a series of rural byways and highways that runs along the Mississippi as it flows through 10 states down to the Gulf of Mexico.
By day they forded the river any way they could, either by kayaking or hopping on a wayfaring steamboat. (They would have traversed the whole thing by raft, Huck Finn-style, but apparently there are laws against that nowadays.)
By night, they searched for the music.
The Grahams -- who will perform Dec. 13 at Palmetto Brewery in Charleston -- played in tiny juke joints and honky tonk bars along the way, and spent time with local musicians. They plucked Dobros in Mississippi and prodded button accordions in Louisiana, discovering the sounds at the heart of Americana music.
"We looked at the music that started in the area and we realized it was a lot of traditional music that had been passed down by generations or from across the pond from England and Scotland and Ireland," Doug Graham said. "We sort of wanted to do that kind of music, but we wanted to make it our own."
Inspired by a region with musical history as rich as the thick layers of river silt, the Grahams' album slowly began to take shape.
When they reached Lafayette, La., they holed up on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Swamp and began compiling what would be their first album as a couple, following two previous CDs under Alyssa's name.
Drawing upon musical influences like Neil Young, Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, they shaped their river experiences into an amalgam of folk, country and blues. Nearly a year after their journey began, the Grahams emerged from the swamp ready to record the 12-track "Riverman's Daughter."
They recorded in Tennessee with Grammy-winning producer Malcolm Burn, who helped the Grahams create contemporary-sounding music while still respecting the old-time vibe they were trying to capture.
"We wanted to honor the style of the historical music from this area. I think it's really a blend of honoring an old-time tradition while telling current stories that people can relate to," Alyssa Graham said.
"We threw in a few modern influences," Doug Graham added. "We listen to a lot of music so we put a lot of modern chords and modern harmonies over older sounds. When a song sounded really old we'd say, 'Let's bring it up a little bit.'"
A majority of the songs on "Riverman's Daughter" meander slowly as if drifting on a lazy current. Doug Graham's harmonies and guitar playing add depth to the album while Alyssa Graham sings with emotion and heart. Her voice soars on the title track, yet is equally powerful on soft, melancholy tracks like "Marnie Hawkins," a mournful song about a mother losing a child to a flash flood.
"She walks to the river, on the edge of town/She stares at the water, in her old nightgown," Alyssa Graham croons.
Only a few tracks, like "Revival Time" and "If You're In New York," swirl in faster melodic eddies.
For the duo that first met in grade school, "Riverman's Daughter," is a combination of the type of music they listened to together as kids and the music they have written together over the years as a band and as a couple.
"It's pretty awesome. We've spent all our lives together. The other strange aspect of that is that we usually spend 24 hours a day together. We do everything together," Doug Graham said. "Our dream for a long time has been to be a duo and go out on the road and travel and play music together. And that's always been our dream, ever since we first fell in love, and we're finally doing it."
"But we don't want to sound like like we're some super couple," Alyssa Graham was quick to add. "We can fight with the best of them. There's a lot of disagreeing and a lot of negotiating. But somehow we always come to a better place, both romantically and musically every time we finish a song."
Follow Erin Shaw at twitter.com/IPBG_ErinShaw.