Jon Shain smiles widely when he calls this "his room." Just off the kitchen of the south Durham house he shares with his wife, Maria, and daughter, JoJo, Shain's pine-walled, rectangular workspace is lined with rows of LPs, clusters of guitars and stacks of amplifiers. There's a tattered poster of Bob Dylan at Budokan on the back of the door that leads to the kitchen, and a framed Jorma Kaukonen concert print hangs beside an oil painting of Doc Watson. Black-and-white pictures of bluesmen peer from a glass case.
Shain teaches guitar lessons here, but he also writes songs—six albums of them—that gather the visages and names on these walls. A base of blues and rock, the grace and wisdom of folk, the technical ability of those closer to the mountains: Shain's music is a refined Americana polyglot, rendering all of those sounds in steady four-minute recitations.
Shain's sixth album, Times Right Now, captures all of it, from traditional tunes (the title comes from dark-hearted opener "Jamestown Blues") to instrumentals (the gliding guitar piece "Song for Dara" is an offering for his sister), hard-charging rockers to arching acoustic numbers. Sitting among the guitars and the amplifiers, we talked to Shain about what goes into the music that comes out of his room by listening to some tunes.
[Editor's note: Shain's wife, Maria Bilinski Shain, is the Independent Weekly's art director, and his sister, Dara, is the paper's Chapel Hill sales manager.]
[from Columbia Records, 1927; a haunting early blues tune about coming home, despite the problems home might have]
I first came into blues like a lot of people do—listening to The Rolling Stones and a lot of stuff like that. I had some friends who were starting to listen to Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf in high school. When I came to school down here, though, I met this blues DJ—Slewfoot, a crazy character. I was 19 or 20, and he was 35 or 36. He was a grizzled old man. He had no teeth at that point. He felt he had to live a life of real suffering. I don't know if it's how he felt about himself or if he was doing it for the music, but he was living in a shack in this area called Fancytown. It was off Old Erwin Road, in Durham, and there were all these shacks out there. He had no electricity, no running water, and this is like 1987.
I joined up with his band, and he introduced me to Big Boy Henry. My blues playing as an acoustic player, at that point, was mostly influenced by Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna. I came down here and met Big Boy Henry and John Dee Holeman, and they were playing not Jorma's music but the stuff that Jorma got his from. A lot of people only get to learn from records, and I was able to skip that generation and learn from these guys that were a generation older. These are people I would not have met growing up in my town in Massachusetts. When I joined Slewfoot's band, he was like, "Here's records I want you to learn—Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, this is the music we're going to play. Don't play too many notes." As disorganized of a character as he was, he knew his music.
[from Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys 1950-1958; an oft-covered early Monroe favorite, full of simple country reflections and nostalgia]
I played a bunch of Bill Monroe songs in the band Flyin' Mice. At first, we were playing blues-style stuff, and then we expanded into a four-piece. We got a drummer, Mark Simonsen [now of The Old Ceremony], and we started playing more clubs. People were starting to be able to dance to it. We needed to replace the bass player, and we did replace him with Aaron Oliva, but it was a two-or-none replacement. Aaron was playing with Ben Saffer in the band Better Days, and we knew he wasn't going to leave that band without Ben. But Ben was an electric guitar player, and, to me, that was a slippery slope. So Ben brought his banjo to the very first practice, and it turns out this guy could play the banjo.
All of the sudden, we started playing Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and all of these vintage bluegrass songs and putting a drumbeat to it. In 2009, that seems really old hat with the success of bands like String Cheese Incident. When we started doing that, we hadn't heard any other bands doing it. Mark plays like Keith Moon sometimes, or like Ginger Baker, just smashing stuff almost melodically, but loud. People started calling it "psychedelic bluegrass." My sense of what to play on the guitar changed, too.
[from Honey Moan, 2003; a blurry, crackling, buried-vocal take on the blues standard by Chicago-via-Baltimore psychedelic bandleader Guy Blakeslee]
There's a thin line between what sounds cool and what doesn't to me. This is one of those tunes that, if it was on WXYC 89.3 FM, I would listen to it once. I wouldn't change the station, but it wouldn't ask me, "Who was this?" As I've gotten older, I really appreciate tone—whether that's in the sweetness of the recording or the way someone can take a slide to a guitar and make it sing. So a lot of what I listen to on the radio around here is jazz, and it's not because I'm bowled over by the idea of some big personality. [I'm listening for] the sounds certain people can make.
[from Chess Records, 1960; gritty modal blues, with Hubert Sumlin trailing Wolf's signature gruff with thin guitar licks]
This is like some kind of magic stuff. Him and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins are psychedelic. They're like voodoo men. I don't know what they're doing.
It's weird in a controlled way. Like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, he's weird and he's out of control and he's great, but he was never going to become the standard, whereas with Howlin' Wolf's stuff, the guitar is so understated, and the bass and the drums are so repetitive.
Someone came in and they were wanting to play this song last week, and he's like, "What are the chords?" I said, "There's only one chord." [Shain picks up his Gibson and plays along to "Spoonful."] It's easy to play, but it's not easy to make it sound like that. It takes a whole helluva lot of restraint to not play. Everybody who's worth their salt as a musician has worked and worked to be able to master their instrument and get the techniques down. Then, when they get in front of people, they want to show everybody what they can do. But to play like that, you're not showing everything that you can do. It's only what it needs to be.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What do you consider the foundation of your music: blues like this, folk music, childhood rock 'n' roll?
I don't know if I have the answer to that. I see myself as somebody who goes out and plays. Some people see themselves as somebody who just writes music, and they have to go tour and play because that's the delivery method for getting their record to people. To me, I love to make records, but that's the delivery method to go out and get gigs. I like to play, and I like to interact with people. Because of that, I think of myself as a guitar player. The guitar is the center of it. But I also write words, and that's a whole 'nother aspect of it: Where do these words come from?
How do your songs develop—words or music first?
They all start differently. I very rarely get to knock out a song all at once these days. I just don't have the time, with having my daughter and the challenges of trying to make a living doing this. I have this notebook that I keep with me. [Shain walks across the room to retrieve a large red notebook. He opens it and points at a page with just two sentences.] I probably got this from listening to NPR—just a couple of lines. [Flips page.] You can tell by the handwriting that I was driving when I wrote this. [Flips page.] And there are things that pop out like whole songs. It may take six months to look at it, maybe a year. I may not look at these again until I'm ready to start writing songs for a new album.
[from Nashville Skyline, 1969; the romantic piano-and-pedal steel closer of Dylan's country venture]
You have a black-and-white print of the cover portrait on the wall, and this album seems to share a kinship with your music—a literate hybrid of blues and folk and country. How do you feel about Nashville Skyline?
It's his nasal period. I love it. I don't actually have Nashville Skyline on vinyl, but I know all the songs. The writing stands up to the writing on all the other ones, too. I think it's so funny that he thought this sounded country, that that's what he was trying to do. Does he succeed? No, he doesn't, it's not country music. But it's like something better. If you said, "You can listen to Nashville Skyline or some Buck Owens album," I'd probably pick Nashville Skyline. Buck Owens is great, but this is funky. It's weird.
[from Sea Voids, 2009; three Virginia brothers take the blues for a tough-as-metal spin]
This song reminds me a bit of Howlin' Wolf and the ilk. It aims for transcendence—or, at the least, a trance—by repeating a single idea.
The whole idea of the bass and the electric guitar doubling each other was very popular in the early '70s—Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Rush. [Laughs.] I've got to be honest: This is not executed well enough for me. I listen to music that is similar to this. We can dig out the prog rock, but if I'm going to hear them play those single note kind of things, it's got to be tighter. It's loose. It kind of strikes me the way we might have played it in high school. I agree that there's that roots in the blues, but I require more of it. I've butchered all this stuff at some point. In high school, we tried everything. We played Rush tunes and U2 songs and Led Zeppelin. You've got to suck before you're there, I guess. I'm blown away by these people who are fully formed at 20, who already have it together. That's a totally rare thing.
Jon Shain hosts his ninth annual Post-Turkey Day Jam (actually, for eight years, it was a Pre-Turkey Day Jam) Friday, Nov. 27, at Cat's Cradle. Katharine Whalen's Lucky, Old Habits and a guitar-slinging round between Shain, Danny Gotham, Armand Lenchek and Scott Sawyer share the stage. The $10 show begins at 8 p.m.