March 18th, 2022 10:15pm Stage
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Like America, Chuck Shaw began his adventure in the East. From there both stories, of nation and artist, sweep westward, drawing from new surroundings, absorbing what each station on their way has to offer.
America’s journey is still underway. But in a sense Chuck Shaw has found what he was looking for: a place where he can put down roots and nurture his unique artistry.
For Shaw, that place is, as someone once crooned, deep in the heart of Texas. He’s been there for just a few years but that’s time enough for him to know he has come home. With his love for old-school country music, his ability to write songs nourished by that tradition and sing them with rare expression, this is where he has always belonged.
“Even when I was in high school back in New Jersey, I knew I was probably going to end up in Texas,” he reflects. “And later, when I was in Colorado and Wyoming, friends kept telling me, ‘You need to move to Texas. You sound like you belong there. That’s where the real stuff is.’”
The “real stuff” is country music that’s about substance, not style. All you need to do is listen to his self-titled debut album to know it’s true. It’s in the raunch, grit and swagger of “Dirty Woman Creek,” the neon glow and greasy groove of “Ain’t No Bad Time,” the morning-after cobwebs and cold daylight that color “Hope I Can Get Through Today”
We could go through all 12 tracks, up to the handclaps and gospel affirmation of “Rise Up,” each one written by Shaw except for his striking rendition of “Long Black Veil” and little-known gem “Ain’t No Bad Time.” Like so many good things in life, it goes by fast and easy and then lingers until it’s cued up again.
This is Lone Star country — but the deeper you listen, the more hints you hear of the path he took to reach that destination. In his first single, “Burn That Oil,” the harmonica riff and nostalgic reminiscence might bring Springsteen to mind. Shaw wouldn’t deny it, being born and raised through high school in New Jersey. But even in his formative years, with his friends immersed mainly in rap, Shaw felt the call of country, first from groups like The Eagles and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
“A lot of the rock I grew up with had country roots,” he says. “Then one day in high school, after I’d gotten my heart broken, I bought the John Fogerty album Blue Ridge Rangers, where he covered a bunch of country songs including ‘She Thinks I Still Care.’ That song really spoke to me. And through the album as a whole I discovered George Jones, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and all the others who would influence me so much.”
After getting his first electric guitar at age 13, Shaw formed a band — probably the only one in his part of the Garden State that featured a country fiddle player. He started writing songs too. The more he crafted his style, the more determined he was to seek inspiration out west, the cradle of the music he had come to love. So after graduation, he headed out to the Rocky Mountains to study creative writing at Colorado College. Equally important, he honed his vocal and instrumental chops with the school’s celebrated Bluegrass Ensemble, an education that included three appearances at the Durango Bluegrass Meltdown.
Eventually, after working for a couple of summers on a ranch in Wyoming and then spending a year in Arizona that included four months on the road with the country/rock band Mostly Water, Shaw made his pilgrimage to Nashville. With money he’d saved from Mostly Water, he recorded an EP and, in the summer of 2015, started playing in Music City’s fabled honky-tonks. Nights of grinding out country hits in touristy dives sharpened his performance skills. It also cued him when it was time to get out of town.
“It was exciting at first,” Shaw remembers. “It taught me how to interact with the crowd, how to get people excited. And there were some great singers and players down there. But I started hating it after a while because I just couldn’t stand to play mainstream pop/country day and night, over and over again. Even songs that I loved got beaten to death. There was so little originality.”
And so Shaw embarked on the last stage of his Odyssey, this time to San Marcos late in 2016. Since then, he went from finding a place to live in a town filled with strangers to building up friends and followers through open-mike nights and paying gigs throughout Central Texas. “I fought hard to play anywhere I could,” he says. “Even if meant annoying the heck out of club owners, I did what I had to do to get my name out there.”
Persistence has paid off and put this young man square in the spotlight as one of traditional country’s most promising new talents. Chuck Shaw makes that more than clear — and for those who somehow still don’t get the message, he’s happy to lay it all out in plain Texan:
“The music I love is real,” he insists. “It’s pure. It’s a great American art form. I love how it sounds — the fiddle, the pedal steel — and how it feels. They know that down where I live, but when I play somewhere else, where people only know that mainstream pop country, I explain to them: This is how we do it in Texas.
“This is country music.”