Rick Shea – Moving up from the side
Inevitably in every sideman’s career comes a moment when he finds it necessary to step 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 in the fringes on projects for Cody Bryant, Chris Gaffney, Katy Moffatt, Heather Myles, Christy McWilson and, most recently, 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 singer-songwriter has issued an album of inspired clarity and tasteful maturity that should attract the kind of attention normally given to bandleaders.
Sawbones, on the WagonWheel/AIM label, absolutely sparkles between the grooves. Shea’s guitars (nylon string, acoustic slide, electric) and mandolin, his clear baritone, and his solid song arrangements place his tunes squarely between the then and now of American heartland music. Think early John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and country Nick Lowe, and you’re just about there.
There’s also not one flashy or excessively 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 a ‘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 Buffalo in 1997, but you’d never know it by the way they fit with the newer songs. That’s 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 one place,” Shea says.
Does that mean there’s a mystical aspect to what he does? “In a way, when I’m performing these songs, I guess so. The frame of mind that you put yourself in, it is a different frame of mind than the day-to-day business frame of mind. There’s a lot to pay attention to when you’re performing that’s 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 listen and pay attention, in as many different ways 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 collection 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 — it’s just a window to that time. That was somebody sitting in a room performing, making an emotional statement, trying to make a connection. 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 it’s 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 that we meet,” he says. “The people this music appeals to that come out to these shows are the people I like to hang with anyhow. It’s 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 now 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.