Tommy Shaw of Styx Talks Lifelong Love of Country Music and New Bluegrass Album
Tommy Shaw is best known as the songwriter and guitarist for classic rock mainstays Styx, but he grew up listening to country and bluegrass music in his hometown of Montgomery, Ala. He recently released ‘The Great Divide,’ his first-ever bluegrass album and the culmination of nearly six years of hard work, done to ensure he did justice to the music of his youth.
Shaw spoke to Taste of Country to talk about his favorite country music then and now, the thrill of performing at the Grand Ole Opry and his plans for the future.
Even though you grew up in Montgomery, Ala., you listened to Nashville radio as a child?
You could go outside, or if you had a powerful radio in your house with an antenna, you could listen to WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry station, because they were a 50,000-watt station. At nighttime, radio waves went further, and there was nothing really competing in the area, so it was a clear shot to Alabama. It was one of the first things I remember as being a big deal. Here was this live music show coming in, [and] you could only hear it certain times.
So it must have been a real thrill to play there in support of ‘The Great Divide’ recently.
I tried to look at is as just another gig. When you’re a performer, you’re supposed to let the audience be the emotional ones, and have the reaction. You’re performing and you’ve got work to do. But there was no way to get around it. This pre-dates the Beatles for me. Before that, country was the kind of music that I thought was cool, and Grand Ole Opry was the Carnegie Hall of the south. So, you can’t escape your childhood memories and I was a little nervous going in there.
Did you bring your own band?
I played with the house band. I started to ask the guys who played on the record, but everybody’s gigging right now — it’s that time of year. Darius Rucker said that the house band played the stuff and sounded better than his band. It made sense — they’re in Nashville, you’re gonna have a good band. We went over everything about an hour before showtime, and boom! There it was. Not only did they play it, but they added their own vibe to it, which I loved. it made me realize that this music is very flexible. I want to go to some of the fest and sit in with other bands and have them play this music with me. We’ve checked with the other bands — the invitations are out there.
Have you listened to country music all your life?
I grew up where Hank Williams was born. It was just something that everybody knew. There were many nights as a teenager where we’d go sit by his grave, and say, you know. “Hank Williams is right there.” It’s a really impressive little shrine to him. I lived right up the street. I’d play on the porch to the passing traffic. Then, there were a lot of times when the only music I listened to was Styx, you know, cause I was working all the time. I’d buy just the odd record here and there. But I didn’t get back into the country thing until the music from [Shaw's early '90s rock supergroup with Ted Nugent] Damn Yankees and that sort of thing just died, when grunge took over. Country music really picked up a lot of the fans from that era of music and just changed the style, adapted to be more like classic rock.
How did this album come about?
It found me. It started when Brad Davis and I wrote the last song on the album, ‘I’ll Be Coming Home.’ It was an awakening for me — just how easily it flowed and how comfortable I was singing it. So whenever Brad came to town — we were both busy — we wrote again. He did ‘Afraid to Love’ a couple of months later, and then even more months later “Umpteen Miles,’ and now we had three songs we could play for people. Three songs in, you pretty much decide whether you like an album or not. So we’d play it for people and they’d say, “This is great! Where’s the rest of it?” It wasn’t until 2009 when my schedule opened up, and everyone around said, ‘If you’re gonna do this you should do it now,” so it wouldn’t interrupt any Styx records or tours.
You’ve done two albums of rock ‘n’ roll covers in the past. What country songs would you like to cover?
I’d like to do some Hank Williams. I could do a whole album of Jimmie Rodgers — that music is like knowing to stay away from fire. Somehow you know this music. It’s in your cellular makeup.
What new country music do you listen to?
I’m really into the Band Perry right now, ‘If I Die Young’ and all that. Plus, Alison Krauss and Union Station — they’re my Crosby, Stills and Nash of bluegrass. Robert Plant’s album with her is unbelievable. It’s other-worldy — if you listen to that on vinyl, it will change you. It’s so subtle and deep, and there’s just so many good things about it. There’s another band I like now that’s a hybrid of a lot of these things: Mumford and Sons. To me, what I like about them [is] they weren’t disrespectful of the form, they just didn’t know, you know, maybe that a guitar player shouldn’t be playing the bass drum, and that you shouldn’t have accordion here, stuff like that. They created their own hybrid style of music.
How did Alison Krauss end up on your record?
It’s awesome — she sang on my album ’7 Deadly Zens’ back in 1998, too. It turns out she was a fan of mine. I heard she was on the guestlist at a Damn Yankees show years ago, but I just thought it was bullshit. Why would Alison Krauss be at our show? Turns out, she was a fan and was here, I just didn’t see her. Now I know better. Whenever I hear something like that now, I know it’s serious. She and my wife are good friends. I always tell people Allison sang on my record just so they could hang out.
Have you tried playing any Styx songs in a bluegrass style?
We did a bunch of radio shows, and we were asked by a bunch of people that same question, so we played ‘Renegade’ which was perfect as a bluegrass song. Then on a mandolin, we tried ‘Coming of Age’ by Damn Yankees, with like a four on the floor kind of thing where you stomp your foot and play it — unbelievable.
So, are you mad at Steve Martin for taking the No. 1 spot on the bluegrass chart this week?
[Laughs] No! I mean, he payed his dues, he earned his respect there and I’m proud to be right behind him. It wasn’t until this time around that I saw him performing at the Opry on a YouTube video, and it blew my mind how good he was. Back in the ’70s, our records used to be on the charts with his comedy albums.
Watch Tommy Shaw Perform ‘The View From Up There’