The mention of the name Tommy Shaw might conjure up illusions of grandeur for the many fans of Styx, the classic rock outfit he has fronted for more than 30 years, but the Alabama native gives fans a whole different vision with this disc, his first set in the Bluegrass genre.
There have been many artists that have ventured outside their comfort zone with crossover-type records, but they often tend to sound ....well, uncomfortable. Going into this record I started thinking of all the amazing vocal parts that Tommy has blessed me with -- “Man In The Wilderness,” “Crystal Ball,” “Love In The Midnight,” “Come Again” -- and the list goes forever on. But all of the songs I came up with had one giant thing in common; they were all set in the rock genre. Tommy Shaw is a guy that became a rock idol to me very early on in my life. Growing up in Chicago, I’ve always thought of him as a local hero. After spending time in Chicago-based MS Funk, he moved on to an even better local act by the name of Styx, a move that changed my life forever.
But, this isn’t the Tommy I know. My meat and potatoes Tommy is now cornbread and grits Tommy, and I just don’t know if I’m ready for that. What is my rock hero going to sound like as he gets in touch with his Alabama roots? My biggest fear with this release was that he might stray from being himself and sell his soul to the Bluegrass devil. That sweet voice I love so much trying on a cloak of Bill Monroe is something that did strike some fear. But, once I started to spin The Great Divide, it was immediately obvious that I was not only getting the Tommy Shaw I know and love, but an even more genuine Tommy than I’d ever heard before.
The Great Divide is a bluegrass record, a true bluegrass record.
Bluegrass, although rooted in the Country genre, is not simply country music. I like to think of it like this -- Bluegrass is to Country what Blues is to Rock. I think of bluegrass as the roots of the country music tree. You know….bluegrass had twins and they named them Country & Western. Tommy Shaw has captured the true spirit of bluegrass music here. Making excellent use of key instruments like the resonator guitar, Dobro and fiddle, these songs have a pure and wonderful personality. Shaw has always been a great rock songwriter, and that writing skill translates perfectly to these bluegrass songs. So, with the help of greats like Dwight Yoakam and Alison Krauss, and Grammy winning fiddle player Stuart Duncan (and many others), Shaw stays true to the bluegrass sound and song style. But what about that voice?
This is what I absolutely love about this record. Tommy Shaw remains Tommy Shaw. He didn’t suddenly get some kind of overdone southern accent. With songs like “Sawmill” and “Umpteen Miles,” the urge to twang things up had to be tremendous, but Shaw chooses to sing them with his real voice, and the result is a true and honest performance that maintains a classic bluegrass soul.
The title track finds Shaw harmonizing beautifully with Alison Krauss, which culminates in a sweet refrain with a very small yodeling type of vocal. All of these songs tell stories, too. The lightest and most fun of them being “Back In Your Kitchen,” and the deepest and darkest of them, perhaps, “Shadows in the Moonlight.” One of the more interesting and fun songs on the record is “Give ‘em Hell Harry,” which tells a tale about former U.S. president Harry Truman. With the acoustic picking and a vocal part that’s almost all spoken word, it reminds me of that old Motel 6 radio ad with Tom Bodett. It’s a great touch of humor and Americana, and a nice addition to the record.
One track I feel that I need to mention is “The View From Up There.” I received the track as an exclusive through the Amazon download, and it’s definitely one worth seeking out. It’s a track that starts with that great Tommy Shaw vocal going a capella, and slowly works into a dark number with excellent Dobro and fiddle parts.
All of these songs are Tommy Shaw songs. They are not Tommy Shaw trying to write bluegrass. There is a natural, organic simplicity to the record that really keeps it honest. I think bluegrass music centers itself inside of honesty, so to hear Shaw sing these songs with his true voice gives the set great integrity. The music is from the soil of the heart, and the voice they are sung with comes from the same deep place.