How a 2,000-mile road trip through the South inspired a musical duo to find their sound

Two friends turned a U-Haul into a makeshift recording studio, collaborating with musicians along the way

Cameron Champion and Sam Lowe first met through their mutual love of music. This connection grew into a friendship that eventually took them across the South—in a recording studio set up in a U-Haul—playing music and making connections along the way.

It all started in college. As Champion enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he set a personal goal to perform or record a song every single week of college. During an orientation weekend, someone told him that Lowe also played music. Champion immediately sent Lowe a Facebook message: “We gotta jam together.”

Months later, when they both arrived at UNC, they started playing music together in their respective dorm rooms on a weekly basis. And, with the exception of a brief period when they both studied abroad in separate countries between their sophomore and junior years, they haven’t stopped.

So earlier this year, when the two friends realized that neither of them had plans for spring break, it felt like the perfect opportunity to do something they had never done before.

Sam Lowe and Cameron Champion in their U-Haul recording studio.
Sam Lowe and Cameron Champion in their U-Haul recording studio. | Photo courtesy of Haulin’ Sessions

“I kind of had this realization this year that I’m halfway through undergrad, I’ve got two spring breaks left—and I’ve never done anything crazy over spring break,” Lowe says. “So what’s the craziest thing I can think of?”

Champion and Lowe bounced around some ideas about what they could do during their free week, and finally settled on a plan: The two would spend a week driving around the South in a mobile recording studio, collaborating with musicians in different cities, and producing songs along the way. Champion figured that after two years of playing together, this road trip would be the perfect way for the two friends to finally find their musical sound.

Six songs in seven days

For the two North Carolina-based musicians, the South felt like a natural venue for their musical exploration.

“There’s such a rich variety of musical tradition in the South, and there are so many iconic cities for music along the route we were driving,” Lowe says. “There just seemed to be an abundance of places for us to go to find interesting people.”

Their itinerary included a loop of five cities: Greenville, South Carolina; Athens, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, TN; and Asheville, North Carolina. Because they planned to drive a U-Haul through each of these cities, they dubbed the trip “Haulin’ Sessions” and created an Instagram account to document their travels.

Geographically and sonically, they were all over the map.

Over the seven days of their Southern journey, Champion and Lowe recorded six songs—each entirely different from the one before, and each one inspired by the place in which the song was written. They were inspired by the blues of the Mississippi Delta region, the bluegrass and folk of Asheville, and the rappers of Tennessee. With the help of local collaborators, the duo recorded a folk song in Greenville, South Carolina; a spoken word jazz track in New Orleans; and a funk song in Nashville. Geographically and sonically, they were all over the map.

“I think one thing we learned is that instead of finding our sound in the sense of narrowing down what it is that we do as musicians, we found our sound in the sense that we realized that there’s a really wide breadth of the kind of music that we’re able to create and that we enjoy creating,” Lowe says. “And maybe the concept of finding our sound was too limiting from the beginning.”

Finding community in unexpected places

Lowe and Champion planned out a route of specific Southern cities to visit. To locate collaborators ahead of the trip, the duo contacted several people within their musical networks, shared flyers with information about their project in Facebook groups, and told friends to pass information along via word-of-mouth. A week before the trip, they were in contact with potential collaborators in nearly every city they planned to visit. But New Orleans was different.

“In New Orleans, we’d done a lot of work ahead of time to try and get connected with people,” Lowe says. “We had some names of people we were reaching out to and trying to get connected with, but it got to the day that we arrived in New Orleans and nothing had come together yet.”

Jamming with the band Wolfgang Wallace in Greenville.
Jamming with the band Wolfgang Wallace in Greenville. | Photo courtesy of Haulin’ Sessions
The duo exploring Greenville during their road trip through the South.
The duo exploring Greenville. | Photo courtesy of Haulin’ Sessions

On their first night in the city, without any musical contacts, Lowe and Champion walked down to Bourbon Street to find potential collaborators. After wandering around for a short period of time, the friends realized they weren’t going to find the musicians they needed in the middle of such a large crowd.

Frustrated, they continued on to Frenchman Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. There they ran into a street poet with a typewriter and a sign that read, “Pick a topic, get a poem.”

After driving 1,000 miles to get to this exact place, Champion and Lowe asked the poet to write about authenticity, music, and the South. They wanted someone to help put their experience into words.

The next day was their last in New Orleans, and they still had not produced any music inspired by the city. So they came up with a new plan.

“We wrote a guitar chord progression, we recorded it really quickly,” Lowe says. “I uploaded it to my iPhone, I took my field recorder, and we went down to the French Quarter, to Royal Street.”

They found a man playing trumpet in the middle of the street, and after the friends approached him and told him about their project, the trumpet player was instantly sold. He quickly listened to the chord progression, then played his trumpet over the track twice. Champion says the collaboration was perfect.

“We went back to the U-Haul that night, the two of us, and pulled together that progression,” Lowe says. “We used the trumpet track we got and we decided to make it a spoken-word jazz track as a way of incorporating this experience we had with this poet the night before.”

Champion and the U-Haul, dubbed Penn.
Champion and the U-Haul, dubbed Penn. | Photo courtesy of Haulin’ Sessions

Champion says so much of the trip and so many of the songs were produced through such collaborations—with new friends, with a variety of genres, and with the spirit of the South. Through their shared love of music, the two friends were able to traverse 2,000 miles in a week, produce music inspired by the road, and forge a deep sense of community.

“It was just crazy to me that we didn’t even know these people and they were able to open their doors up to us, and were willing to go along with our crazy idea,” Champion says. “I hope that they really enjoyed their time with us, too.”