Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tommy Shaw: Bridging 'The Great Divide'

Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw releases "The Great Divide" on Tuesday.

Tommy Shaw has spent most of his career cruising down the proverbial rock 'n' roll superhighway, foot heavy on the accelerator as he's helped steer the fortunes of successful mainstream bands such as Styx and Damn Yankees, not to mention other solo and side projects.

Now, he's signaling a significant musical detour.

"It's like I'm making a left-hand turn," the guitarist/vocalist said of his new solo bluegrass record, "but I'm putting on the signal about three blocks ahead."

For Shaw, recording "The Great Divide," which will officially be released on Tuesday, was not only a labor of love but a return to his roots and the music he listened to growing up in Montgomery, Ala. -- just 280 miles from Nashville. The record features several prominent bluegrass players, including the likes of Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Rob Ickes and Sam Bush, as well as some background vocal appearances by Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam.

Shaw was gracious enough to spend nearly an hour on the phone with me early Saturday morning for one of his first in-depth interviews on the bluegrass project. His enthusiasm for the release was obvious, even as he admitted that he didn't necessarily know how the record would ultimately be received -- whether in the bluegrass community or by Styx fans.

"Maybe I'm creating a side door -- at least with Styx fans and people who trust me, who've enjoyed my solo work through the years," Shaw mused."Maybe they trust me one more time to come in through this door and get a little taste of bluegrass."

If anybody can bridge "The Great Divide" between rock and bluegrass, perhaps it's Shaw.

And rest assured, Styx fans, we also discussed the band's summer tour plans, Styx projects currently in the pipeline, the status of the next Shaw/Blades project and a dream future co-headlining tour many fans -- and Shaw himself -- would like to see. All those things will be included in the second part of the interview, which will run in the days ahead. (The second part of the interview can now be read HERE.)

DOUG FOX: Well, first of all, let’s get the obvious question out of the way — what possesses a rock and roll guitar hero like yourself to venture into bluegrass?

TOMMY SHAW: Well, like any other major thing in your life, you often ease into it, to the point where you almost don’t realize that you started it. And this was one of those deals. Back in 2002, [my wife] Jeanne and I went to a Hank Williams tribute concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. And I was asked to sing a couple of Hank songs, and Marty Stuart was there, and Billy Bob Thornton, who was friends with Marty, and they’d just done a record together, and Billy was hosting it, and Marty and his band were there. Billy’s using some of Marty’s guys ... so I just fit in with all of them. And so Brad [Davis] had played with Marty and was now playing with Billy, and so this led to us becoming friends with Billy, who lives in L.A. So we would go over to his house in the studio, working on a new album, and Brad had heard me sing some high part on one of Billy’s songs, and he said, ‘I need some high harmonies on this bluegrass project I’m working on, would you mind singing on it?’ So he gave me the file, I took it home and did it in my studio and gave it back to him. It was pretty straight-forward. You know, I knew what to do, I just followed him along, but it’s not the kind of thing that everybody can do. But he loved it, and he suggested we get together and try our hand at writing something. So the next time he was in town, because I think he was living in Nashville at the time, the next time he was in L.A., he came over and we wrote this song, “I’ll be Coming Home.” In fact, that vocal that’s on there is the vocal that’s on the writing demo. So, it just happened, I sat down and picked up the resonator guitar and played [hums guitar riff from the song]. It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself. We just sort of sat there and out it came. And those are the best kind. I’m probably like a stuck record saying that, but, you know, I’ve been on a lot of albums and done a lot of records over the years -- not every song is like that, trust me. (laughs) And so when you get one like that, it, like, comes out fully formed, and so there’s not a lot of wondering, “Does this go with that? Does this flow?” Because it did, it just flowed. So we were off to kind of the start. We didn’t realize it, but we agreed, "Next time you’re around maybe we can write another one." And that wound up being about 10 months. Then he came back and we wrote “Afraid to Love.” We worked on that one a little bit, but we kept working on it cause we liked it, and it turned out really good. And then probably six months later he came back with [hums another guitar riff]. This is going to read funny with all the [humming]!. So he had the early makings of “Umpteen Miles,” and so he and I finished that one. And every time we would do one, we would record and mix a little writing demo, so we’d have something to listen to. So now we had three songs, and as far as I was concerned, three songs, you know, even when you have a whole album, a lot of times all you’ll send somebody is three songs so they can get a taste of it. So I figure we’ve got a story now, let’s play it for people. And that’s when it took seed, because we got so many good responses from people — all kind of the same like we’re getting now, you know, with me doing this, it’s like, “Huh?” And then people hear it, and they go, “Well, yeah, OK, I get it.” And so people were saying, “When are we going to hear more?” But it took probably another year and half, maybe longer, before Brad and I both had an opening in our schedule where we could actually pursue it. And that day came, and Brad just started coming, and that’s when we were really committed to it.

DF: And, so, how long ago was that?

SHAW: It was the end of 2009 ... the winter of 2009. Within a few weeks, I’d say the winter of 2009 we really started getting into it. He started coming, and we would write a song and do a demo. He would leave and come back the next week, 'cause he was having business with Coffee Fool company that makes the Styx coffee. That’s also how I wound up getting the Styx coffee was through Brad because he was working with Coffee Fool. So I would write stuff or get a little thing started, and he would come back and we’d finish it, or help me do the demo. Fairly quickly we wound up with about 15, 16 songs in various states of completion.

DF: As for the songwriting process itself, and you kind of touched on this with some of the songs, but were the differences in writing for this format simply subtle or were they more wholesale than what you would normally find writing rock songs?

SHAW: Subtle. That was the tricky part because I have a deep respect for the bluegrass community because it’s so ... when I first got my biggest taste of it, and I’d seen it for years as a little kid at bluegrass festivals out in the woods up north of from where I lived in Alabama. But I didn’t really get the full grasp of it until we saw Alison Krauss and Union Station in 1997 and heard these orchestra-level virtuosos just standing there, just quietly ripping the roof off the place. You know, I realized the depth of this music for it to affect people where they pursue it like that. So I wanted to be very cautious if I was going to do this, to not make the mistake a lot of people do, doing something that’s out of their realm. Like, when you’ve seen a lot of musicians probably go to Broadway, who were very successful, legendary songwriters and performers go to Broadway and they kind of take the attitude, “Well, I’m going to show you, this is how we’re going to do it downtown now.” And they come walking out of there with it kind of shoved, the little community there that goes, “No, this how you’re supposed to do it.” And I didn’t want to have that happen. I just wanted to be respectful. So we were very careful about, “Does this make sense? Would you do this on a bluegrass record?” And so one day I said, “Let’s just keep doing the next right thing and you can’t go wrong doing that, right?” So, that became what we said every day. At least once a day we’d go, “Just do the next right thing.” You hear that a few times and you realize, “Well, that should be a song.”

DF: So that’s where that song came from?

SHAW: Yeah. Then again I picked up the acoustic, and what I thought, this not only should be a song, this should be the lead song because I always envisioned, you know how you see some of the old bluegrass bands before they’d have electronic pickups on acoustic elements, they’d just have a few mikes around front and guys, when it came time to sing, they would all lean in and sing, and when it came time to play a solo, they’d kind of lean in and raise up their instrument and play it like that?

DF: Right.

SHAW: They would take turns playing solos. It’s kind of like an introduction to the band. Everybody takes a little four bars or something like that. And that’s how I wanted “The Next Right Thing” to be — the first song, “Here’s a little taste of what you’re going to hear the whole album.”

DF: I know you’ve mentioned before that you wanted to be very respectful to the genre and not be perceived as someone who’s achieved a certain level of notoriety in rock, or in another aspect of music, to where you would naturally think, like you said, “I’m just going to come in and do it my way and not their way.”

SHAW: Exactly. And I’m not naive enough to expect that they’re going to believe I’m a seasoned bluegrass artist, because I’m not. But this music does have a certain history in my life experience. It’s part of the texture of music that I heard growing up. This was as big a part of it as anything else. It was mixed with gospel, country and bluegrass, and even standards like Frank Sinatra, because we would listen on television to variety shows and that was all there on local AM radio. You would hear Roy Acuff and you’d hear Minnie Pearl on comedy shows. Then you’d hear Porter Wagoner, we always watched Porter Wagoner, and I liked Sammy Davis Jr. I loved the  gospel shows on Sunday morning. There was always a guy like Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe with the high voices, and the same thing in the gospel community. I always loved that. So, this was nothing new to my ears and my musical tastes growing up. I was just new to writing and performing it. I just wanted to be like a respectful visitor coming in with my hat off and wiping my feet before I walk in the door.

DF: So, you’re telling me your musical career didn’t start with “Crystal Ball”?

SHAW: (laughs) Well, some might think it did — but there were some steps along the way getting to there.

DF: I know when you release a Styx album, you probably have a certain idea of what the reaction might be and how it will be received by your fan base. But I imagine that in this case, this is a totally different scenario ... what kind of expectations do you have for the album?

SHAW: Well, just because I had this reawakening, I don’t expect everybody to follow it. But I do have a feeling, just from my own experience over the last few years when I asked people what do they feel about bluegrass, almost every one of them said, “I love bluegrass.” People I would never in a million years expect it, because they’d say, “I have an uncle that played it all the time when I was little.” Everybody would have, kind of like me, a little story about bluegrass in their life story. So that’s one of the reasons why I think this could wind up being the first bluegrass album that a lot of people buy, just because they do like it, and they just haven’t gone out and bought any of it yet. Maybe I’m creating a side door — at least with Styx fans and people who trust me, who’ve enjoyed my solo work through the years. Maybe they trust me one more time to come in through this door and get a little taste of bluegrass. And so far, that’s what’s been happening.

DF: Well, I can attest to that. As you know, I have no background in bluegrass whatsoever ...

SHAW: Yeah.

DF: I’m a rock guy through and through. In fact, I think one of my friends said it best, when he said he tried to picture me listening to bluegrass. And he compared it to a vampire looking at the sun ...

SHAW: (laughs) That’s a great analogy.

DF: So, admittedly, I’ve had a lot of learning curve with this album, and I am finding the more I listen to it, the more I’m getting it. What would be your message to other rock fans like me, or Styx fans in general, who may be a little reticent to open their ears to something along these lines?

SHAW: Well, the songs are three minutes long, you know. You can try something for three minutes. You can hold your breath for three minutes if you really try. So this is a lot easier than that. (laughs) And the songs are enjoyable. They’re story songs. If for nothing else, to hear some of the best bluegrass musicians on the planet taking solos and playing some of the most beautiful, melodic things in the background on this record. It’s pretty stunning. And I can tell you that because of my respect for them.

DF: You just touched on it, but I think one of the things that really drew me in to these songs initially was the storytelling element — songs like “Sawmill,” “The Great Divide,” “Give ’Em Hell Harry” — is bluegrass as a genre more amenable to spinning tales like those or is it just kind of how things worked out here?

SHAW: Bluegrass, in the same way gospel is, you know, gospel there’s always a little more dramatic stories, almost a more narrow kind of a story. But at the same time, you can have these great tragedies going on -- you know, love and loss and death and pain, and then get to a chorus and have this happy, it’s-all-gonna-be-all-right chorus. Between the gospel, and the country and bluegrass music that I heard when I was a kid, there is that, there’s that uplifting thing. I remember when I was a little boy, my grandfather passed away, I was about ... 8 years old, and I’d never been to a funeral, never seen a person in a casket before, and there I was, and there’s my grandfather lying there in this box, and I was, like, “Why doesn’t he just get up and go home? Why doesn’t he wake up and go get out of here?” And it dawned on me what this whole thing was. And on the way home, this song came on called “I Remember You.” For the first time in my life, this music, it was like it was talking to me in this car. It was like, “This is exactly what I’m going through -- and this music, it’s like it knows how I’m feeling. And it’s just telling my experience through this pretty, this beautiful melody. And, you know, that’s always stuck with me. And there’s even a little yodel in that song, actually quite a bit of yodeling in that song. So that’s always stuck with me and to see how gospel singers do the same thing, these stories of death and pain, but there’s an uplifting chorus. I was drawn to that for writing these songs. And the song “Sawmill” is the best example of it because in the song, a guy gets, basically, sawn in two right in front of a child. But then there’s this happy chorus, “Have a drink of water ... ”

DF: Now that child in the song, that was your dad, right?

SHAW: Yeah. That was something that came to me because I was enjoying the idea of telling stories in this, and, like, “What stories do I remember?” That was one that always stood out with me. For one thing, the idea of a little kid ... it’s hard to imagine him and his father out there in the woods. And then these lumber camps, you know it's just sweaty, dirty, and it’s hard work all day. And then to have this happen right in front of you ...

 DF: It occurred to me this morning -- and, again, this may damage my rock street cred a bit -- but one of the first records I ever bought was Vicki Lawrence’s “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.”

SHAW: Oh yeah.

DF: And I realize it was all because I was intrigued by the story in the song. Not necessarily the music itself, but the story it was telling, and how it kind of creates a whole place in your imagination.

SHAW: What was that song, (sings) “The night that Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge”?

DF: Oh, yeah. Is the name of the song in that?

SHAW: Oh, you know it will come to me in a minute.

DF: It was in a movie, they made a movie out of that song.

SHAW: Yes, they did. And the girl had a name like Bobbie or something. We’ll figure it out in a second, even if we have to Google it. (laughs)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We forgot to revisit it in this interview, but later figured out it was titled “Ode to Billie Joe,” released in 1967 by Bobbie Gentry. A movie of the same name was released in 1976.]

DF: Yeah, I had forgotten about that one, but the second you mentioned it, that song came right back to me. You know, in a small way, I think that’s why my initial favorite song on here is “Shadows in the Moonlight.” I kind of get the same kind of vibe from that song.

SHAW: It’s like a little movie, isn’t it?

DF: Uh-huh.

SHAW: But you want to know what happened! How did it end? (laughs)

DF: Yeah.

SHAW: It’s a cliffhanger.

DF: Yeah, in fact I’d been thinking, “I don’t think this question has ever been answered about what happened here. I’m going to have to go to the lyrics [when they’re printed] and see if I’m missing something.

SHAW: Yes. Not only does it have stories, it has a cliffhanger.

DF: Obviously that was intentional then?

SHAW: Yeah, we did like that. We thought about doing a last verse and we were like, “Nah, let’s don’t.” (laughs)

DF: How many different instruments did you personally play on this album?

SHAW: I played some acoustics, like an acoustic 12 string and a Dobro resonator guitar. Which I’ve been playing that chrome Dobro resonator guitar on records since I bought it years ago. Remember “I’ll Always Be With You,” the Shaw-Blades song?

DF: Oh yeah.

SHAW: It’s that same guitar. I played it on “I’ll Be Coming Home” and I played it on a solo, the first solo in “Shadows in the Moonlight” is that guitar. And I played Dobro on “Sawmill” and “Back in Your Kitchen.”

DF: Did you play any mandolin?

SHAW: I played a little bit of mandolin, but I left all the heavy lifting to the Nashville guys. I’m on it, but when it comes to a lot of those blistering solos, I went to the best guys I could find. I mean, I can play some solos, but I wanted it to be just shredding.

DF: Interesting. I was going to ask you about that next. You were able to lasso a bunch of co-contributors ... how did they all become involved and who are they?

SHAW: Well, they’re all friends of Brad Davis. They’re my buddies now, but Brad had worked with all of them before. And he’d worked in that studio. The ones that I kept hearing about were Chris Brown and Byron House — about what a killer rhythm section they were. Brad was always looking at them, kind of, as the core. Him and those two guys could really be the foundation of the sessions. Then the rest of it, we tailored that recording session around what dates were as many of those guys available, if possible.

DF: And I know Alison Krauss was also involved.

SHAW: Well, Alison, she sang on my solo album in 1998. She came and sang with me on “Half a Mind.” And we had met a year before in ’97, maybe I told you, when we went to see Union Station. My next-door neighbor is a casting agent, named Nancy Foy, and she was the one who turned me on to Alison Krauss and Union Station, their music. There was a rumor that Alison Krauss came to see Damn Yankees, and I just thought it was a bunch of bull because why is a bluegrass girl coming to see Damn Yankees? You know, a lot of times people say there’s somebody and you get there and it’s not. So, I didn’t believe it, but I guess she did come. My neighbor said, “Did you get the Alison Krauss record?” I said, “No.” She finally came over, put two of them in my hand and said, “Listen to these.” So I put them in the stereo and Jeanne and I listened, and it was like “Holy ... ! Wow!” And not long after that, Nancy said they’re coming to the Wilshire Theatre, and I said, “Let me talk to Charlie [Brusco], our manager, and see if we can get some good seats.” That’s what happened. So we went down there, and it was a very eclectic crowd, and, of course, an absolutely amazing show. And the band left the stage, hopefully returning for an encore, and a lot of times you make that decision, do you want to leave and try and beat traffic, and all of us said, “No, let’s stay. This is too good, we’ve got to stay.” So, Alison comes out and she says that, “I just wanted to let you know that one of my all-time favorite singers is in the house tonight” and it was a five-minute story about how “My brother and I used to listen to this music, and there was a health food store in Nashville, and these snobby people used to go in there and get their health food. And one day we went over there and we played one of his songs.” Well, I didn’t know who she was talking about until she said, “We pulled our car up in front of the store, put ‘Renegade’ on the radio, turned it up and then got out of the car — just to piss everybody off.” So she’s talking about me. I was just looking around thinking, “Who is it? Is it, like, Kris Kristofferson?” It could have been anybody like that. And that’s how she and I met. So we kind of go way back now, way back to ’97. And she and Jeanne are best friends, and that’s really kind of how it happened. Alison and Jeanne like hanging out so much, I was just lucky enough to be there when she came to see Jeanne, and she sang on my record. (laughs) What happened, she comes over and sings it, blah, blah, blah, then that’s done, then Jeanne and she are out in the lobby talking for the next two hours.

DF: Was there any hesitation to maybe ask her to be involved, even to the extent that she was, just based on her collaboration with Robert Plant [on 2007’s “Raising Sand”]?

SHAW: Well, yeah, exactly. I hate asking friends to do stuff. Especially on the heels of the Robert Plant record, I didn’t want people to think, now I’m just trying to ride on the coattails of that. And so, it eventually came up and she said, “Yeah, but we just won’t do a duet. I’ll just sing harmonies on there.” And I’m thinking, “Like no one’s going to notice Alison Krauss is on the record!” But she came in, and like I said, on one of the last days, she came in and within 45 minutes she had done these beautiful harmony parts. And then, there was another song Jeanne sent to her, “Afraid to Love,” and she said, “Sure.” Actually, Gary Burr had her come over to his house and she sang it over there. But it was very casual the way that all went down.

DF: I was actually going to mention this before because I remember you wrote briefly about it on one of your previous articles, but it was about thinking about leaving early at a Fleetwood Mac concert ...

SHAW: Yes.

DF: Because I always make fun of people that leave early (laughs). Because they’re missing the best part of the show in many cases.

SHAW: Yeah. And I understand, you know, everybody’s got a story. Everybody’s not necessarily being rude, sometimes they’ve got babysitters and they’ve got whatever, but a lot of times you do miss something really good at the end because you save your good stuff to the end. There’s psychology [involved].

DF: You have a show coming up [on March 26] at the Grand Ole Opry ...

SHAW: Yes.

DF: Could you ever have imagined such a thing before?

SHAW: Not in a million years. No. I mean, no. Well, I couldn’t imagine a scenario that would put me there.

DF: So how thrilling is it to get that chance?

SHAW: It’s just ... kind of shock and excitement and disbelief and anticipation. It’s really kind of a bluegrass debut, other than the little thing that I did singing “Rank Stranger” at Station Inn. I haven’t played this in front of anybody except in the studio. So, yeah, I’m going to be boning up between now and then. It’s only playing two songs in two different shows.

DF: So two songs in each show?

SHAW: In each of the two shows that day.

DF: So, will it be four total or will you do the same two each time?

SHAW: [I’ll] probably pick the two songs and do those twice because it will be the house band doing it so they’ll have to learn the songs in the afternoon. They’ll probably just want to do the same two. It’s two different audiences. I thought it was funny, I don’t know if you saw that ad where it says my bluegrass debut on the Opry website, and at the bottom it says something like, “Also appearing that night, Carrie Underwood and Pam Tillis.” (laughs) You say, “What was that?” (laughs)

DF: That’s an eye-opener. Well, do you have any plans for any other promotional solo shows at all?

SHAW: You know what, we’re going to let this thing tell us what to do. We’re ready to do, again, the next right thing, because you don’t want to come this far and do a bunch of wrong things. It’s going to take a while for this really to get out there. This is not going to be a tsunami of a release, it’s going to be like a slow-rising river, hopefully. I want people to have a chance to listen to it and make up their minds, and then have there be a demand for me to go play. If that happens, then we know what we would do and know how we’d go about it, but we don’t just want to go out ... I think if we went out and put shows on sale, there’d be a lot of people, who’d come expecting me to do a solo show with an electric band, that would be confused and then I’d have this bluegrass band who didn’t sound like what they were expecting to hear, you understand? It could be a conundrum of a show, so I want there to be an expectation for it to be this music. So we’re just waiting to see if it continues along the path it’s on right now, which is nice, slow and steady and people get that kind of “Huh?” look on their face, and then they hear some of it, and it starts to grow on them, and then they want to hear another one. That’s one of the reasons we’ve rolled it out so slowly, you know, a little here, a little there, just ease people into it. It’s like I’m making a left-hand turn, but I’m putting on the signal about three blocks ahead ... so you don’t run and crash into the back of me when I just made that left-hand turn with no signal.

Related links:

Tommy Shaw is doing a daily song-by-song synopsis of "The Great Divide" on the Comet website. Check out his thoughts and listen to the songs here.

To read Tommy's blog post about possibly leaving early from a Fleetwood Mac concert, referenced in the interview, go here.

For the official "The Great Divide" website, go here.


  1. My fiancee and I are traveling from Raleigh to Nashville to witness Tommy's debut on the Grand ole Opry. Why? Think back in time... Would I have missed Hank, Sr. or Elvis, or Chet, or any of the masters of our time... yes, Masters... Tommy shaw has dedicated his life to Music... This man is a co-author to the Soundtrack of my life... you can bet I want to share in his accomplishments... 1100 miles in 48 hours for two songs? My pleasure... mrmacinraleigh

  2. Bluegrass? This should be very cool. Love your blog Doug!

  3. Hey, Mr. Mac, how did you like the show? Give us a report.