The blues guitarist Jon Shain is contemplating the ways in which the seven songs he wrote with the old-time banjo player Joe Newberry altered his musical approach.
Those tunes—written for their collaborative debut as a duo, the new Crow the Dawn—reminded him to be open to new experiences, Shain says, and to surrender his ego in collaborative work. It showed him that a different approach isn't necessarily a wrong approach and that truly paying attention to someone else's work can be more valuable than playing blues licks alongside it.
But then, almost as an afterthought, Shain realizes that the experience had a more tangible effect: It helped him salvage a band of which Newberry wasn't even a member.
As Shain and Newberry worked to finish the 14-track record last summer, F.J. Ventre, the longtime bassist in Shain's self-named trio and the anchor for much of Crow the Dawn, said he was quitting the band. He and Shain had played together since 1982, when they were both Massachusetts high school students, but it was time to move on.
"I was really bummed out about it," Shain says. "I decided that, if F.J. was leaving, I was just going to break up the band, start something new."
He diagnosed the problem, however, just in time: Though he and Ventre had played together for more than 30 years, Shain had written all the songs. If he and Ventre co-wrote some material, as he had just done with Newberry, would his bassist and buddy stick around?
"I made him that offer, and that's what it ended up being, really," Shain says. "After writing with Joe, I had the confidence to know that, if I could be successful writing with him, I could be successful writing with F.J., too We've been working with some of his ideas, bouncing them around, and I'm already ready for that project."
That approach of giving ground is a key tenet of Crow the Dawn, a delightful and diverse set that finds Shain, 48, and Newberry, 58, trying new tricks. Both musicians have worked in the Triangle for decades and steadily gained national attention for their singular interpretations of the past—Shain as a bluesman with a reverent core and a revisionist streak, Newberry as a pristine banjo player and clarion singer who has lately earned attention and major awards as a poetically earnest songwriter.
Here, though, Shain shuffles into Newberry's open-hearted worldview for the tender ode to domestic contentment, "Ember and Flame," while Newberry adds a little tough-guy swagger to match Shain's gutbucket narration during "The Last Time I Saw Laszlo." With Ventre on bass and Shain on guitar, "Joe's Blues" gets unexpected pep. And during the gorgeous opener, "All Your Neon Dollars," the pair suggests The Byrds lifting out of retirement to ponder their younger days with equal parts wonder and worry. The graceful country-rock reflection pushes both Shain and Newberry out of their expected roles.
"You need to be listening as well as you play. Instead of all the ideas stemming from your playing, listen to what the other person is trying to do and trying to say with their writing," Shain says. "People will be surprised. People who expect me to be a blues player won't hear a lot of blues on this record."
A student of the form's elders, Shain confesses he almost always jumps at the chance to work with and learn from older musicians. In this case, though, Newberry felt at times like the student, thanks to Shain's long songwriting résumé.
"To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, I am an old man but a young songwriter. When I saw myself doing all this stuff with Jon, I could see the 'me' there, but I was observing it, too," says Newberry. "It allowed me to work outside of myself."
In the past, Newberry's traditional music has required little in the way of production—a band or a banjo in a room, surrounded by a few microphones. But the veteran producer Dave Tilley took the task of making the duo's debut even before they decided to do it; when he heard the two were playing together, he urged them to finish a record and let him produce. The multi-day sessions involved many takes of most songs, a separate night for Ed Butler's loping drums, and batches of overdubs recorded at Tilley's home with a passel of contributors, from gospel singers and jazz pianists to Red Clay Ramblers and Shain's bandmates. It ranks as one of the most grandiose productions of Newberry's career.
"I've had a lot more creative control in the past, because I haven't worked with producers very much," Newberry says. "But working with Jon and Tilley, I figured out really quickly that these guys have a very good but different take on stuff than I, being the traditional guy, would. I learned to talk less and listen more."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tangled roots"