March 22, 2011 - Rock icon Tommy Shaw releases his debut Bluegrass album today. “The Great Divide” was a genuine labor of love for this Montgomery, Alabama native, and he approached it with careful sensitivity. "Because it was my first time creating a body of bluegrass songs," explains Shaw, "I wanted to be respectful to the form, not be the Rock Guy coming in like a bull in a China shop and saying 'Let me show ya'll how this is done...'”
He succeeded, and then some. The songs speak for themselves, with each one telling a unique story (see the end of this write-up for more info about each track in Tommy's own words). He has put his heart and soul into “The Great Divide,” and the result is a classic bluegrass album. The title track is “emotional dynamite,” and should come with a warning label that you’ll need a box (or two) of tissues to dry your eyes after listening. “I knew it was going to be about finding old letters which were “like a message ‘cross the great divide,” says Shaw, “but because we were working on probably a dozen songs by then, I was having a hard time focusing on getting the final story laid out in the limited number of lines and verses. Brad (Brad Davis, one of the producers of the album) suggested a writer named Paula Breedlove whom he’d worked with before, who he thought would know just what to do. He called her, and she and I spoke about how I envisioned the story and we sent her an MP3 of the music track. The next day, she emailed us the lyrics and I printed them out. By the time I walked downstairs to the studio, I had tears running down my cheeks. I was a little embarrassed and waited while Brad finished what he was working on to hand him the sheet. He read them. He looked up, and now his eyes were red. What was happening to us? We immediately called Paula and all had a good little laughing/crying session and cheered for the incredible job she’d done turning this scenario into a beautiful love story lyric. What a gifted lady!”
Paula was honored to be involved. “Writing the lyrics for “The Great Divide” was an opportunity of a lifetime for me,” she says, “and I’ll be forever grateful to Tommy Shaw for trusting me with that beautiful melody. I was already a long time fan of both Tommy and Alison Krauss (who sings harmony vocals on the song), and just knowing that if I could get it right, it would be recorded by them was quite a bit of pressure, but as soon as I heard that awesome track, the story just seemed to unfold for me. When Tommy said he loved what I had done, it was one of those precious moments in life that you never forget."
There are many more gems like this one on the album. If you buy only one new CD this year (or record, since it’s available on vinyl, too), I highly recommend picking up “The Great Divide.” And keep a box of tissues handy for that title track.
- Kathy Wagner
Here are Tommy’s thoughts on the album (courtesy of www.TheComet.com):
The Next Right Thing:
“The Next Right Thing” was actually a part of a phrase, our mantra, when we started creating this album. Brad and I were looking at how we might frame the entire project. What kinds of parameters should we follow? Because it was my first time creating a body of bluegrass songs, I wanted to be respectful to the form, not be the Rock Guy coming in like a bull in a China shop and saying “Let me show y’all how this is done…” So early on I said, “If we just keep doing the next right thing, we can’t go wrong.” We said it every day. It wasn’t long before I realized, “This is the title to a song.” Not long after that, as luck would have it, I picked up a guitar and out came the verse, then the chorus. Serendipity. Oh, and that voice you hear singing with me on the chorus? That’s Dwight Yoakam.
Back In Your Kitchen:
The kitchen is where people are naturally drawn to congregate. It’s primal. But in relationships the kitchen is more important than you might think. If a woman is beautiful, there’s no doubt she will be admired and desired. If that same woman can cook, she becomes a deity. It’s almost too much for mortal man. Southern cooking, which masters like Paula Dean like to refer to as “Comfort Food,” has a casual earthiness to it, and turns a kitchen into a den of culinary seduction that can change your brain chemistry just by being in its midst, whether you grew up in the South or have found your way there one way or another in your travels. I don’t care if you are a food snob or if you are a junk food addict, the smell of cobblers or pecan pies being placed next to chicken and dumplings, with cornbread and fried okra on the table in front of you will make an honorary Southerner out of you. Have that being prepared by the female object of your desire and you are helpless to resist. You will do whatever is required of you to make sure you don’t lose your place at the table. Southern women have a uniquely feminine charm, but don’t mistake that for frailty or weakness. They know the power they wield with a smile and a pan of home-made muffins and you will do whatever it takes to get back there every chance you get. When I met my wife Jeanne in Nashville back when I was with Damn Yankees, I was taken in by her beauty and big personality, but when I found out what a great cook she was, I knew I had to get to courting and get it right. In other words, whatever I had to do to get back in her kitchen again.
As the songs began to take shape and the list grew, the album began to play like a radio station in my head. It awakened the storyteller in me, and one tale that had a big impact on me was one I remember my daddy telling me when I was little. Daddy said he was just about my age (I was 8 years old at the time ) when his father took him out on a job, following the lumber camps through the pine forests up in northern Alabama as a camp manager. He was given the job as water boy, making sure the crew could always get a cup of fresh water to help deal with the sweltering summer days. One day a man wasn’t paying attention and walked into the path of the big swing saw that cuts the tree trunks, and it almost cut him in two. He took a couple of steps toward my father and fell down dead in front of him. After I had the whole song written and recorded, it occurred to me that even when Daddy and I would go fishing, he’d always take along the big one gallon metal Thermos filled with ice water, that he kept on his Gas Company truck during the week. I had never connected these dots before, so I went back and rewrote the final verse. Bluegrass is such a wonderful style of music for telling stories. Even a tragic tale like this can have an upbeat refrain. I love it.
The Great Divide”
A lot of this album is about reliving times in the back seat of our family car, leaning over the front and listening to the music on the radio. This was just before the Beatles came to America, and there was a great variety of music you could hear on a single station which might include gospel, country hits, movie theme songs, pop songs, etc. It was always dramatic when a melodic 3/4 time song would be mixed in. I didn’t understand the musical mechanism until years later, but I could definitely feel it. As the song list grew for “The Great Divide” album, I sat down one day with the intention of writing something in 3/4 time. I hit record, and started playing around, and within a few bars the verses and melody for “The Great Divide” came along. This felt like an old friend. Next came the little turnaround and that melody too. And at the end of it out came the words, “Like a message, ‘cross the great divide…” A chill went up my spine. I knew I was onto something.
The next time Brad came back in town I played it for him and he had the same reaction. We cut a demo of it with a sketch of la-la-la lyrics and phrases that showed the melody and moved on. Eventually we were almost ready to go to record the Nashville sessions and I still had not written the verses. Brad suggested Paula Breedlove, a lyricist friend of his who lived in Ohio. “This is right in her wheelhouse,” he said. So we called her. I gave her an idea of what the story was and we sent her our demo in an MP3. The next day she sent me the lyric sheet and man did she nail it! I had tears in my eyes as I walked from (my wife) Jeanne‘s office over to the studio and waited for Brad to finish what he was doing at the recording desk. He took one look at me and my watery eyes, and I just handed him the lyric sheet. Next thing you know here we were, two grown men all teared up over these words. We immediately set up a vocal mic and I started to sing. On the demo I had sung what sounded to Brad like a bit of a yodel, goofing around, and he said, “We’re keeping that, Hoss!” I fought him but he insisted. Now there was a lyric and it actually sounded okay. It was complete. I’d played my friend Alison Krauss some of the songs to see if there was anything she might feel like singing backgrounds on. She chose this one. I still think it was a good excuse to come over and hang out with Jeanne, because as soon as she cut her tracks, they were off to the lounge to catch up. Of course she was all business when it came to singing, and it’s impossible to describe being on the other side of the glass when she’s out there adding her angelic voice to your song, then a harmony track, making it a three part refrain.
Shadows In The Moonlight:
Gary Burr may have been born in Connecticut, but you’d think he was from the hills somewhere south of the Mason Dixon line when it comes to the language of Southerners. He’s been in Nashville long enough now that he is every bit a Southern poet as he is a beloved songwriter. He’s also my friend. We had tried a few ideas on this particular day and suddenly this song popped its head up. He sang that first line and immediately we wanted to hear the rest of this story. It went from a couple of guys sitting around, kind of lost in thought, to both of us feverishly writing lyrics. We decided the couple in the song had to run away at night across state lines, and that usually means crossing a river. We knew the part of the country they were in but couldn’t recall the name of the river up by the Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio borders, so I went to the computer and found a map. “You’re not gonna believe this,” I told Gary. “The Big Sandy River.” It was musical just saying it out loud. Travelling at night by the light of the full moon, we could envision the shadows they cast. We thought about writing an epilogue verse but decided it was much better as a cliff hanger. Who shot whom? What happened to them? You be the judge!
Get On The One:
This song started with the riff, the instrumental phrase, at the very beginning. I don’t remember if I wrote it on mandolin or guitar, but as soon as I played it the song came along. Every so often in life we end up at a crossroads. A train station is that and then some. If you know you’re leaving but don’t know which way to go, that’s a dilemma. But there’s that voice of reason inside you that really does know, and if you listen closely, you might just hear it. The ticket agent in this song tries to give the troubled traveler some friendly advice, which quickly become his very own words of wisdom. I guess you could say this song is about making the choice that’s gonna take you in the right direction, that puts you on the right track. Then you get onboard and ride it ‘til the wheels fall off. It’s never too early to stop being lost! When we were in the Nashville sessions, we added the breakdown section right before we recorded it. I envisioned creating an actual train station in the background, with people coming and going and an announcer calling out the schedules. But in the studio that day it was just a moody open space. I dubbed it “Blue Floyd” in deference to the Pink one and everyone knew exactly what I meant and did a fine job. When we got back to my studio, Will (Evankovich, who produced all my vocals and additional guitar, mandolin and dobro parts) and I created the station, fleshing it out with many layers of sound, carefully placed. If you listen to the destinations being announced, each one has a personal significance. For instance “Niles” refers to Niles, Michigan where I lived for 10 years during the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s. Can you guess what the others mean?
Brad showed up with this gem on our third writing session. It was song No. 3 of my Bluegrass adventure. This was Brad’s song about his father and I liked the idea that it was personal. Umpteen was a term we’d both grown up with, as in “I’ve told you umpteen times not to do that!” In other words, “I’m not sure of the exact number but it feels like a lot!” Because it’s not a word either one of us had ever seen written, we weren’t sure if it was Umpteen or Upteen. I voted for the former. It’s a funny word if you really think about it. It was a turning point for us. I loved it from the beginning. Our first two songs were melodic, the side of Bluegrass that borders on gospel and Americana, but this one was straight up the middle. I joined in the writing process on the third verse to wrap up the story and we were off to cut the writing demo. Brad has years of experience in the Bluegrass world, having played with artists like Marty Stuart and in many incarnations of his own bluegrass projects over the years. He has developed a unique style of his own which he calls “Double Down Up” that baffles just about anyone who ever attempts it. You can hear it first hand in his acoustic guitar solo just before Rob Ickes takes his dobro solo in “The Next Right Thing.” He even has instructional DVDs where he shows you how it’s done. In addition to his guitar work, Brad has spent time in bands as the mandolin player, as the stand up bassist and even does a nice job on the fiddle. He’s a real force of nature and “Umpteen Miles” was an up close realization of what a powerhouse of an artist I was in cahoots with. When we laid down the rhythm track for “Umpteen” as we refer to it, and it was time to sing it, I stepped up to the mic and this voice came out of me that I’d never heard before. I’d heard voices like it all my life but never heard it come out of me. I just rolled with it because it sounded the way I heard this song in my head. It was in a great part of my vocal range and I felt like I’d tapped into a part of my voice that was awakening to these new songs. I’m not one of those singers who does imitations. If you’ve ever heard any of the cover songs I did for fun with Bob Kulic, I still sound like me whether it’s AC/DC or The Moody Blues, so you can imagine my own amusement at this new sound. With solo albums, I’ve always gone with what was in my spirit at the time, no holds barred. Each one is a snapshot of a particular time in my life time, like one of those mosquitoes perfectly preserved in Amber. Some of those snapshots are more flattering than others. That’s life. Whatever that mosquito was going through on that particular day…
And that brings us to “Umpteen Miles…”
There’s no doubt about it, this one’s romantic. This is your soul mate vowing to come running to your rescue and bring an army with them. Who doesn’t want to hear that from the one they love? When you’re writing with someone like Gary Burr, you’d be well advised to pay attention. I was at the desk doing some kind of engineering task and focusing on technical things, which we were taking turns doing during several days of writing. Gary was sitting in a big comfortable chair in the corner playing the jangly little old Martin I traded Gary Loizzo something or other for decades ago. It was a nice little circuit of chords. Next thing I noticed was a melody and the words, “If you need someone to save the day, the Cavalry is on its way…” That was the end of the engineering. A song was being born. We got the pads of paper and the words started flowing. Next thing we knew we had the first two verses and you could feel a middle eight coming. Enter John Wayne. Gary was on a roll. I was thinking of John Wayne movie titles that could maybe close it out – “True Grit?” Not good for rhyming. “Rio Bravo?” I loved that one with Angie Dickinson and Walter Brennan but that was even worse for rhyming. So I looked up a John Wayne filmography and there it was. “Gary, check this out!” “The Man From Monterey.” He was even wearing a cavalry uniform on the movie poster! Serendipity. Again. The song just got better and better the more we played it and especially when we put the background vocals on. And because we only had a few days to get the writing done, we didn’t take much time to flesh out the writing demos. It was the rawest of them all but the song carried its own water. When we got to Nashville, everyone got together and jammed the intro which led to the riff at the very end. It’s such a joyful song you can hear its influence on everyone who played on it.
Afraid To Love:
This album snuck up on me. Brad and I wrote the first song in 2004 and because of our busy schedules it was months before we sat down to write another – “Afraid to Love.” After this one it became clear we were on to something good. What I should clarify is that this is not the story of my childhood. My parents loved each other dearly and stayed together to the very end. My mother still has a twinkle in her eye whenever we talk about Daddy. “Afraid to Love” is a story from the point of view of someone whose parents divorced when they were young. This person is looking back and trying to get some perspective. Just because their parents weren’t cut out for each other it doesn’t mean this is their own fate. It’s bittersweet but feels important since so many marriages have ended in divorce in the last few decades. The central character in the song has taken the stand that despite all that, this won’t prevent them from finding and holding on to what their parents lost. I’ve always loved the term high falutin’ and was very happy when it found its way into this song. It works perfectly describing how marriage has become such a labyrinth of legal posturing that love is often like a pachinko ball which is bounced around so many times that by the time it comes out the other end it might wonder why it ever tried to make its way in the first place. There’s always someone in the news going through it in public. And the more money there is the weirder it seems to get. The fact is, love is very real and real love rules. It overcomes. And it’s worth finding. The person in these lyrics believes it. I do too. When we got to the Nashville sessions, this song came to life bigger than I ever imagined. Everyone embraced it in the way they played. Stuart Duncan‘s brilliant fiddle gave it this Americana feel that reminds me of the music from “Ken Burns: Civil War.” It was thematic yet still felt free-form. Jerry Douglas came later and picked up on what Stuart was doing and doubled him in places and this really put the cherry on top for me. A couple of weeks later when Alison Krauss added her harmony it was done. For all the pitfalls this subject matter may have encountered, the love in the music was the greatest example of how it truly does prevail. And that was the point all along.
Give ‘Em Hell Harry:
Up to this point, Brad (Davis, one of the producers on the album) and I had worked in a vacuum of anonymity. Him and me in my home studio, writing, co-writing, arranging and cutting demo tracks which would later serve as our templates when we took them to the Nashville sessions. No one except (my wife) Jeanne and a couple of people in our office in Atlanta had any idea what we were up to. Everything was new and rough but we were chipping away at the big stone that held our statue somewhere beneath and we were getting somewhere. There came a night when Jeanne was having some of her favorite friends over and they were in the house enjoying each other’s company when we emerged from our cave to join them for dinner. They are all in the business in one way or another. One with ASCAP, one a singer, one a wardrobe designer in the movies and so on. They are some very smart and funny take-no-prisoners ladies and had Brad and me howling as we enjoyed some dinner and distraction from the depths we had plumbed by this time. As we pushed away from the feast someone asked, “Can we hear something?” It seemed like it was probably time to get some feedback and these women all understood what this part of the creative process was like so we didn’t have to issue the usual disclaimers. Their reactions, after being somewhat startled that it was bluegrass, was so enthusiastically positive, Brad and I were a little bit stunned when they went back in the house. We just sat there, looked at each other, looked around and looked at each other again and before we could say anything, Jeanne stuck her head back in and said, “You should do a John Prine kind of song,” then stepped back out, closed the door and Brad and I went back to looking at each other and shaking our heads, like, “What just happened?” Now, I don’t usually respond very well to suggestions about what I should write about. It doesn’t work that way, but Jeanne knows me so well, and we are both big fans of John Prine and have met him and love him even more since that happened. So when she said that, a song immediately began to play in my head. I grabbed a pencil and a pad of paper. I’d just finished David McCullough‘s “Truman” and I figured if there was anything I knew a lot about at the time it was Harry Truman. But at the same time I felt a John Prine muse giving that story a twist. Pages flowed while Brad was setting up mics. About 30 minutes later I called Jeanne back and played her the first draft of “Give ‘Em Hell Harry.” I wasn’t sure what had happened but there was now a spoken word song in the bunch. It went through some rewrites but the basic story was there. Later on when I re-cut it for the album with Will Evankovich, he took a photo of me in front of all the lyrics, which is in the booklet in the CD package. We did one more rewrite after that but this will give you an idea what happens when you try to condense a story like that into a four minute song. Months later I sent Mr. McCullough an MP3 and a thank you note for inspiring me, despite the fact that my version swerves in and out of the fact and fiction lanes as it goes along. He sent me a nice note back and said, “He loved it.” My favorite line is Harry’s somewhat OCD observation of Stalin at Potsdam.
Warning to students: Don’t rely on this for a book report or essay on Harry Truman...