.Virgil Shaw: Country songs that illuminate the heart

Songwriter, singer and guitarist Virgil Shaw loves all kinds of music, but it was the old-time sounds his parents used to play at home that influenced his taste. “My mom and dad are folkies,” he said. “They’re not professionals but, when I was a kid, they played retro Dust-Bowl tunes in the living room with friends and neighbors. Our car was a 1931 Ford sedan, and the old-time music went with it. I listened to my dad’s stack of 45s and his rock, country and folk albums from the ’50s. They informed my own musical development.”

During his long musical career, Shaw has played all kinds of music. “I didn’t write many songs for the first band I was in; I just played guitar and sang harmonies,” he said. “My next band had a country flavor to it, like X or the Blasters. On my solo albums and tours, I played with a band. I wrote the songs, but my philosophy was to include all the members in the production and putting together the arrangements. Along the way, I began moving away from rock into a more folky, country style of songwriting. That’s where I am now.”

Shaw’s latest album, At the Time I Didn’t Care, was released last month. It sounds like a classic country album from the late ’50s or early ’60s. A small gathering of musicians, led by the album’s producer, Sonny Smith—of Sonny and the Sunsets—augments Shaw’s understated singing and acoustic-guitar picking with atmospheric shadings that bring his eerie, poetic lyrics and haunting melodies to vibrant life.

“New Mid County Fair” opens the set, with Shaw’s galloping acoustic-guitar rhythm and a reserved vocal lamenting the loneliness of a life lived alone and unloved. The title track describes a relationship that’s ending before the singer is prepared to let go. Henry Nagle’s crying steel guitar intensifies Shaw’s broken-hearted vocal, as he dreams of running his fingers through his lover’s hair one last time. “Nightclub Killer,” an ironic look at the life of a touring band, contains an unexpected twist in its storyline and a backing track that sounds as if it’s broadcasting from an early-’60s country-music radio station.

The closing track, “Hummingbird,” is a hallucinogenic narrative—a talking blues that tells a story of a musician exploring the hidden recesses of his own insecurities. It channels the spirit of George Jones, the truck-driving tunes of country singer Red Sovine and the sprawling fiction of authors like Philip K. Dick. Henry Nagle plays an aching, distressed pedal-steel melody, supported by Rusty Miller’s subtle drumming, to lay the foundation for Shaw’s disconcerting tale, as it builds to an unexpected conclusion. “I’ve played this song for a long time, winging it and filling it in with whatever’s going on at the moment,” Shaw said. “It’s always interesting, because I never know where it’s going to land. This time I wrote out the story, so I wouldn’t be sleepwalking through the performance. Henry composed the evolving melody on the spot and transformed it, sonically, into something surprising.”

The songs on the album all deal with the feelings of loss and alienation one feels when life isn’t going according to plan. It’s easy to imagine them as metaphors for the last two years of lockdown and disruption. Shaw said they were written before Covid was a reality. “I know there’s dark stuff on the album,” he said. “Some songs are all about lovers failing to connect. I use a collage of fiction and autobiography, trying to make sense of the big questions in life. Why do we get out of bed in the morning and keep at it? In my cathartic darkness, I’m always looking for an optimistic conclusion.”

The album was recorded just as the lockdown started. “We masked up and recorded the music in one room, all together, cordoned off and behind sound baffles. It was exciting, because we all used to hang out together, so it was like an ominous reunion,” Shaw said. “I don’t think there was a vaccine yet, so there was some apprehension in the air, but everyone’s still healthy. We were pretty formal about keeping our distance and keeping the masks on.

“I hadn’t recorded in a long time. I forgot how hard it is, even in ideal situations. It’s a difficult process, but making art is always difficult. I spend a lot of time on the melodies and lyrics, making sure there’s a strong backbone to the music, but it’s hard to reflect on the songs when I’m recording. It was good to have Sonny there, telling me to stop pushing too hard, to relax on the vocals and get into the mood of the lyrics. If one approach didn’t work, we’d record it again. They’re my melodies, but Sonny and Henry Nagle—who played steel and guitar—put together the arrangements. I’ve been playing the songs live, with a band, but if my approach didn’t work, we’d take it at a different rhythm and try different things until we got a good take.”

Shaw said the Covid shutdown didn’t have a major effect on his creativity. “There have always been moments of my life where I’ve changed my approach,” he said. “For a long time, I did oil paintings. During Covid, I wrote hundreds of jokes and put them on voice memos, thinking of making a fictitious ‘Live on Stage’ comedy album. I want to keep completing projects and moving on to new things, exploring different concepts, musically and lyrically. I’d like to crank out an album a year that’s more rock and roll, more poetic and more dirty musically, adding some sloppy textures and energy.”

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