Dustin Moran and KR Nelson were on a set break during a gig last March in Austin, Texas, when they heard that South by Southwest was canceled.
The duo, who craft poetic alternative-folk rock together as Many Mountains, were on their first tour outside of Colorado. The Louisville-based couple has been making music together and playing venues up and down the I-25 corridor since 2013, but this tour felt like “a new chapter,” Nelson says over the phone.
Then, just like that, it felt as though the book was slammed shut. To be continued.
“It was this, like, Twilight Zone experience of being on the road and coming back from tour and entering this new world where we find ourselves,” Nelson says. “But it was very triumphant. We had finally booked this tour, booked it all ourselves, and got the car all ready and went out and did it, and it was great…”
“And then the carpet got pulled out from under us,” Moran offers.
Driving home through the Texas landscape, cell service was spotty, but intermittent text messages from fellow musicians were apoplectic: “This is the end of live music.”
Live music was certainly on hold for a while, that much was clear. But Moran and Nelson had new music they were ready to share. Quarantine, they reckoned, would give them a chance to make a different record, a more robust expression of their progressive brand of folk.
The next chapter would just look a little different than expected.
Their story continues with Endless Time, the pair’s fourth album as Many Mountains. The nine-track record takes the traditional singer-songwriter sound Moran and Nelson have fine-tuned on past albums and outfits it with subtle embellishments of prog and classic rock. Combining honky-tonk singalongs like “What Used To Be” with open-road ballads like “I-80 Tune” with moody, spaced out journeys like “No One Knows the Secret,” Endless Time is the best representation yet of the duo’s eclectic capabilities and refined sense of style. Armed with little more than a keyboard, electric and acoustic guitars, and Logic Pro, Moran and Nelson created a rich backdrop against which to set their delicately nuanced lyrics.
“We wanted [this record] to be something different than what we’ve released before,” Nelson says. “We were full-time musicians before the shutdowns, so we’d have time to record bits and pieces here and there between booking shows and practicing for shows and trying to write stuff — just all of the minutiae of all that stuff. [The pandemic] kind of gave us time … And so I think for us it stands out in our catalog as something special in that way, our little baby.”
A pandemic baby.
“Exactly,” Moran says, “Our kind of farm-to-table, ma and pop rock ‘n’ roll album.”
Endless Time, with its evenhanded back and forth between Moran’s ’70s-inspired rock cuts and Nelson’s Neko Case-influenced alt-country tracks, offers a portrait of a duo that truly know each other — and they do. The pair met in 2008 at a bookstore in Salt Lake City, where they worked (perhaps an insight into Many Mountains’ literary flair with lyrics). Nelson was born and raised in Utah, while Moran had lived a more “nomadic” experience, as he describes it, moving between divorced parents. They bonded over music, with Moran encouraging Nelson to dust off the music lessons she’d taken as a child and string some chords together on a guitar. Before long the two were making music together.
“I had played a little piano and knew some chords on the guitar, but it was Dustin that had the patience to sit down and teach me,” Nelson says. “He bought me my first little Yamaha guitar.”
They moved out to Colorado in 2010, cut their first record — under their names and titled Many Mountains — in 2013, played with some bands that didn’t work out, and eventually settled into a groove as a duo.
For both Moran and Nelson, the album’s title evokes the elastic and relative nature of time. Written mostly in 2019, the songs have taken on new perspectives in the harsh light of the pandemic.
For Nelson, the preciousness of the mundane — the glory of doing nothing — became crystal clear over the past 10 months.
“Our modern culture suggests we’re supposed to take up every second of the day with something,” she says. “There’s no moment to sit and ponder, or at least we’re told that if we do sit and ponder then it’s a waste of time.”
The gentle ballad “Dark Nights, Dark Mornings,” she points out, is about taking those moments to ponder without guilt or anxiety:
Why all these bad thoughts? / Is it my bad luck / Or just my reputation? / Whether it’s my time or there’s no time / I don’t see how it makes a difference to me … Trying to figure it out / When there’s no room for doubt / Blanket information / Trying to figure out time / And what’s coming down the line / And interpreting what’s right in front of me / I keep pacing in the halls of what lies beyond self-discovery.
For Moran, the pandemic offered him the space to appreciate his path in life.
“Talking about what you’re ‘supposed to do in life,’ it’s always ‘go to college, get your knowledge,’ all that stuff,” he says. “There are these set notions of what you’re supposed to do. And I’ve rubbed up against some of those constructs, and I’ve spent a lot of time questioning whether following my bliss, which is the pursuit of music, is the right thing to do. I’ve done it for a decade and there might’ve been a lot of times where I was questioning my way of life. But with what we’ve seen in the last year, it’s really just validated my choice. Time is endless in that it goes on without you, so you’ve gotta do what you can do while you’re here. And I’m glad that we’re still pursuing this. It’s cool that we’re pushing the sound and pushing the writing.”
A few records that got Many Mountains’ Dustin Moran and KR Nelson through 2020.
‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters,’ Fiona Apple
“It’s experimental but it’s also familiar,” Duran says of Apple’s fifth studio album, recorded and produced in entirety at Apple’s home — her living room, mostly — in Venice Beach. “It seemed like a home birth; it brings [the music] into the living room. Katie and myself, we make our music in our living room and in our kitchen and in the bed. … That record (Fetch the Bolt Cutters), it could have been perfect and spotless, but I think what makes it beautiful is how authentic and real it is.”
‘Rough and Rowdy Ways,’ Bob Dylan
“When ‘Murder Most Foul’ came out, we had just played in Dallas,” Nelson says of the first single from Dylan’s 2020 record that contextualizes the assassination of John F. Kennedy against the wider landscape of American culture. “We went to JFK’s memorial, where he was shot. So when that song dropped, it had this other kind of level connection for us.”
‘Dixie Blur,’ Jonathan Wilson
“I really enjoy his writing and his musicianship and his production,” Moran says of the guitarist’s fourth studio album, released in March 2020. “I would say that he was a big inspiration on my production on this [new Many Mountains] album to kind of get back to the rock ‘n’ roll ’70s soundscapes stuff. Hearing him do it in the modern day inspired me and gave me a kick in the butt to do it as well.”