“You mean that Tommy Shaw – the guy from Styx?”
That was the most common reaction I got when telling folks about The Great Divide, Tommy Shaw’s newly-released bluegrass CD. Likewise when I mentioned that I had a great interview with him a few weeks back. Depending on whether my interlocutor was from the rock or bluegrass worlds generally determined whether our discussion was accompanied by a look of shock and awe, or bemused bewilderment.
But yes… that Tommy Shaw.
The Great Divide hit last week, featuring 11 new songs that Shaw wrote/co-wrote, and recorded with a crack bluegrass rhythm section (Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Stuart Duncan, Byron House, Scott Vestal) with Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam lending harmony vocals. Tommy plays guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar on his project as well.
In a home movie posted online, Shaw described what it was like tracking with the bluegrass superstars in Nashville.
Tommy spent some time with Bluegrass Today last month, and I asked how he found himself cutting a bluegrass project in 2010.
“It really got started through a chance meeting with Brad Davis. We hooked up through Billy Bob Thornton, at his studio, where I was adding vocals to something he was tracking. Brad heard me singing a high harmony, and he asked me if I would sing tenor on a bluegrass thing he had. That led us to a discussion about how I ought to do a bluegrass album.
Brad is really the one who walked me through the process. I didn’t want to do some sort of hybrid – didn’t want to be that rock guy who comes in and bashes around in some other form of music. I wanted to be respectful to the form; wanted to fit in like a cousin from out of town who just came to sit in.
Brad and I wrote all but eight songs. A lot of times, the thing that gets a project off the ground is finding someone who is a good hang in the studio. Brad is such a super talent and a great guy… he made the whole thing a breeze.”
Before he ever discovered rock guitar, Tommy said that his childhood in Montgomery, AL was full of music of every kind. He well recalls listening to the Grand Ole Opry with his family as a boy, but didn’t consider questions about musical styles.
“Everything that came out of the radio when I was a kid was music to me – I didn’t categorize it. I still have trouble telling bluegrass from country in every case.
My family went to bluegrass festivals near home when I was little. I was learning to play guitar, and Wildwood Flower was the first bluegrass song I ever learned. It was really popular in Alabama, and everybody had to learn it.”
But it was a chance encounter just a few years back that led Shaw to a new appreciation for contemporary bluegrass.
“Alison Krauss is what really set me on fire about 10 years ago. My next door neighbor turned me on to Union Station. One day she gave me two CDs, and I was completely blown away. Then AKUS had a show in LA, and my wife and I went down – and had not experienced something like that before. The shredding, the singing, the entertainment value…
When she came back out for an encore, she announced that one of her favorite singers was in the audience. I thought maybe Marty Stuart or Kris Kristofferson – but it was me!
We used that as an excuse to go backstage, and she wound up singing on an album I did the next year.
I also really dig Cherryholmes – love what they did with their last album – and Infamous Stringdusters.”
Though the hey day for Styx was in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the band has continued touring through ongoing personnel changes (and the untimely death of original drummer John Panozzo). They were out last year while Shaw was using his off time to track and mix The Great Divide, so I wondered what they thought of the project – and whether any of the material might find its way into their 2011 stage show.
“I don’t think so. This is out of their wheelhouse. We even have trouble bringing new Styx songs into the stage show!
In 1975 when I first joined the band, I would come out with just an acoustic guitar and I wrote this kind of bluegrass hoedown – a 2 stepping kind of thing – and the audience would be clapping along. I kept finding things like that in my music, but the guys in Styx kept saying ‘No, no, no…’
But yeah… they dig the record. I think they are all astonished that I followed through. They saw that I was totally in love with this… my mandolin playing was getting better, plus my slide and dobro. Then I got an old parts Gibson banjo from Dan Tyminski, and there I was on the Styx bus learning how to play the banjo.
Being in the studio with Scott Vestal and Gary Davis, you realize what an incredible instrument the banjo is. I am loving playing and have started to get the hang of it, but I’m not putting anybody out of work on the banjo. I had done some finger picking before, but never had gotten used to finger picks until recently.
As the mixes were getting done, I was on the road with Styx, so I would play the CDs to check the mixes on the bus. That’s when their jaws started dropping. We all have side projects, and they had some great advice to offer on the mixes.”
But enough about the project… let’s talk about the music.
Shaw was never a bluegrass singer, though he heard plenty growing up in north Alabama, and his vocal style owes more to the rock genre where he has earned his keep this many years than it does to Bill or Lester. But there is also an appreciation for the traditions that inform contemporary bluegrass and Americana music, including Celtic and old time mountain music.
He possesses an agile voice that is at ease across a wide range. This allows him to sing comfortably in the upper ranges that helped establish a distinct sound for Styx in the ’70s and ’80s, which is also where that ‘high lonesome’ bluegrass sound resides. Check his Cowan-like vocals on the album’s final track.
I’ll Be Coming Home: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/coming_home.mp3]
Love, loss and home are some common themes among the songs, and I asked if perhaps this had been intentional.
“No… it was just what came out.
We spent so much time together in Styx – like one organism with ten arms and legs – that what came to be known as concept albums were mostly a result of us working together so strongly with a common purpose.
Sawmill was based on a true story my father told me as a kid. My dad went with his father, who managed lumber camps up in the woods, and dad got to be the water boy. Dad was out running his rounds and saw some guy walk right up on a swing saw. It just about cut him in two.
Rock music just doesn’t tell stories like that, but bluegrass does.”
To my ear, the strongest cuts are ones that organically combine both rock and bluegrass idioms and chord progressions.
Afraid To Love: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/afraid_to_love.mp3]
Looking at the album on its own merits, celebrity curiosity aside, there is plenty that bluegrass fans will enjoy. The songs are well-crafted, and Tommy sings them with passion and conviction. You don’t rise to the sort of pinnacle where Shaw finds himself in the rock world without something to say – and a talent for saying it – and long-time Styx fans who also appreciate bluegrass music will be likely to enjoy it very much as well.
If current plans hold, you can expect to see Shaw spending some time at IBMA this fall promoting The Great Divide.
This is Shaw’s first solo project since 1988, and I asked if there might be more where this one came from.
“We’ll just have to see… If I just get shown the door, who knows? Whatever happens, this will always be a part of me.”