After playing at a music festival recently, I was chatting to some people that were in the crowd and selling some CDs when I noticed a woman watching from a distance. After the crowd had gone, I called her over and said hello. “I like your music,” she said, “and I’d like to buy a CD but I haven’t got any money with me. Can I have your address? I’ll send you a cheque and you can send me a CD.” I wrote down my address and gave it to her. I also handed her a CD copy of American Odyssey. “Send me a cheque,” I said. “You’ll trust me?” she said, surprised. “Yes!” I said, “You’ve got an honest face!”
Two days later, the cheque arrived – with a letter. A hand-written letter! In it, she thanked me for my performance, said she had enjoyed listening to the CD and told me a little of her life.
I can’t remember the last time I received a hand-written letter! In these days of rat-a-tat texts and emails it was lovely to hold in my hand a communication that had been thought-through and considered so I thought I would share it with you.
I recently participated in one of those Facebook fads/crazes where you name ten albums that either inspired you or you continue to revisit from time to time. There was no explanation needed – you just posted a photo of the album cover. Each time you posted, you nominated a friend who would do the same. It was fascinating seeing which albums meant something to people you know. Some were no-brainers; others, a complete surprise. My problem with the whole exercise was not explaining why I had made my choices. Regular visitors to this page may have come to know that I like words – I use them every day! So here for your delectation (and hopefully) delight, in no particular order, are the reasons behind my album choices:
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: David Bowie
I am of that generation that saw that first appearance by David Bowie on the seminal UK music television programme of the day – Top of the Pops – singing Starman. Glam rock has already taken hold of the music scene with the likes of Marc Bolan filling our screen, so we were used to seeing people that seemed different from us. But then Bowie showed up: this was a different different. With those peculiar coloured eyes and spiky hair, he looked like what this 14-year-old imagined an alien would look like but with his arm slung casually round guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder he looked like he would also make a good mate to hang out with.
If we had had social media back then, we would have crashed the internet but, as it was, we had to content ourselves with rushing into school the next day saying: “Did you see that?” “Who/what was that?”
At the end of that week, using the payment for last week’s newspaper delivery round, I went in to town to purchase Bowie’s long-playing record – only to find that there were four to choose from. I opted for the latest one because it contained Starman, promising myself that I would work my way back through his catalogue.
I could hardly contain my excitement. On the bus ride home, I sat and stared at the cover, reading every word – at the very bottom was written: “To be played at maximum volume.” One side of the inner sleeve contained close-up photos of Bowie and the Spiders, the other side had the lyrics to the songs.
I took the Dansette record player up to my bedroom as I didn’t want sibling interference or parental criticism. Up to this point in my short life, I had only bought 7-inch singles; this was my first album. From the opening drum beat of Five Years to the cello ending of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, I was transfixed. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Bring the Family: John Hiatt
When I heard this album for the first time it was on an incredibly expensive stereo system – the control room of Power Plant Studios – where I was recording an album for CBS Records in 1988. After each session, producer Colin Fairley – who had worked with Hiatt through his connection with Nick Lowe (who turned up at one of our sessions one evening) – would play some music to help get the song we had been working on out of the heads of myself, guitarist Andy Williams and our rhythm section for the album – drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Bruce Thomas, normally two-thirds of Elvis Costello’s Attractions. This evening, Colin played Bring the Family – Hiatt’s first album for UK label Demon, which features musicians Ry Cooder, Nick Lowe and Jim Keltner.
As soon as I heard the opening bars of Memphis in the Meantime I was hooked. By the time the melancholic acoustic guitar of Learning How to Love You faded out I knew I had found a new musical hero.
A Hard Day’s Night: The Beatles
My mother told me that I could sing Beatles songs before I could recite nursery rhymes. The cinema in our town was showing the first feature film by The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night and my big sister was given permission to go and see it on the condition that she took me. She reluctantly agreed but banished me to a seat away from her and her friends.
The film starts with that distinctive opening chord of the song which gives the film its title, to a scene where the Fab Four are being chased into a London railway station by hordes of screaming fans. It was very exciting!
But it was the next scene where the band are seen performing I Should Have Known Better in a train carriage that affected me the most. I didn’t realise at the time what an influential moment in my life that was but everything about that song – the acoustic strumming, the jangly electric guitar, the hook, the harmonies, the switch from major to minor for the middle eight section – are ingredients for a Tony James Shevlin recording. I may have only been five years of age but I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
The Stranger: Billy Joel
If you had come to visit me in my tiny room in a shitty house in a shitty area of South London in 1978 and rifled through my record collection you would have found vinyl LPs by the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, The Stranglers and The Clash. What you would not have found was Billy Joel’s The Stranger – for that was my guilty pleasure, hidden away when my fellow punk friends came to call. I had heard the saccharine-drenched single Just the Way You Are and had dismissed the New Yorker as a lounge singer. Then I heard Movin’ Out(Anthony’s Song) and immediately loved the scatter-gun metre of lyrics such as “Sgt O’Leary is walking the beat, at night he becomes a bartender, he works at Mr Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan Street, across from the medical centre”. At a dinner at an ex-landlady’s house I heard the whole album. Songs such as Only the Good Die Young and the sublime Scenes From an Italian Restaurant blew me away. And they still do. It’s just that these days, I don’t have to hide the album on top of the wardrobe.
Arc of a Diver: Steve Winwood
I had loved Steve Winwood’s work with Spencer Davis, Traffic and his contribution to the one-off supergroup Blind faith. He had been quiet for a number of years and resurfaced (excuse the pun) as a solo artist with Arc of a Diver in 1980. It was a new departure for the Birmingham-born singer-songwriter and featured layers of synthesizers. I was never into the synth bands of that decade but quite frankly, Steve Winwood singing to the accompaniment of a cement mixer would do it for me. Not only did Winwood write the songs (with Will Jennings, except for the title track which was co-written with Vivian Stanshall) but he played all the instruments, sang all the vocals, engineered and produced the record. The songs were quite beautiful with moving melodies. The record came out just after I had my heart broken (my one and only time – as a songwriter, I have been mining this event ever since!) and three tracks got me through the heartache – While you See a Chance, Slowdown Sundown and Dust. Thank you, Stevie.
Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen
I was quite late in coming to the Bruce party. As Springsteen was tearing up London’s Hammersmith Odeon, I was more interested in steeping myself in classic English singer-songwriters like Ray Davies and John Lennon, Squeeze’s Difford and Tilbrook, and was enjoying the new breed of punk/new wave writers like Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson too much to take much notice of the New Jersey rocker. A girlfriend had tried to turn me onto The Boss but I don’t think starting me off with the dour and melancholic Nebraska was the right way to go. A couple of years later, and despite its homage to small town America, Born in the USA resonated with me. Not so much the bombastic title track but songs such as Glory Days, No Surrender and My Home Town all struck a chord.
Later that summer, I saw Bruce at Wembley Stadium. It was an amazing performance. Bruce and I are still together; the girlfriend and I have long since parted.
Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs: Marty Robbins
My dad introduced me to country music, or country & western as it was termed back in the early 1970s. I loved the stories that songs sung by the likes of Johnny Cash and Charlie Pride told. One album stood out from all the others, though. It was Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs by Marty Robbins. The trail songs were okay but it was the gunfighter ballads that fired my imagination. When Robbins sang these, he painted visual images that took the listener into the tales being told. My favourite was the opening track Big Iron, which tells the story of a showdown between a nameless Arizona Ranger and an outlaw called Texas Red. As a burgeoning songwriter (I had just been bought my first guitar) I loved the rhythm of the words (I wouldn’t learn the term metre for another five years!). I still get annoyed when I hear songs on the radio that don’t adhere to a pattern or sound clumsy. I somehow understood instinctively that the line “It was twenty past eleven when they walked out in the street” couldn’t have been ‘quarter past ten’ or ‘ten past twelve’: it just wouldn’t work.
Years later, when I was on tour in the US I paid homage to Marty Robbins and visited the town of Aqua Fria where the story of the song is set (it has been subsumed in to Santa Fe). Much to the amusement of the locals, I got my guitar out, sat down in the main street and performed Big Iron. When I finished, I put my six-string away, got back in my car and drove off into the sunset.
A Touch of the Blarney: Noel Murphy
It was sometime in the late 1960s. I was shopping with my mum in one of those new fangled ‘supermarkets’ – where, instead of waiting to be served by the shopkeeper, you wandered around with a basket, getting your own groceries (“This will never catch on,” said my mother).
As we queued up to pay, my mum noticed a rack of albums (or LPs as we called them back then). She picked up one by Noel Murphy – an artist that I had not heard of (and haven’t since!) titled A Touch of the Blarney. “Your dad will like this” She may have got it wrong about future shopping habits but she was dead on when it came to this record. He didn’t just like it – he loved it more than any other record in the house. For many years, no party in the Shevlin household could finish without this platter being given a spin. And every time it was played, it was like he was hearing it for the first time. He would laugh uproariously at the antics of a cheeky Irish greyhound on Master McGrath, and furrow his brow on songs about the 1916 rebellion like The Foggy Dew.
This album was my introduction to Irish folk music. In fact, it was my introduction to Irish history, too, for these songs are historical documents. Someone once asked me why Irish folk songs are often so maudlin. My answer is that if you had been through just a fraction of what the Irish people have had to endure, you’d write some bloody sad songs, too. And yet, every time I hear the song Patriot Games, I think of the old fella and smile.
Quadrophenia: The Who
I don’t like Tommy that much. There, I’ve said it! I find it overblown and a bit pompous. I much prefer Quadrophenia – Townsend’s tale of the life of a mod in the 1960s (told with hindsight from the 1970s). There is no fat on the bones of this album. Townshend is at the pinnacle of his creative powers and his band mates all bring their A game to the sessions.
I missed the album on its release in 1973 – I was too into the glam scene of Bowie and Bolan to notice it. It came to my attention during the brief ‘Mod revival’ period of the late 1970s which gave us bands like The Chords, Secret Affair and of course, The Jam. In an effort to promote the recently-released Quadrophenia movie starring Phil Daniels, The Who were even playing songs from the album in their live set. I saw them playing at Wembley Stadium in 1980 (on the bill were AC/DC, the Stranglers and Nils Lofgren) and I’ll never forget the power of John Entwhistle’s bass on my favourite track from the album – 5.15.
Some bands struggle to fill a conventional album without having one or two weak songs in the running order; Townshend manages to fill a double-album with great songs, telling a story about a disaffected youth while incorporating the personalities of all four members of the band. An absolute triumph.
Trio: Dolly Parton, Linda Rondstadt and Emmylou Harris
Of all the albums in this list, this is probably the only one that hasn’t influenced me – I just love it to bits! It’s a joy from beginning to end. When this album came out in 1987, I was well aware of the career trajectories of all three women involved. I wasn’t particularly a fan of Parton who was well in to her pop/country crossover phase (9 to 5, Islands in the Stream, etc.) whereas I loved the work of Harris – both her solo output and her seminal work with Gram Parsons. I had been following the work of Ronstadt ever since hearing her version of The Rolling Stones’ Tumbling Dice in the late 1970s. I loved the sound of her voice, no matter what genre of music she sang (I am also a big fan of her Big Band albums with Nelson Riddle) but I think that country music is her natural home.
I first heard their combined voices when I was browsing in a record shop and the opening track The Pains of Loving You came over the sound system. After enquiring who the recording was by, I purchased it on vinyl (I had yet to make the move to CDs) and, 21 years on, I’m still enjoying it! Along with Bring the Family, it is probably the most played of the ten albums listed above.
According to the record’s producer George Massenburg, there were never any egos on show and I think the love and respect that these three artists have for each other just shines through every song.
As much as I love playing solo gigs where I get the chance to tell stories as I introduce the songs, there is nothing to beat the feeling you get when playing in a band, particularly when it’s with the calibre of musicians that I am lucky enough to call upon! Plus – when there is a great camaraderie between the people in the band – that you love being with each other as much when you’re off-stage as you do when you’re on-stage (and there is a lot more time off-stage than on!) it makes it the best job in the world. And the fact that they can all sing a harmony is the icing on a very musical cake.
So I salute the members of The Chancers: Jonny Miller (guitar); Dirk Forsdyke (drums); Jules Shevlin (acoustic guitar) and Thérèse Miller (keyboards).
You’re at a gig; the artist on stage looks down at his or her feet and reads from a scrap of paper. Scrawled on the scrap of paper is a list of songs. You think it was probably thrown together in the same way as a shopping list. You would be wrong. For this is a set list…
A non-musician friend called me up and asked if I was busy. I told him that I was. I said that I was writing out a set list for an upcoming gig. He chuckled and said, sarcastically, “Well, that will keep you busy all day!” In actual fact, he spoke the truth, for the set-list is not a thing to be taken lightly.
Here are some things to take into consideration when putting together a set list:
The musical pitch the songs are played in matters. A record producer once said to me that the running order of an album should always ascend in pitch, never descend. (Note – the album running order is the distant cousin of the set list and as once the record is mastered the running order cannot be altered, it is even more critical to get it right first time! I always think long and hard about an album’s running order and so loathe Spotify’s ‘shuffle play’ for this reason). The same goes for the set list.
Major and Minor Keys
Major keys tend to be happier, minor keys more sombre and sad. I like to mix it up to elicit different emotions from the audience. A rule of 2:1 should apply here – if you play two minor keys then play one in a major key and vice versa. If all your songs are in a minor key you should seek professional help or try and get out a bit more.
Most of the gigs I play tend to be to listening audiences in small clubs or at house concerts, which tend to be much more intimate so you can play a couple of slow songs one after another without losing the crowd. As with major or minor keys, however, I don’t ever play more than two in a row before offering up a medium or fast-paced ditty. As the old saying goes, a change is as good as a rest. Of course, if I’m playing with a full band, particularly on a festival stage where people are seeing you for the first time, I tend to play the more energetic, upbeat songs. To watch people dancing to your tune in a field with a beer in their hand is a thing of beauty.
Most rock and roll songs are in 4/4 time. I have some that are in 3/4 (waltz time) that sway gently. You should never play two of these in a row. If you do Morris dancers will appear from nowhere.
Some songs you strum, some songs you finger-pick. Rule of 2:1 applies here, too.
I’m Irish so I like a good story. I once wrote a song just so I could tell a favourite story. It has been pointed out to me that the introduction to one of my songs was actually longer than the song it preceded. My rule is not to tell a story of epic proportions before every song. Sometimes it’s good to let the songs tell their own story.
It’s easy to forget that this is the music business. As much as I love playing gigs, when I’m out on the road I need to sell merchandise to make a living. Your set should contain a good mix from your catalogue (I currently have two albums and an EP available to buy). If there is a new album to sell, songs from that record need to be included in the set, tucked safely between tried and tested songs. But which ones do you favour and which ones do you drop from the list to make way for them? I try to swap like-for-like either in tone or rhythm, but sometimes it’s hard to let go of songs that have served you well. If you’re playing a repeat venue and you know that the bulk of the audience bought what you had last time you were there, you’d be crazy not to tempt them with newer songs that they don’t own.
I am often tempted to play some new songs that I haven’t yet recorded (you always love the last song you’ve written!) and, while it’s good to keep the set fresh and to see if it gets a good reaction (so you can put it on a shortlist for your next recording), I once nearly lost out on a sale at the merch table when a guy wanted to know which CD a song he had really liked was on. It wasn’t on any of them. Thankfully, he bought an album anyway.
Oh, the age-old question: whether to throw in a cover song or not? For me, it depends of the length of the show. If it’s just a 45-minute slot, I’d want all of the songs to be self-penned. If I’m playing two sets in a new venue to a new audience, midway through the second set, I might slip in a song that they know because an hour and a half is a long time to expect an audience to focus on songs that they have never heard before. In the US, this can work to your advantage thanks to the tip jar. I was playing in a bar called Swampers in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where the artists are expected to perform three 45-minute sets. I peppered the sets with traditional Irish songs and each time someone came up and dropped a 20 dollar bill in the jar, with a nod that said ‘my ancestors were from Ireland’. By the end of the night there was over a hundred dollars in the jar, which to a touring musician on a budget is four sleazy motel rooms!
The first two or three songs should let the audience know what they’re in for. You should come out all guns blazing, settle down and then gradually build momentum, “like an inverted Gaussian Curve,” said that same record producer (don’t worry, I had to look it up too!).
Now you’re probably thinking that you would need a NASA computer to help permutate the above criteria but believe me – you get a feel for it after a while.
So how do I go about it?
I type up a list of songs I want to play. I then print up the list and cut up the paper to contain individual songs. I lay the pieces out on a surface taking in to consideration all of the above criteria. I play through the set (some times I top and tail the songs) going from one song to the next to see that they flow nicely, complementing each other, and then I adjust the place order to suit.
However, the list should never be written in stone. The artist may need to adapt to the situation. I was once playing a place in Chicago which was split into two separate venues – separated by a brick wall that was no match for the volume that the metal band next door was playing at. I immediately ditched my delicate, introspective, soul-searching, finger-picking songs for up-tempo, loud, raucous ones where I could beat the hell out of my acoustic guitar. Afterwards, I said to the bar’s manager, you need to soundproof that wall. He sighed and said: “It is sound-proofed – you shoulda heard it in da room!”
So, while the set list should be as finely-tuned as the instrument that the songs are played on, it should also be a living, breathing thing.
The real test is out on the road. That’s the time you find out if your running order works or not. If it’s not feeling quite right, juggle the songs until it does. I was five days into a tour, on stage at the Barley Street Tavern in Omaha, Nebraska, when I thought to myself: I’ve got this! I knew what to play, when to tell a story, when to shut up and just play the song, when to finish, and what to finish with. It was a moment of zen-like enlightenment. The set list and I were as one.
So next time you’re at a gig, think of the effort that the artist on stage has put in to preparing for the show, and maybe think twice before shouting out that request.
As 2017 heads for the door marked exit and 2018 takes its first tentative steps onto the stage, it’s always good to look back on what has been achieved in the previous 12 months and take stock of what went on. Have the seeds planted in previous years borne fruit? Has momentum been maintained? Did I have fun?
Here’s what went on…
The year began with me putting the final touches to the new album American Odyssey – there were some harmonies needed which my sister Jules AKA Tiny Diva supplied in a couple of quick sessions – then the task of mixing began. Engineer Ian tends to do a mix after each recording session so final mixing was not an epic task to undertake. He did a mix of each track on his own where he seemed to sprinkle a little fairy dust, subtly bringing out elements in the recording that had maybe got a little lost in overdubs. I lived with the results for a few days, playing it on every audio device I have: from the quality hi-fi system in my music room, through headphones on a laptop computer, and on the CD player in the car, and I made notes on any changes I thought were necessary and Ian made those accordingly. We repeated this procedure until I was happy. American Odyssey was complete. I spent the next few weeks telling everyone I knew that I had made the best recording of my career.
Most of February and March was spent in the US. I spent time in New York, Kansas City and Nashville. The main event was being back in Kansas City for a music festival/conference called Folk Alliance International. Five days of workshops, seminars, showcases and gigs in the usually corporate environment of the Westin Crown Hotel. I was there as part of the British Underground – sponsored by the Musicians’ Union and PRS for Music. It was great to meet up with acts whose careers I’d followed from afar such as Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Sam Kelly and Gwyneth Herbert.
FAI is an excellent opportunity to be introduced to industry people it would normally be hard to make a connection with such as record label representatives, publishers, booking agents and artist managers. I was also able to be up-close with or interact with the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Darden Smith, Danny Kortchmar and Billy Bragg.
Of course, I also took the time to consolidate my relationship with KC with shows at The Dubliner and a farewell gig at Johnnie’s Bar, where just about everybody I know in town was present.
I then drove down to Nashville to spend a couple of weeks catching up with friends and people I had previously co-written with.
The next few months were spent preparing for the release of the new album. There were meetings with my label, PR companies, and CD duplication companies. I’m well aware that it’s called the music ‘business’ but this is my least favourite aspect of my career – albeit a necessary one. If people don’t know about the record, how can they buy it? If the logistics of making it available via digital technology or good old-fashioned CDs are not given due attention, people will not be able to purchase it.
There were interviews with radio stations and magazines. These were not a problem because the story behind the album was my three-month tour of the US in 2015 so there was a lot to talk about.
In between this, I managed a trip to Australia. I was hoping that I could develop a similar routine as I do in the States but the costs of just getting there outweighed any chance of making a profit from touring. This is a shame because it’s such a beautiful country; I loved being there, and would love to see more of it.
The single Travelling Man was released in late July. The BBC played it, saying: “You will be singing this for the rest of the week… It’s a great song.” While the folks at Folk Union said: “There’s something about that type of country that I love… it takes me back to 1979 and Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello et al.”
The album was released in August. VENTS Magazine wrote: “The trials and tribulations of life on the road are captured in a set of songs that draw on classic Country, gritty rock n’ roll, swampy blues rock and 60’s powerpop in equal measure.” The Daily Country called it “an outsider’s love letter to the United States.” Americana UK said it was “a sonic postcard”. The icing on the cake, though, was RnR Magazine saying: “It’s like listening to a musical roadmap and at each stop there’s a good song with something to say.”
During the summer I played some festival dates with my backing band The Chancers as well as solo house concerts up and down the country.
The last few months of the year have been constructive in preparing for 2018. There are a bunch of songs that have been written since the tour of 2015 that are finding their way into my live set, so I’m keen to produce another acoustic EP along the lines of Restless Celtic Heart (which started life as a ‘white label’ to sell at shows alongside Songs From the Last Chance Saloon). Recording on that should start in April.
I’ve also been researching and planning a return to the US for the coming summer. If I can get the stars to align I hope to be spending a month in the Midwest and then either a month travelling up the Pacific coast of California from San Diego to San Francisco or venturing into new territories such as Montana and Wyoming.
2017, you’ve been great, but bring on 2018! I can’t wait…
I thought I’d do a round-up of what press and radio have been saying about American Odyssey.
Up in Lancashire UK, BBC DJ Joe Wilson has played Travelling Man twice on The Country Show saying: “You will be singing this for the rest of the week… It’s a great song.”
Closer to home in Norfolk, the BBC’s Keith Greentree said: “He makes good music doesn’t he?”
Carl Spaul at Folk Union in Chelmsford said: “There’s something about that type of country that I love… it takes me back to 1979 and Dave Edmunds, Elvis Costello et al.”
Russell Hill at Portsmouth Express FM has played Rambling Days and Tucumcari Sunset playing the latter song back to back with The Eagles’s Tequila Sunrise.
VENTS Magazine wrote: “The trials and tribulations of life on the road, are captured in a set of songs that draw on classic Country, gritty Rock n’ roll, swampy blues rock and 60’s powerpop in equal measure.”
Songwriting Magazine said: He’s been recommended for fans of Celtic-infused Americana, but we also think that those of you who enjoy Don Gibson and Marty Robbins (one of Shevlin’s influences) will enjoy Travelling Man
The Daily Country called American Odyssey “an outsider’s love letter to the United States.”
Pure M Magazine said “Eleven songs – one for every thousand miles of road – take the listener on a remarkable journey that is one man’s American Odyssey.”
Songwriter News‘s highlights were: “Eleven tracks of inspired creativity…a masterpiece that salutes Americana…. illuminates the talents of an awesome singer-songwriter… a touch of understated genius”
Americana UK called American Odyssey “a sonic postcard” adding:
“Santa Fe Sadness [is] a wonderful Tennessee type waltz while Ride The Mississippi is a very fine example of gusha gusha gumbo as cooked up years ago by Danny Adler. The album’s single, Travelling Man, is a breezy ride of a song lifted by its pedal steel and soaring refrain and there’s some Rockpile-like rambunctiousness on When Ginny Gets Her Wings while Mockingbird benefits from the female harmonies surrounding Shevlin’s voice over some fine guitars and mandolin.” They finished their review with ““Anglo Americana travelogue that hits the spot…”
The BBC‘s Stephen Foster wrote: “American Odyssey is as good a record as you’ll hear all year.”
RnR Magazine concluded “It’s like listening to a musical roadmap and at each stop there’s a good song with something to say.” And “Shevlin deserves to be much better known and this is definitely a trip worth taking.”
You never know when the Songwriting muse will tap you on the shoulder and say ‘how about this for a song?’
I was en route to Amarillo for my next gig. I had stayed the previous night in El Paso – at the El Paso Motel to be exact, my fondness for Marty Robbins getting the better of me. I suppose I hoped that I might find ‘Rosa’s Cantina’ where ‘music would play and Felina would whirl.’ As it turned out, it was one of the seedier places in which I spent the night.
Next morning, I was up at dawn. The cute girl with the beaming smile on reception remarked on my early checkout. I replied with a smile: “Oh well, another day, another town,” …
The line stayed with me. I had only been on Highway 54 for a short while when I knew there was a song stirring in my head. I reached for the digital recorder that I had sitting on the passenger seat in case of times like this and turned it on. I sang the first melody that came into my head and these words came tumbling out: “Another day, another town, on this road that I’ve been running down, I’m making music anywhere I can.”
I’ve written a lot of songs over the years but I can’t remember one that was not changed or edited in some way but I felt this one seemed to be perfectly formed.
By the time I stopped to look for aliens in Roswell, New Mexico, I had added: “I was born with the need to play to the rhythm of a lost highway”.
The final line of the chorus had been one that I had been using for a while on my trip across the US. In various bars and diners I had frequented, people would ask me if I was travelling with a band. “No,” I would say, “just me, a guitar and a car.” All that needed to be added was “I’m a travelling man.”
The verses would be written the following week when I was back in Nashville. A music publisher had asked me if I wanted to co-write with one of the artists on their roster, a young guy called Ty James. At the writing session I offered up the chorus I had and together we wrote the verses. My only stipulation was that if we mentioned US name places, they had to be towns, cities or States that I had passed through on my tour. A couple of hours later we had the finished song. Or so I thought.
A week later, back in the UK, I played it to my sister Jules. She is always the first person that I run new songs by. She liked ‘Travelling Man’ but agreed it needed ‘something else’. We settled on a musical change at the end of the song which reinforced the title. Job done.
I hope you enjoy listening to this song. More than any other song on the album I think it sums up the epic journey I undertook, which saw me drive 11,000 miles, passing through 17 States and 21 cities that made up my American Odyssey.
Travelling Man: drums – Tim Bye; piano – Adam Whyatt; electric guitars – Jonny Miller; backing vocals – Jules Shevlin; pedal steel – Nick Zala; bass, acoustic guitars, lead and backing vocals – Tony James Shevlin
Recorded at Amblin’ Man Studios, Otley, Suffolk, UK by Ian Crow.
I am very lucky that I can call upon the services of so many talented musician friends to come and play on my records.
I have already written about the contributions from drummer Tim Bye, guitarist Jonny Miller, and pedal steel supremo Nick Zala; and when I needed inspiration for a bass part – Steven ‘Kilby’ Mears.
If my record label had said they wanted to put out the album with just guitar, bass, drums and a lead vocal, I would have been proud of what we had. But as I was writing these songs, I already had musical parts in my head, and I knew who I wanted to bring each part to life. And in each case, the guest musician said yes!
Always my first port on call for piano and Hammond organ is Adam Whyatt. Adam and I have played together in many bands. Sometimes it is scary how close he comes to coming up with keyboard lines I have in my head without me giving him any clues. Whether it’s the Country honky tonk needed for Santa Fe Sadness or the bluesy New Orleans romp of Ridethe Mississippi, Adam always has just the right set of chops the songs need. In all, he graces seven songs with his keyboard brilliance. On the re-recording of Kansas City Won’t Let me go, I said, just play what you did on the recording from last year (a US only single release). Adam said: “No, I can do it better!” And he did. When I played it to a Nashville session musician, he said, “Man that cat can play!”
There is one other keyboard on American Odyssey but it is masquerading as an accordion. I had decided I wanted a Tex-Mex accordion sound on Tucumcari Sunset. I had booked an accordionist but they had to cancel at the last minute. Thérèse Miller came to my rescue by playing the part on a keyboard using an accordion sound. But it wasn’t a case of just playing the notes; she thought through the way an accordion player would approach the part, where they would put little trills in etc. and captured it perfectly. It adds a very subtle but important texture to the track.
My song Set Me Down by the Singing River is a celebration of the music that came out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the 1960s and 1970s. Eta James, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin all produced amazing sounds from Rick Hall’s FAME studio. And from Muscle Shoals Sound Studio came tracks from the Staple Singers, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and many more.
I wanted the sound of a Gospel choir so I approached my friend Andi Hopgood who runs the Suffolk Soul Singers choir. I played her the almost completed song and hummed the kind of thing I was looking for. Andi scribbled down some notes and said, “Leave it with me.”
A couple of weeks later, engineer Ian Crow and his friend Gareth Patch who has a mobile recording studio, set up at the choir’s rehearsal room. Andi listened to the song on headphones and conducted the 30 voices through the final chorus, key change and outro. Looking on, I was both nervous and excited. The parts and the performances were everything I hoped they would be. Andi’s arrangement is wonderful and her charges did her proud.
One of my favourite performances on the album is the violin playing of Jan Rowe on When the Rain Came Down. It’s a folk song, finger-picked on acoustic guitar with just one vocal. I wanted to add a classical violin to it. Jan came to my house and I hummed her the motif I had in mind. She wrote down the notes and then on a violin that was made back when Beethoven was ten years of age, she played them back to me with such emotive playing, I nearly cried. We recorded the part on my digital recorder and she played along with that, adding another melody which perfectly complimented the original.
A few days later we met at Amblin’ Man Studios. Ian put a microphone up and we tested the sound – it was beautiful. “Let’s go for a take,” said Ian. So we did. When Jan’s final note had faded away, Ian and I looked at each other in amazement. “Er, that’s it, thank you, Jan,” said Ian. And that is the take that’s on the record. Jan then added the second melody (that too was a first take). She definitely won the prize for quickest session. As I said goodbye to her, I noticed that the bonnet of her car was still warm.
My sister, Jules, aka Tiny Diva, is my sounding board for all things musical. She is the first to hear new songs; the person whose opinion means most to me. She will counsel and cajole, steer and suggest. And when it comes to vocals, her word is sacrosanct. She chooses the keys the songs are recorded in, as quite often, the keys I write songs in aren’t always the best for my voice. I noticed that songs I wrote singing into my digital recorder whilst driving were often in the key of D; I was clearly influenced by the note that is sounded by a Buick LaCrosse cruising on the freeway!
Jules comes to the studio when I record lead vocals. If she says “sing it again,” then I sing it again. The session is not finished until Jules has signed off on my performance. Likewise, when it comes to harmonies, Jules is in command. If she decides that it would be best to have a male voice for a certain harmony, she will patiently school me in the correct notes needed – and she needs to be patient, believe me.
When she steps into the vocal booth, it’s another story. Jules is an incredible session vocalist. She can add layer after layer of great-sounding harmonies from ethereal and delicate on Robert Johnson’s Tears through to the full-on Gospel wail of Ride the Mississippi. An indispensable ingredient of a Tony James Shevlin record is Jules’s vocals.
Making an album is a collaborative process and being with like-minded people in a recording studio is such a rewarding experience. As a writer, it’s a wonderful feeling having musicians around you who can share in your vision for a song. I thank each and everyone of them for helping bring the songs on American Odyssey to life.
After the cold wind and snow of New York, it was nice to feel the sunshine on my face as I arrived at Kansas City Airport. My friend Doris picked me up. After a cup of coffee at her house in Independence, Missouri, we headed in to KC itself, to my favourite Barbecue joint – Bryant’s. Their burnt ends are to die for!
I met up with my friends Matt and Kevin and we spent the evening travelling round several bars including Johnnie’s (mentioned in my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go – head barman D-Rock very kindly had it playing on the jukebox as I entered the bar.
Next morning, Matt and I were up early. We drove over the State line from Missouri into a small town in Kansas. At a rather non-descript house, we met a man who had driven up from Biloxi, Mississippi with live crabs, shrimps and crawdaddies. Matt was cooking up a ‘Louisiana boil’ in my honour.
Most of the day was spent preparing for this sumptuous meal that would bring together lots of people I had met during my past visits to KC. The cook-up and subsequent party with poker, pool, and a jam session took place at Matt’s 7th floor loft apartment in a converted warehouse. By 3am the party showed no signs of slowing down…
It was decided that the only way to start a post-party Sunday was with a champagne breakfast. This was followed by liquid lunch at my favourite restaurant – The Genessee Royale.
We were on a roll, so a few more bars were visited until eventually we ended up at one of my favourite KC watering holes – The Dubliner. This was somewhat fortuitous as I had a show there that evening. There was a great crowd in – some who remembered me from previous shows and I picked up some new friends too. This was also my first chance to road test songs from the new album and they went down well.
The night ended at a party for the forthcoming Mardi Gras in a covered market.
My first visit to Kansas City, Missouri was as part of my US tour in 2015. During my time there someone mentioned the Folk Alliance International Conference and said: “You should go! You’d love it!” Again, when I was there in 2016 promoting the release of my song Kansas City Won’t Let Me Go, several musicians, 2 radio hosts, and a TV reporter all recommended I attend the yearly get-together. So I booked a place as a delegate at the 2017 conference.
The mission of Folk Alliance International is “to nurture, engage, and empower the international folk music community -traditional and contemporary, amateur and professional – through education, advocacy and performance”. Sounds good to me.
The event is held in the Westin Crown Hotel. For just under a week, this typically corporate-looking, soulless structure becomes a vibrant, colourful hotbed of acoustic music activity. It is somewhat incongruous to walk into the lobby of a building which you would expect to be wall to wall with corporate suits to find people playing banjos and fiddles and singing in sweet harmony.
The theme of this year’s conference was Forbidden Folk – putting the spotlight on the history of the protest song. One of the highlights for me was seeing Kris Kristofferson perform at the opening ceremony. His voice is now little more than a husky growl but I got chills hearing him sing Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down.
The conference consists of workshops and panels during the day and then gigs during the evening. Many of the workshops were instrument-based such as ‘the Basics of Bluegrass Banjo’ and ‘Intro to Flatpicking’; others less so but still musical-themed such as ‘Songwriting – Getting Unstuck’ and ‘Finding Your Inner Groove – Rhythm Class for all Musicians’.
The panel discussions ranged from the more business oriented such as ‘Diversifying Income Sources’ and ‘PR Power’ to the more culturally embracing such as ‘Women in Music’ and ‘Global Roots’.
What the FAI is more than anything is a chance to network with people in the industry who you would never get to meet in normal circumstances. The place is teeming with managers, booking agents, radio DJs, labels and of course, like-minded musicians and artists.
Prior to leaving for KC I had contacted several industry figures with a cheery email saying “Hi, I’m going to be at FAI. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains for 10 minutes?” Most came back in the affirmative.
I was at the conference as part of the British Underground – a collection of UK-based acts who displayed a brilliant camaraderie throughout the conference, supporting one another at shows and at play. They were the nicest bunch of people you could wish to meet. And so, so talented! Because of my own commitments, it was impossible to catch them all performing but those I did included Jack Harris, Bella Hardy, Blair Dunlop, Kirsty McGhee, Sam Kelly, Gwyneth Herbert, Ben Savage & Hannah Sanders, Emily Mae Winters, Gilmore & Roberts, and the Jellyman’s Daughter. All worth checking out!
We were looked after by Crispin Parry from British Underground and Neil Pearson from the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The pair were constantly around and available for advice, comfort, and tea and biscuits. I have no idea when they slept.
The early evening gigs are held in the various conference suites. These are the ‘Official Showcases’. One of my favourites was seeing Texan singer-songwriter Darden Smith. It was a master class in how to engage an audience and put across your songs. Another was Kortchmar, Postell & Navarro which features guitarist Danny Kortchmar – famous for his work with Linda Rondstadt, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Neil young, and most famously – Carole King (checkout the solo on It’s Too Late from Tapestry).
For many people, though, the magic of Folk Alliance happens after 10pm when the rooms of 3 floors of the hotel become boutique venues. Some rooms just have the bed pushed to one side and an artist performs in the space; some of the bigger suites will have lights and a small PA. My first show was in The First Timer’s Room. It was something of a shock to find that I was to play to people sitting on the bed and a few chairs. But what the heck, it was nice of them to turn out, so you just give it your best.
My favourite gig was playing in the British Underground Suite (with PA and Lights). Sets are only 25 minutes long so you don’t really have time to settle in – you’ve got to go for it straight off the bat. With so much music to check out, it’s not uncommon for people to pop in, check out a few songs and then pop out again. Crispin and Neil had warned us all that this would happen and not to take it personally. Always remember, you never know who might be watching you. It might be just the person you need in your life right now.
One evening, when I was rushing from one room to another, down the hallway, coming towards me, I saw the aforementioned Danny Kortchmar. Play it cool, I thought. But then I lost it and took my first (and hopefully my last) celebrity selfie!
On the final night of the conference, guest speaker Billy Bragg gave a rousing speech to a packed auditorium, reminding us that with recent political events in the US and elsewhere “we need folk music more than ever. We need people to stand up and tell the truth about what is happening in society. Folk music has always done that”.
I had two days left in KC. On the penultimate day (a Sunday) I played an afternoon show at Johnnie’s Bar. The place was packed with just about everyone I knew from the city. However, four 18 hour days spent in the recycled air of the Westin Hotel plus shows at one o’clock in morning and some serious partying were starting to take their toll on my voice. Thankfully, someone suggested I drink whisky, honey and lemon. It got me through the gig and I now have a new favourite drink.
Matt and I spent my last day in KC canoeing on the Missouri River. It was quite windy but the sun shone and I found it extremely relaxing. Apart from when we moored up on the riverbank and shot at empty beer cans with an old Remington Colt revolver. But that was fun, too.
The next day I hired a car and drove down to Nashville…