Pasadena Weekly Jan 5 06
Rick Shea & The Losin' End, Bound for Trouble (Tres Pescadores)
As with any story, the order in which songs and thematic threads are introduced on an album can deepen the meaning of the entire piece. Covina-based country-rocker Rick Shea has not only remixed and reissued his acclaimed 2000 disc “Sawbones”- arguably his strongest solo release – but recontextualized it as well by shuffling songs and adding three new ones: the rocking title track; an upbeat duet with Seattle singer-songwriter Christy McWilson, “Never Been in Love”; and a prescient bit of balladry penned a decade ago, “Texas Lawyer.” The new songs pack more meat into an already hearty country-rock-folk-blues stew, while the fresh mix and resequencing heighten the dynamics and beam new light on Shea's songwriting craftsmanship.
#125 - Aug/September 2006
Rick Shea and the Losin' End Bound for TroubleTres Pescadores tpcd-6 2005
Bound for Trouble is a re-mixed and remastered version of Shea's 2000 album called Sawbones. Three songs have also been added, namely the title song, Nick Lowe's "Never Been in Love" which features Christy McWilson on vocals, and a live acoustic version of "Texas Lawyer." Shea always surrounds himself with great musicians, such as Dave Alvin (on a couple of tracks) and fiddler Brantley Kearns (on most other tracks). The only song not written by Shea, other than Lowe's, is the old Lefty Frizzell hit "Saginaw Michigan". Shea is blessed with a strong, resonant voice and he shows impeccable taste as a producer and arranger. He has released several classic albums since this album was originally released, and this revised reissue is a worthy addition to his body of work.
- Paul E. Comeau
(Comeauville NS, Canada)
Friday February 16, 2001
Rick Shea/"Sawbones" (Wagon Wheel) ****
Don't let the guitar god posturings on opening cut "Black Eyed Girl" alarm you; insrumental whiz Shea is as rootsy as they come.
This marvelous collection of mostly selpenned tunes by the San Benardino-bred, Dave Alvin sideman covers the gamut of folk, gospel, blues, country and even some Mexican idioms, yet each song is crafted with distictive freshness and originality. To top it off, Shea's caramel baritone is as beautifull and resonant as his multistring virtuosity is awe-inspiring.
And that "Black Eyed Girl" tune? It rocks.
Sawbones (Wagon Wheel) Top notch. ****
Rick Shea is to interior California what Joe Ely is to west Texas: his music evokes deep Kern, San Bernardino ans Riverside counties the way Ely nailed down Laredo - two pinches of old Mexico, a blast of exhaust from the bossman's new Suburban and a baseline of working-stiff deperation. Whats country about his music emanates from the kind of beyond the clichés-lie-deep-truths approach to songwriting that Merle Haggard always excelled at. Throw a whomping band sound behind it (Shea plays with Dave Alvin; Alvin returns the favor here) and the best goddamn voice I've heard since Merle hisself, and you've hit the jackpot, baby. Some cuts shake with the roiling drama of an oncoming thunderstorm ("Lonesome Cannonball"), there's an ear candy instrumental ("Mesquite"), a fine 12-bar jam ("Piedmont Ridge"), and a beautifull ballad ("A Bend in the River"). Shea wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 13 cuts here; the cover is Bill Anderson's "Saginaw Michigan"
- Jackson Griffith
Los Angeles, Ca
Moving up from the aisle
Inevititably in every sideman's career comes a moment when he finds it necessary to step up to the front. Rick Shea has had the good fortune to be hitting an enviable artistic stride at just such a moment.
Shea Has served faithfully on projects for Cody Bryant, Chris Gaffney, Katy Moffatt, Heather Myles, Christy McWilson and, most recentley, Dave Alvin, contributing dependable musicianship that is at once the bedrock and the springboard for the success of the material. Now after 20 years the multi-instrumentalist and siger-songwriter has issued an album of inspired clatity and tastefull maturity.
Sawbones, on the Wagon Wheel/AIM labe, absolutely sparkles between the grooves. Shea's guitars (nylon string, acoustic slide, electric) and mandolin, his clear baritone, and his solid arrangements place his tunes between the then and now of Amerivan heartland music. Think early John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and country Nick Lowe and you're just about there.
There's not one flashy or pointless solo on the disc - which summarizes Shea's take on music, and his career at large. "I consider myself better as a musician than as "hot instrumentalist'" he says. "I've done this for a long time in a lot of different situations - starting with truck stop bars and in hundreds of different bands - and what I've really learned are a lot of songs and how to be a good musician. I feel I've done well with that."
Sawbones is Shea's fourth solo effort, coming on the heels of last year's Shaky Ground, five years after The Buffalo Show, and 11 years after his cassette-only cult classic Outside of Nashville. Two of the new album's songs - "Black Eyed Girl" and "Magdalena" - were recorded in the aftermath of The Buffalo Show in 1997 but you'd never know by the way they fit with the newer songs. Thats not an accident, nor is it overtly intentional. "You try to pay close attention to the sound and make it sound like it comes from the same place," Shea says.
Does that means there is a mystical aspect to what he does? "In a way, I guess when I'm performing these songs, I guess so. You try to put yourself in a different frame of mind. There's a lot to pay attention to when you're performing thats not really right-brain thinking; the sound, the sound of the room, the audience response, the connection with them. they're not real apparent things that you can see, so you have to pay attention, in as many different ways as you can.
The tunes on the record have an antique hue, giving them a timeless quality. Some, particularly the Southern folk of "A Bend in the River", evoke something from around the campfire during the Civil War.
"Well I'm a big fan of anything old," Shea says, flattered by the comparison. "The Harry Smith collectio is something I've been listening to for about a year. I just love the performances. I'm a big fan of Carter Family stuff - the songs are so great and they translate so directly.
"And Jimmie Rodgers, any of that stuff - its just a window to that time. That was some body sitting in a room performing, making an emotional statement, trying to make a connectio. And through the magic of recording, 60 - 70 years later you can sit in a room and get that connection directly. I don't feel that same connection in the process the way its done today, with everyone doing bits and pieces.
Clearly Shea has the studio side of the business down pat, but he had never been on an extended road tour until he hit the highway as a member of Alvin's backing band, The Guilty Men. "I really enjoy the people we meet," he says. "The people this music appeals to that come out to these shows are the people I like to hang out with anyhow. Its a great fringe benefit."
It's easier to get out of the house for weeks at a time now that his boys, Matthew and Jesse, are 17 and 11, respectively. He and his wife Susie have been together more than twenty years. "For the first ten years I did evenings at nightclubs, which left me home during the day; Susie worked during the day, so she was home in the evening. That seemed to work out and the idea is to keep working it out."
Shea spent much of the fall touring with Alvin, opening many of the shows with his own set. Eventually, Shea would like to use his newfound connections and mount a tour of his own to promote his own disc - a true indication that the sideman is ready to step out front.
JUNE 11 - 17, 1999
Rick Shea keeps it country
by Jonny Whiteside
WEST COAST COUNTRY, FORMERLY A GLORIOUS and deeply influential movement with a sound as distinct as Memphis soul, is indisputably in its sorriest-ever shape. Once a thriving, nationally renowned community of California-based million-sellers (Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Tex Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard) and less successful but equally high-impact performers (Merle Travis, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Wynn Stewart), California country singers today are an increasingly endangered species. Nationally, there are only two Coast representatives -- Haggard and Dwight Yoakam; locally, there's an army of them, but the vast majority are either chained to the Hot Country Top 40, crippled by the New Depression's hillbilly-cliché mentality or falling into the self-indulgent Americana singer-songwriter bag. For fans reared on a previously intoxicating variety of talent (and who take all this country music stuff deadly serious), it is a terrible, depressing mess.
When one of us gets lucky enough to stray into a spot where Rick Shea is performing, it's like entering a dream state. Shea's mix of almost reverent dignity and sensitive interpretation, put over with one of the finest, most natural-born country baritones in the business, is stunning. The 45-year-old, San Gabriel Valleybased singer-guitarist's mix of Coast country standards, original songs and Tin Pan Alley numbers plays out like a pilgrimage to honky-tonk Holy Land. His guitar style is tasteful, skilled and vivid, gently recalling the intricacy of Bakersfield's Roy Nichols, and his low-key vocals, all warmth and simplicity, create an ideal showcase for any lyric.
Considering all the country mediocrity that surrounds him, it's notable that Shea owes little to the Golden State's torchbearers Haggard and Yoakam. Shea may worship the former, but not to the point of becoming another cut-and-paste sound-alike; he's the complete opposite of the latter, whose West Hollywood wardrobe, highbrow vocabulary and messages of deep personal pain appeal as much to rock fans as they do to contemporary-country listeners. Shea's understated approach is a talent earned in the late-night, Benzedrine-driven realm of San Bernardino roadhouses during the '70s and '80s, a time and place where he worked from 9 till closing, six nights a week, and could at any given time find himself sharing the bandstand with everyone from Fred Maddox to Johnny Rodriguez to the Palomino's cross-dressing C&W renegade Troy Walker.
"I used to work at Clyde's, Loretta's, the Fontana Inn -- most of those places are gone now," the Maryland-born, San Berdooraised Shea says. "And none of them were as rough as you might think. They were an older crowd, and they'd been goin' to these places since the days when they could go see Wynn Stewart. Basically, it was just hardcore working-class, a bunch of truck drivers and whores, there to do what they were doin', and they all seemed to like us a lot. The truck stops were different in that you could play more slow songs than I ever thought possible. Every other song was a slow one, because these guys were there to dance -- and none of 'em were good dancers. They were there to hang out with these girls -- well, a little more than hang out."
The need to appeal to such a crowd and his own sense of craft forced Shea to develop a sincere country style: "The vocals were just a matter of trying to sing the songs, to try to enunciate, get the lyrics across clearly and just sing the notes. That's what singing is -- you're basically working around your limitations. I pretty much sang the way I sing before I was really too familiar with any of this stuff. I was familiar with Merle Haggard from a pretty early age, but I was more connected to Buffalo Springfield and the Band when I was in high school. But that was also when I started listening to country radio, getting to know the songs. I'm such a huge fan of these older songs that even with my own writing I just try to structure them along those lines. After a certain point, they set their own mood, in a certain time, so I just try to stay in that, with the language and images I use."
APART FROM THE BRILLIANT FIDDLER-MANDOLINIST Brantley Kearns, honky-tonk gal Kathy Robertson, not to forget Los Angeles stalwarts Cody Bryant, Heather Myles and Patti Booker, there are precious few other L.A. country artists focused more on expression than formula. Shea has an ongoing collaborative relationship with most all of these performers, but it's Kearns, who first came to national attention as a key member of Dwight Yoakam's band in the late 1980s, who provides the most fertile and ongoing partnership.
"I met Brantley in '90 or '91, through Heather Myles," he says. "We played some places out in Riverside, did that for a while, then she did her first HighTone album. We went on the road a little, then Brantley and I just kept it goin'. A lot of us are so into that old country, but to me, Brantley seems to be of that era, like Eck Robertson or some '30s guy -- a man out of time. He's amazing -- has a solid background in jazz and R&B, knows the music and the performers. Brantley's got great control, great range as a singer, and he sings like nobody but himself. He's a direct connection -- he's from High Point, North Carolina, grew up singing in church, he knows all those songs."
One of the most remarkable aspects of Shea's career is the fact that he's not only survived but managed to earn a living and raise a family with neither a day job nor the traditional country artists' other economic booster, the annual European tour. Country music is about as far from being a viable meal ticket as one can get in the music business, and for a frontline honky-tonk man like Shea, survival translates into ceaseless toil at a sometimes marginal pay scale. Not that he's without cachet; Shea frequently tours as a sideman with Americana flag-bearer Dave Alvin, a job that's taken him to the stage of Madison Square Garden (where Alvin opened on a recent Bob DylanJoni Mitchell tour). Back home, opportunities remain slim. Shea and Kearns' mainstay booking is at a Burbank Mexican restaurant, Viva Fresh, where they set up on the cantina floor and wow the tequila-happy patrons several times monthly.
"Viva's is like home base now," he says. "They treat us good, nobody has anything to say about what we do. It reminds me of some little place in Texas . . . There's nothing else like that around here anymore. I wish some other places would loosen up a little. There's a lot of talented people who'd come out to play just for fun. It is fun."
Shea represents one of a very few tenuous links to an almost lost art form, yet his blend of industrious commitment and pure enjoyment in his work keeps him not only focused but constantly improving himself: "That's what you have to do -- play these songs to stay familiar with them. I feel like I keep some sort of connection. Because if you get away from playing the songs for a while, then you're lost . . ."
Sawbones (Wagon Wheel/Aim)
Reviewed by Shaun Dale
Rick Shea is a veteran of the Southern California C&W scene, from Bakerfield roadhouses to the Palamino, and a key figure in Dave Alvin's Guilty Men. Sawbones is his third album under his own name, and while the others have had considerable critical support, he's still looking for the one that will bring as much commercial as critical success. If quality is the criteria, it would have happened a while back, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Sawbones, because this is one fine CD.
His approach here is better described under the broader heading "roots music" than straight country, but it's country enough to satisfy the most particular kicker. A lot of that has to do with Shea's rich baritone, which can summon up that aura of impending heartache that's so central to great C&W vocals. The line between impending heartache and whiney despair is a thin one, and Shea consistently stays on the right side of the line. On the other hand, when the tune and occasion calls for it, he's fully capable of delivering rock 'n roll grit or soulful blues. Rick Shea is a fine, expressive singer.
He's also a fine, expressive songwriter, writing or having a hand in writing all but one track on Sawbones (the cover is a terrific version of Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw Michigan). On top of all that, he's a first rate talent on guitar and mandolin, the skills that have made him an indispensable part of Dave Alvin's recordings and shows in recent years.
Alvin may have to learn to dispense with Shea's talents, though, no matter how hard that may be. Rick Shea deserves a full time career as a headliner in his own right, and by all rights Sawbone should provide the breakthrough that makes that possible.
© 2000 - Shaun Dale
THE GREEN MAN REVIEW
Rick Shea, Sawbones (Wagon Wheel, 2000)
Rick Shea has spent a lot of time the past few years on the road as a member of Dave Alvin's backing band, the Guilty Men. A talented guitarist, Shea makes his solo recording debut with Sawbones . It's a tasty album of country, folk and rock songs, with some blues and Tejano influence thrown in for good measure. Throughout, Shea plays electric and acoustic guitar and mandolin with equal amounts of skill and taste, never overplaying or showing off, and always making the playing serve the song.
The two opening tracks, "Black-Eyed Girl" and "Magdalena," are quite different songs that tell both sides of the folk standard of forbidden love, the former from the man's point of view, the latter from the woman's. "Magdalena," featuring Shea on a classical-style guitar, was inspired by a legend told at the mission at San Juan Capistrano, and has an appropriate south-of-the-border sound.
Shea has a good backing band, including Brantley Kearns on fiddle, David Jackson on acoustic bass, Dave Hall on electric bass, Wyman Reese on keyboards and Don Heffington on percussion. Dave Alvin guests on lead guitar on two songs, the folk rock "Lonesome Cannonball" and the gritty blues "Piedmont Ridge." Katy Moffatt, who has also toured and recorded with Alvin, sings a tasteful harmony part on the Celtic tinged "Deep Within the Well" which also has some nice fiddle work from Kearns and some sharp mandolin picking by Shea. The band jumps into a zippy instrumental reel on the fadeout that leaves you wanting more of this unidentified tune.
"Emperor of the North" is a rocking, shuffling, fiddle driven ballad about a musician and rider of the rails called Guitar Whitey, with a catchy melody, especially on the chorus. Shea turns in some languid slide work on a resonator guitar on the most inspired track, "Walkin' to Jerusalem," a song of longing and desolation in waltz time that would fit well on Emmylou Harris' next album.
The band cranks it up on the title track, a mid tempo rocker, followed by a western style acoustic instrumental tune, "Mesquite," on which Shea turns in some more excellent mandolin playing, as well as some fine flat picking on the guitar. The whole thing is over too soon with "Camellia," a bluesy, soulful rocker on the final track.
Shea wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on Sawbones except the Lefty Frizzell hit "Saginaw Michigan," which he covers faithfully. Shea has a pleasant baritone similar to Frizzell's, but may not have entirely found his own vocal style yet. It's a little tentative at times, particularly on the "Piedmont Ridge" blues.
With Sawbones , an impressive country rock debut, Shea demonstrates the potential to make that difficult transition from sideman to front man.
By William Michael Smith
Rick Shea, Dave Alvin's longtime multi-instrument sidekick (steel guitar, electric guitar, mandolin), doesn't get off Alvin's tour bus to record his own material too often. His latest release, "Sawbones," is only his third album since 1990. But what Shea leaves out in quantity, he makes up for with quality. "Sawbones" allows Shea to display many of the facets of his talent that cause a consummate pro like Alvin to want to have him around. Alvin lends his own guitar virtuosity to two cuts on "Sawbones."
While Shea isn't particularly well known nationally, he is an almost legendary figure in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, where he is known not only for his instrumental prowess but also for his intelligent songwriting and a voice that would be the envy of many headliners in the Americana field.
While "Sawbones" is completely Americana by type, it finds Shea working with sounds and shapes from blues to country to folk, with subtle colorings of Irish sounds, Mexican sounds, and countrified gospel. And Shea can go up tempo or slow as a dirge, play it hot or cool, whatever the lyric calls for.
He comes out smoking with some nasty Neil Young guitar licks and a Billy Joe Shaver waver in his voice on 'Black-Eyed Girl.' Mom and Dad don't approve of her, but this girl has charms stronger than Mom and Dad's warnings. Shea and the band let it out and he displays how serious his guitar chops are on an extended fade.
That black-eyed girl she cast a spell
She had gypsy charms and shotgun shells
And the song she sings in old Creole
And the knife she brought from Mexico
I got a silver ring and string of soft white pearls
I want to lie all night alone with a black-eyed girl
'Magdalena' is a Spanish-inflected, spirit-laden country-folk tune based on a local legend about a ghost girl who can be seen some nights walking in the courtyard of the chapel at San Juan Capistrano. She carries a single candle and calls out for her lover to return. Shea has a constructed a very dramatic and spiritually satisfying song, and his Spanish guitar picking adds to the sadness inherent in the story.
On 'Lonesome Cannonball,' Shea and Alvin compliment each other on electric guitar on this countrified blues. The guitars are bluesy and bad, but Brantley Kearns' fiddling lays on a country overtone. There's lots of fire and plenty of twang to go around on this brooding cut.
Katy Moffatt duets with Shea on 'Deep Within the Well,' another country-folk tune. But this time Shea opts for Irish rather than blues overtones as Shea handles the mandolin work and Kearnes counters with mournful fiddle.
One doesn't have to hear much of Shea's singing to make the Lefty Frizzell connection. While Shea doesn't sing with quite the nasality and "hickness" that Frizzell projected, the tonal qualities of the two voices are almost identical. So it is probably no coincidence that Shea covers Frizzell's country classic 'Saginaw, Michigan' and gives it a very faithful rendition. Shea's vocal ache also invites comparisons with Frizzell on 'Walkin' to Jerusalem,' the brooding and eerie 'Still Water.'
'Emperor of the North' finds Shea in his most engaging form, a dramatic country-folk tune with lots of meat and Americana in the subject matter. The song is a tale of "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds, hoboed in 1930's looking for work. He found a job and stayed on it fifty years and reached retirement. After he retired, he went back to hoboing. Shea immortalizes him and his rough-edged American independent spirit here.
Lost John said, Son here's the deal, we'll share everything we can steal
It's a 60-40 proposition given your green looks and poor condition
You can take the split or leave it if you choose
These farmers, they've got more than they can use
I'm not saying it's the best of lives but I've seen worse with 2 mean wives
These boxcar beds they creak and pitch, it's chancy work, you won't get rich
Them railroad dicks don't ever treat you kind but a freer man you'll never hope to find
Shea and Alvin find a slow, before-daylight blues groove on Shea's 'Piedmont Ridge." This is as lowdown and country as the blues can get.
Sun come up this mornin', two mules lying on the bridge
A steady rain was fallin' out along the Piedmont Ridge
The title cut sounds like some of our Texas neo-outlaws at work as Shea flashes more of his tasty electric guitar picking in that groove between country and blues known as roadhouse music. The funky, off-kilter lyric would make a perfect Delbert McClinton song.
The instrumental 'Mesquite' allows Shea to stretch out and demonstrate more of his picking prowess on a straight country reel. Shea whips out hot licks on both acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Shea closes the album out with another funky roadhouse country rocker, 'Camellia.' This cut has a New Orleans feel like the The Band was always so good at.
With tasty playing, simple, pleasing arrangements, and a voice that is friendly to the ear, Rick Shea has cut a wide slice from the center of the Americana pie with "Sawbones." With an album this good, he deserves to do it more often than just every 3 or 4 years.
Rick Shea's demeanor onstage as well as off is so unassuming and non-flashy that it's tempting to pigeonhole him as the kind of musician whose original projects will follow the sensitive singer-songwriter formula: thoughtful, tasteful, nothing too memorable or surprising. But understatement's a wonderful thing, and Sawbones offers up a number of subtle surprises. It's filled with songwriting jewels, and by mixing up his ballads with several more rocking, even bluesy tunes, Shea's created a fine record with tougher edges than either of his previous releases.
Shea, of course, is best-known as the soulful linchpin of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men band. Sawbones was recorded around the same time as Alvin's Grammy-winning Public Domain , and there's a similar feel to the instrumental performances on both records. When Alvin pops up, electric guitar in hand, to let his inner bluesman roam through "Lonesome Cannonball" and the loose-limbed "Piedmont Ridge," it's sweet, fuzz-toned joy.
Shea and his changing lineup of bandmates (including, at various times, Alvin, bassist Dave Hall, fiddler Brantley Kearns, drummers John Lee White III and Don Heffington, and organist Wyman Reese) sound like they're having a great time, playing for the love of music, especially when rocking on "Black-Eyed Girl" and "Lonesome Cannonball" or romping through the title track, "Camellia," and "Emperor of the North" (a co-write with Reese, keyboardist in Chris Gaffney's Cold Hard Facts band). There's always a strain of sweet melancholy in Shea's vocals, but that's part of his appeal.
After honing his chops for two decades as a guitarist and singer playing covers in bars, truck stops and honky-tonks around Southern California, Shea's got a well-deserved rep as a standard bearer for classic California country. But when you get right down to it, his own songs are as much folk as they are country. That's particularly evident on more contemplative material like the Celtic-flavored "Deep Within the Well," featuring longtime pal Katy Moffatt's smoky harmonies, "A Bend in the River" and the Spanish-flavored "Magdalena." "Walkin' to Jerusalem," which was inspired by the death of Alvin's father, is one of the best and most moving songs Shea's ever written; it impresses with the enduring strength and simplicity of classic folk laments.
Some of these songs -"Magdalena," "Black Eyed Girl," "Camellia" - have been staples of Shea's live shows for a long time. But as a recent acoustic performance with Kearns amply demonstrated, Shea's songs are surprisingly sturdy; if anything, their glow becomes warmer and lovelier with age.
Sawbones, 2000 Wagon Wheel
The Los Angeles-based Shea is best known for his contributions to "A Town South of Bakersfield," his collaborations with Patty Booker and Heather Miles, and his membership in Dave Alvin's Guilty Men band. Like Alvin, Shea invokes the roots of country while seamlessly adding a whole passel of other influences.
This third release ranges from a sweet acoustic cover of Lefty Frizell's "Saginaw Michigan" to muscular, electric tunes that bring to mind Lynyrd Skynyrd's less anthemic moments and a host of electric blues greats. Throughout, Shea's picking covers a lot of ground. His mandolin provides tender old-tyme and bluegrass runs on "Walking to Jerusalem" and the instrumental "Mesquite," then ranges to British folk sounds on "Deep Within the Well." His guitars run the gamut from softly picked and rhythmically strummed acoustics to low, reverberating waves of electric notes and bluesy twang.
Shea's instrumental chops are matched by the suppleness of his singing and the mystery and romance of his lyrics. At turns he sings with the heartbreak of George Jones, the quirky introspection of Richard Buckner and the lament of a honky-tonk bluesman. Altogether, it's just the sort of fusion that the term "Americana" was created to describe. ( Wagon Wheel )
- Eli Messinger
December 21, 2000
Sawbones (Wagon Wheel)
BY ERIC WAGGONER
Rick Shea recently began serving time as one of Dave Alvin's Guilty Men, but he's no prison fish: Sawbones is his third solo album. Shea's own musical style, like Alvin's, is a mix of influences -- a little contemporary folk here, a bit of George Jones over there -- but throughout Sawbones, the common reference point is a Stones-style injection of acoustic rock with a harder electric element.
This isn't innocuous folkie rock, either; Shea isn't afraid to rave up on cuts like the title track, which is the most Stonesy song on the album, or "Emperor of the North," which manages to be a celebration of, and a poking-fun at, the kind of superstar ego that Americana songwriters like Shea have tended to avoid (at least partly because we tend not to make superstars of Americana songwriters). All but one of the 13 cuts here were penned by Shea, and the sole exception -- an acoustic cover of Lefty Frizell's "Saginaw Michigan" -- finds him reaching into the Nashville tradition, which is one of the record's prime progenitors.
Make that Nashville songwriting, though, not production. For while Sawbones is mixed for maximum clarity of all instruments, this isn't a "slick" record by any shot. The swagger-walk through blues, country, folk-rock and roots-rock Shea performs here is a stripped-down, old Fender tube-amp variety. It's the sound you'd get if you invited all your talented friends over with their instruments, so you could hang around and try out a few Creedence covers with the new Silvertone guitar you just bought.
Rick Shea pulls it off better than we would, of course. The mossy, it-came-from-the-home-country approach bears out remarkably well over the course of the entire disc, which itself sustains a number of heavy songs; most of the 13 cuts here run between four and five minutes. But Shea never gets bogged down in roots stylistics just for the sake of it, which is what makes Sawbones such a treat for folk-rock fans, who may not have heard many records this edgy.
Roots-rock and Americana aficionados will enjoy it for the music, which is consistent and strong without a slip. If the lyrical content on Sawbones often seems a bit too predictable (especially, and unfortunately, on the album's leadoff track, "Black Eyed Girl"), that might be a result of this being only Shea's third solo outing in a decade. It might also be that Shea's forerunners are so obvious here, and the playing techniques he learned from them so well-executed, that it's hard to listen to Sawbones without hearing, say, Cosmo's Factory in some little pocket of your head at the same time, which is undoubtedly unfair. Sawbones has a great deal of genuine life in its marrow, when you get right down in it.
RICK SHEA – SAWBONES – WAGON WHEEL RECORDS ARC 7-18042 (BERTUS)
Rick Shea is de gitarist by Dave Alvin's backingband The Guilty Men, en in die functie ook aanwezig op Alvin's ‘Public Domain'. Op die toch wat matige plaat bleef hij wat in de scha-duw van Alvin, en kreeg niet echt de kans een grote indruk te maken.
Zijn recente solo-worp ‘Sawbones' is echter niet het zoveelste overbodige plaatje van een side-man. In de openingstrack ‘Black eyed girl' wordt er funky-stompend afgetrapt voor een plaat die er best mag wezen. De produktie van Cody Bryant is sappig en zit snor. Shea's stem is een vage samensmelting van het timbre van Eric Andersen en Jimmie Dale Gilmore (‘Saginaw Michigan') en als gitarist komt hij knap rootsy uit de hoek. Naast Dave Alvin die op enkele nummers leadgitaar
speelt, is ook Katy Moffatt van de partij als muzikale gaste.
Blijft enkel nog de vraag hoe het zit met zijn songs ? Dit is misschien wel de sterkste troef van Shea. Van de 13 num-mers is er geen enkel ondermaats. Er zitten voldoende uit-schieters in deze collectie om de plaat een eigen gezicht te geven. Zo kunnen ‘Lonesome cannonball', ‘Walking to Jerusalem' of ‘Still Water' naast het werk van Alvin staan. Alles is erg stijlvol en rootsy gespeeld (luister maar naar het bezwerende ‘Still water') zodat deze Sawbones een aangename luistertrip is tot aan het frisse instrumentale ‘ Mosquito' en afsluiter ‘Camellia'. U mag mij (ten onrechte) van stemmingmakerij ver-denken, maar als ik moest kiezen tussen Alvin's ‘Public Domain' en deze ‘Sawbones', zou ik zonder twijfel voor deze pretentielozere maar betere plaat van Rick Shea kiezen.
Knap werkstuk ! Dirk De Bruyn.
Honky Tonk, Sawdust and Sawbones
Spend any time exploring Southern California's roots-music circles and one name you'll encounter repeatedly is that of Rick Shea. He's quietly and consistently sidestepped the cheesier bands making the rounds in favor of playing with substantive artists such as Chris Gaffney, Rosie Flores, Katy Moffatt, and current boss Dave Alvin, and is acknowledged as one of the genuine good guys on the scene. A frequent solo performer at Ronnie Mack's Barndance before it withdrew from weekly circulation, Shea can regularly be seen entertaining the margarita-chugging cowboy crowd at Burbank's Viva Fresh with a country-rock lineup or harmonizing with hard-country belter Patty Booker in the tight confines of Culver City's Cinema Bar, often with fiddler Brantley Kearns providing eloquent accompaniment.
Shea's been playing clubs and honky-tonks like this ever since he got his start covering Merle, Buck, Hank and Lefty on the gritty truckstop circuit around San Bernardino 20 years ago. It may seem like there's little justice for such musicians who find their reward in playing the music they love, especially since other denizens of the SoCal scene (Flores, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, Gary Allan) have moved on to Nashville and starrier renown. But Shea's apparently happy with his life and career. And his years of quiet good work are slowly paying off. His recently released disc Sawbones is garnering fine notices, and he's increasingly commended in national reviews for his guitar and steel playing in Alvin's Guilty Men band. Still, despite the high regard of peers and critical acclaim for all three of his solo albums, Shea continues to be best known for supporting other well-respected artists -- thanks partly to the very humility that makes his solo work so beautiful.
Shea's appeal to fellow musicians may not be immediately evident to casual onlookers. His demeanor is warm but unassuming, his voice sincere not booming, his physical presence calm and reassuring rather than flashy; he observes rather than confronts. But it's those ego-less qualities that make him such a valued songwriter, harmony partner and sideman.
"The idea of him being a support player -- that's with a capital 'S,'" says Katy Moffatt, who first asked Shea to back her at an outdoor concert on the recommendation of longtime friend Greg Leisz. She says the experience of playing with Shea at shows and on her 1999 album Loose Diamond strengthened her own musicianship: "Because he's such an intelligent player, but he's so instinctually right on, too...It's a rare combination. And of course he's so versatile; he plays so many instruments so well."
Shea's sensitive multi-instrumental contributions to Loose Diamond came about thanks to his ongoing work with Alvin (who produced the album), who also recruited Shea to play on Christy McWilson's recent Alvin-produced disc The Lucky One. Not long after, the two men headed into the studio to record Public Domain with the rest of the Guilty Men. Alvin then laid down lead guitar tracks on two of the edgier songs on Sawbones, "Lonesome Cannonball" and the bluesy "Piedmont Ridge."
Recorded in 15 days, Sawbones is a strong, rootsy blend of folk, country, twanging honky-tonk, and good songwriting, seasoned with Celtic and blues flourishes. It's at once moodier and tougher than Shea's first two albums (1995's The Buffalo Show and last year's Shaky Ground ), and demonstrates Shea's keenly perceptive gifts as a musician and songwriter. He co-wrote the somewhat spooky "Still Water" with Jann Browne, and collaborated with keyboardist Wyman Reese (of Gaffney's Cold Hard Facts) on "Emperor of the North," a free-spirited ode to railroad hobo "Guitar Whitey" Symmonds. The ballad "Magdalena" was a co-write with J. Moyeda -- Shea's mother-in-law, with whom he also collaborated on some songs for The Buffalo Show. It's indicative of the way family life helps keep him grounded amidst the vagaries of his unpredictable profession.
"On 'Magdalena,' I had the song pretty much written and I wanted to have the Spanish part," Shea explains, "so I think I just called her on the phone and talked to her and said what I needed and kind of played the song and the melody and I think she just gave me the words right back. That one was real easy."
When Shea decided to goose Sawbones with something fun, he pulled together "bits and pieces" he'd had laying around to create the title tune. ("I have tapes and tapes layin' around of just guitar little noodling things that I kind of save and listen to and work from from time to time.") The song's loose-limbed feel is not unlike Alvin's treatment of "Walk Right In" on Public Domain. Shea acknowledges connections between the two genre-jumping albums.
"Absolutely," he says. "Just in the approach, recording some of them. I was kind of warmed up from working on Dave's album, and had even worked on an album or two before that -- we worked on Christy McWilson's album. So just some things about acoustic guitar and some of the things that we'd been doin' on Dave's album. We used like a high-strung acoustic guitar a lot on some of the stuff and I brought that along and used that. Just general stuff, though; nothing real specific."
Sawbones as a whole has more edge than Shea's previous records, but interestingly, Shea says that wasn't a result of Alvin's influence; almost half of the songs were recorded before he began "working regular" with the former Blaster.
"There were about six songs that were complete," he says, "and most of the songs were written. I wrote one new one and finished up about two songs right about the time we were starting the album."
One of those new songs is "Walking to Jerusalem," whose waltzing cadences and serene message were inspired by the death of Alvin's father.
"He was going through it and I was talking to him a lot, almost every day," Shea recalls, "and his dad had sort of a small accident and then being in the hospital just kind of complicated things. He just kind of went through the process and I was just kind of thinking about it at the time, a lot...
"I don't know, if it [the record] has a harder edge, [it's because] I intended it to have more electric guitar. When we did the album with Gary [Mandell], The Buffalo Show, we stuck to a lot of acoustic instruments and tried to make it as much of a folk album as we could. We weren't as concerned about that with this album, although we used a lot of acoustic instruments."
One of those instruments is Don Heffington's bodhran; the former Lone Justice drummer's "Irish skin drum" gives Shea's ballad "Deep Within the Well" (featuring Moffatt's piercing harmonies) a lovely Celtic flavor that's unexpected. Then again, Shea's music really is as much folk as country, despite his stone-country reputation.
"I think there's a lot of different influences [in my music] because I listen to a lot of different stuff," he says. "The country music that developed and came from California, I've always been a huge fan of that, and it's a big part of the background of where I've learned all of this, just from playing in places and playing the honky-tonks and bars. It's a big part of my background, but it's never been just the primary thing...I just kind of tend to follow the songs. They seem to want to be a certain thing, and I just kind of try to stay on track with that, I guess."
That devotion to the song is at the heart of his appeal to fellow musicians. It doesn't hurt that his natural understanding of musical idioms is matched by his willingness to tweak genre conventions.
"There's so many things about Rick as a musician and a person, I almost don't know where to start," says Moffatt. "He's so present, for one thing. There's nothing spaced out about this man. He's very, very in the moment. He has a very immediate kind of ability to go straight to the most appropriate place, musically, for whatever particular song or particular performance that a song requires."
"He's not afraid to try anything," says Patty Booker, who's been doing shows with Shea for years and had him play on her album I Don't Need All That. "He doesn't get too upset if someone makes a mistake or something. He likes to have fun doing it...It's always really fun [singing with him]. I feel like Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and George Jones, or Helen Cornelius and Jim Ed Brown. Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner. When Rick and I get together to do duets, it's like sometimes there's a line I don't remember, he does, and the line that he doesn't remember, I do."
Booker and Shea have been talking about recording an album of country duets, but so far, Shea says ruefully, "We've hardly even had time even to spend together workin' on anything. I think we both want to. Maybe we'll get lucky and start to find time and start to make it happen."
For now, it'll have to take a back seat to their individual solo projects and busy family commitments (Shea and wife Sue have two teenage sons).
"He's not afraid to turn down a gig because he's got an anniversary coming up, or something like that with his wife," Booker says. "I admire that in him. He's a very well-rounded fellow. When Rick's not writing songs or up onstage singin', he's out campin' with his kids and his wife or [something]. I hope he keeps writing songs -- I love his songwriting."
Shea says he first started to get an idea of what makes a song work back when he was playing the truckstops. Now, he determines a song's worth by the "emotional connection" it forges with listeners, and whether it makes them "look at something in a different way."
Something else he seems to have taken away from those years along the truckstop route is an appreciation of his blessings -- namely, that he's made a life doing what he loves. Many players bitch and moan about playing club gigs for 50 bucks a night after they've toured the country with famous names, but Shea insists those nights playing for 30 drunks in some local dive are as meaningful as gigs performing for 300 in a concert hall.
"They all can be quite satisfying and fun and worthwhile in their own way," he says. "The shows with Dave are great. We get to play some great places. But going out and playing songs for a few hours with the guys that I play with around here, I mean, you get to put in more time, it's a little looser, if there's a good crowd and a little bit of audience response -- nah, it's every bit as satisfying. And most guys I think would probably tell you that, too."
FREEFORM AMERICAN ROOTS CHART REAL MUSIC PLAYED FOR REAL PEOPLE BY REAL DJs
FAR #77 (DEC 2005)
FAR & AWAY: BEST OF 2005
This Month Last Month Album
1 15 Nancy Apple & Rob McNurlin: River Road or Rail (Ringo) *DB/*JD/*RH/*T&J/*TA
2 1 Bobby Earl Smith: Turn Row Blues (Muleshoe) *CS
3 2 Blaze Foley: Wanted More Dead Than Alive (Waddell Hollow) *CP/*DO/*NA
4 9 Merle Haggard: Chicago Wind (Capitol) *OO/*TR/*WR
5 7 Martí Brom Sings Heartache Numbers (Goofin’ [Finland]) *DT/*JP
6 3 VA: For A Decade Of Sin (Bloodshot) *RV
7 - Lauren Sheehan: Two Wings (Wilson River) *JA/*TG
8 8 Rick Shea & The Losing End: Bound For Trouble (Tres Pescadores) *FS
9 - VA: Our New Orleans 2005 (Nonesuch) *B&C/*TJ
10 14 Hank Thompson: My Personal Favorites (Thompson Enterprises) *BP
11 11 Dale Watson: Heeah!! (Continental Song City/Koch) *LB