On last year's Backatown, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews made his major-label debut by pulling off the difficult feat of blending New Orleans roots music with contemporary R&B and hip-hop influences. His follow-up, For True, hits the streets Tuesday, Sept. 13, and it follows the same basic formula as Backatown, but with a harder-edged, more aggressive sound, deeper songwriting and more confident playing from start to finish. It also features an impressive line-up of guest stars, including Jeff Beck, Kid Rock, Warren Haynes, Lenny Kravitz, Ivan Neville, and R&B phenom Ledisi. The array of co-writers — from Kid Rock and Ledisi to Cyril Neville and Lamont Dozier of the legendary Motown writing team Holland-Dozier-Holland — is equally impressive. After touring almost constantly behind his mainstream success, Shorty will bring it all back home Monday night with an album-release party at Tipitina's that promises to be a real New Orleans musical throwdown.
For True opens with "Buckjump" — built on horn blasts from the Rebirth Brass Band and rhythm-track rapping from 5th Ward Weebie — and the album is loaded with references to Big Easy street culture on cuts like "Dumaine St.," "Mrs. Orleans," "Big 12" (for Andrews' dad), and "Unc" (for Treme Brass Band stalwart "Uncle" Lionel Batiste), as well as a couple of short musical interludes — "Lagniappe, (Part 1)" and "Lagniappe, (Part 2)" — featuring Galactic drummer Stanton Moore. But it's the songwriting collaborations that really stand out, especially on "Do to Me," which features Jeff Beck and was the album's first single, released in August, and "Roses," both co-written with Boston singer/songwriter Ryan Montbleau. Some of the lyrics on "Roses," a melodic follow-up to Backatown's gorgeous "One Night Only" — also co-written with Montbleau — reference Andrews longing for the Crescent City: "I got on a plane in Amsterdam/ And set my sights on Japan/ Touched down and looked out over the sea/ I'm thinking about home again."
"Yeah, I miss New Orleans all the time," Andrews says, during a call from a tour bus weaving through northern New England. "I feel like I've traveled the world, but I haven't seen it. Someday I'm going to find the time to go back and revisit places without my instrument and just really enjoy it, and learn a little about the history. But right now, as long as I can stay healthy and my lips stay in shape, I'm going to continue doing what I've already been doing for the last 20 years. I'm on a mission, really, to represent New Orleans and all the great music it's brought to the world. I definitely want to be one of those people to let the world know New Orleans is still alive, and that it's still kickin'."
All the time on the road was a contributing factor to For True's harder-edged sound, Shorty says. "All the touring makes getting to the studio the hardest part now. We didn't have much time in the studio to record this one. So the sound is probably more a direct impact of touring and playing as hard as we can."
The band has grown into its increasing stature and the trappings that come with it, including studio resources. But Andrews is still growing.
"I don't really feel comfortable yet doing a whole set of lyrics, so on that part I'll reach out to other people, and work with them," he says. "What I'm trying to do, when I go into the studio, is to try and make music that people, who've never seen us live and might not know New Orleans music, can still really relate to."
Touring isn't new for Andrews, but it did help him think about music differently.
"Right before I went on tour with Lenny Kravitz in 2005, I started listening to music less as a student and more as an audience member. Touring with Lenny gave me a real understanding of what I wanted to do, which is to make the music interesting to someone who doesn't necessarily understand how that music works, what's going on inside it. Basically, I'm trying to give the audience music that has the stuff I want in it, but can still be something they can easily understand."
Regardless of his ability to translate New Orleans music for contemporary pop consumption or the crowd of rock 'n' roll headliners he now mingles with, he's still the same Trombone Shorty locals have known for years — who made his New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival debut at 4 years old, appearing onstage with a delightfully surprised Bo Diddley. When asked about Monday night's homecoming album-release show, he said the only name on the guest list he was sure of besides Ivan Neville, whose hometown band Dumpstaphunk opens the proceedings, was 5th Ward Weebie. "But," he said, the anticipation clear in his voice, "you never know who's going to come walking through the door that night. I mean, this is New Orleans, you know?"