J.R. Shore at the Calgary Folk Festival
In an industry where independent musicians have to rely on overexposure, bugging venues for gigs, using YouTube to upload every version of a new song, the notion of retaining a little mystery might be seen as a career-killer.
On the other hand, holding back a little might actually make people want more. That’s J.R. Shore’s philosophy as he approaches working in the roots music scene of Calgary and its surrounding region. “I want people always wanting more,” he told me. “One of the folks who inspires me a lot is Tom Waits…for years played his ass off, I’m sure. But he’s at a point in his career now where he might tour every two years and play ten dates and they’ll sell out in five minutes. He has mastered the art of leaving people wanting more. Now I recognize that he took his lumps and I’ll take my lumps too but I want to keep performances very special.”
And special they will be. After spending some time in Nashville in order to hone his craft, the native Calgarian returned home with refined songwriting skills and a newfound appreciation for the music and culture of the American South. “It was really the roots of American music that sung out to me. I figured what I needed to do was go down there, take it all in. It breathes a very rich musical history. I spent a couple years playing and listening. I wanted to think about every word I wrote, every bridge.”
Shore has high standards for himself as a musician, and has achieved a higher level of competency and seriousness in his writing from the time spent in Nashville. “I remember just before I left, I looked at the Alberta Music Series, which is a yearly series that they do and I said I want to be on that lineup. And when I came back, these things started falling into place.”
The first of those things were two consecutive wins for “The Grandest View”and “Southward” (with partner Christina Ellerbeck) at the 2007 Songwriting Competition hosted by the Calgary Folk Festival. “I’d never won anything, never been recognized…and all of a sudden came back to Calgary, entered these two songs,” he said. “The first night of the competition, one of them wins and I’m blown away. The second night, the next one wins, and that was overwhelming. From that point to this point, which is being booked as a full-fledged performer on the island, it’s been a very magical experience for me.”
Even though they only came together to rehearse for the festival on Thursday, Shore trusted his bandmates and knew the chemistry between them would ensure great performances over the weekend. He also wanted to propagate the changing vision of folk music that the festival continues to recognize every year. The last song the band played for their history-themed workshop was The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” “In the mid-60s they toured with Dylan, and because they were electric and they had a drummer, they got booed off of every stage because they weren’t ‘folk,’” said Shore. “So, there we were playing with the Sunparlour Players, Frank Turner, Chris Gheran, and us, maybe there’s a folk artist if you put all of us together. You might find one true folk artist. But what’s folk music today? The Band proved that back then and we’re living it now.”
Shore has a new album out, barely a week old, that he’ll be promoting on tour throughout Western Canada in the coming weeks. On Talkin’ On a Bus, he mixes stripped-down acoustic folk , a Waits-like sensibility in his use of horns and piano, and sweet harmonies and aggressive guitar licks that are reminiscent of early Wilco. The album is available on his website, itunes, and CDbaby.