Alice Wallace and Rick Shea Play A Living Tradition in California Country
When singer-songwriters Alice Wallace and Rick Shea shared a bill at The Living Tradition Series in Anaheim, California last Saturday night, they were only 20 miles south of what was once a Mecca of country music in Compton, California where the Town Hall Party was broadcast on radio and television, Saturday nights during the 50s and 60s.
Newcomer singer-songwriter, Alice Wallace and veteran songwriter and solo artist Rick Shea-both based in Southern California-brought out what was best about those years of Saturday night country-western music celebrations as they performed originals and interpretations of songs by artists like Hank Williams and Patsy Montana.
Both entertained, informed and inspired as they performed with uncommon skill leaving the audience with what must have been a similar good feeling from those long-ago Saturday nights.
Indeed, this was an intimate country show to be reckoned with as a part of The Living Tradition, an organization dedicated to traditional roots music and dance. There is a nice symmetry to these two local artists. They are a reminder that the southland has long been a haven for some fine country music. Along with the Town Hall Party, the Palomino club in North Hollywood, the South Bay’s Sweetwater and Doug Weston’s Troubadour in Los Angeles hosted legends like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Wanda Jackson. In the 80s, Dwight Yoakam and The Desert Rose Band launched their careers here. It was in the L.A. area that Johnny Cash pushed his recording career forward in the early days of his Columbia recordings and his seminal California based San Quentin and Folsom Prison shows that spawned two of the best albums in country music history. And that’s not even mentioning the two central California legends, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.
Last Saturday evening’s show, according to the producer, came together at the last minute, it couldn’t have been better staged with seamless continuity. With Rick Shea representing the old school of California songwriters and young Alice Wallace on the road to certain fame and success, the show seemed framed in its own sweetheart-country music feel that could easily have played to a capacity crowd in Austin or Nashville.
So, it was in keeping with the southland’s formidable country music credentials that Rick Shea took to the stage-bass guitar and vocal support by Dave hall-and led the audience through a series of songs that painted word portraits of the wind-blown, dusty side of the Southern California psyche. At times it felt like we were thumbing through the pages of a lost volume by Steinbeck or gazing into the lonely eyes of those black & white photographs of Dust Bowl refugees. On more recent tunes like “Mexicali Train,” “Sweet Bernadine,” and “Mariachi Hotel,” Shea conjured up the intuitive story-in-song tradition of Merle Haggard and Woody Guthrie with well-crafted tales laced in poetry, lyricism and a definitive feel of the Mexican influence inherent in California’s southland. With a keen eye on the romance and despair in the ordinary stories of lost souls of the land, Shea stripped away the common stereotypes of the California experience in favor of a distinctive and well-defined universal human experience played out in song and story. He also managed to pay homage to influences like Jimmie Rodgers on “Steady Driving Man” with some fine yodeling, accompanied by his own skilled artfully placed acoustic lead solos. This was followed by an easy blues-soaked, haunted rendition of Hank Williams’ “Honky-Tonk Blues.”
Shea’s storytelling, songwriting and performing skills place him in the tradition alongside the finest California roots singer-songwriters of the last 40 years including Dave Alvin, Tom Russell and John Stewart.
It doesn’t take long after Alice Wallace takes the stage to realize we are hearing an exciting new talent to the world of roots music. As she gently and humorously tells her stories of the road and touring over the last three years and the songs that tie-in, it is clear she carries a presence and charisma that is inviting and charming. It’s the kind of stuff stars are made of in her vocal skill and her engaging rapport with the audience. Her songwriting, vocal and performing ability make her a triple threat of talent. Her influences are drawn from the country-rock of the 60s and 70s. But, just to make it clear, she tells only half-jokingly, that she was raised by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris-her parents are music fans and her father is a singer-songwriter.
Wallace’s songs come out of her experience as she tells her own stories of the road. A fine example is “Luck, Texas,” describes a honky-tonk near Willie Nelson’s town of Luck. The song musically references the feel of Willie’s “Redheaded Stranger,” as it concludes with her experience driving through the south west sweating ‘buckets of memories, music and pride.’
The heartbreak song from her debut album, “Always” was a stand-out performance of a great song. A song which could easily cross-over to into a pop-chart hit, with a tear in her voice she sings of the vulnerabilities of intimate relationships and the risks involved with an appealing rhythmic melody, the theme is subtle, touching and memorable. When she added the final(cut) verse that opened with the lines, “Now, it’s just us two alone in the dark/Your fingers are in my hair but reaching for my heart,” it is revealed as a song about the grace found in vulnerability.
The highlight of the evening was Wallace’s display of her yodeling talent. Her story of learning the near-forgotten vocal skill reflects the nature of an artist willing to take chances. The payoff is big. Her interpretation of the Patsy Montana song, “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” reinvented the original and upped the ante, driving the Western Swing side of the song harder as she managed to speed up the yodel to a staggering and blissful finale.
With Americana-roots concerts an all too rare experience in the Orange County-Los Angeles area, an evening with these two artists proved to be entertaining, engaging, and enriching reminding Southern California audiences of the currents of our past common migration flow from the South to the Southland and generation to generation. The show brought back to life the historic days of Town Hall Party; a welcome respite in these divisive times. Thanks to series like this one offered by The Living Tradition, and artists like Rick Shea and Alice Wallace, this legacy of great country music in California continues to live on.