Tommy Shaw – The Great Divide (2011): On Second Thought

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This was one of those records that I didn’t expect to like, maybe didn’t even want to like. Bluegrass, I like. Tommy Shaw, I like. You couldn’t help but wonder how The Great Divide would ever come together.

Yet, as with other successful couplings of incongruent things (like chocolate and peanut butter, or Robert Plant and Alison Krauss), there is a memorable alchemy here — not to mention a respectful playfulness. Everything about The Great Divide (issued on March 22, 2011) somehow works.

Don’t come in looking for a pickin’-and-grinnin’ “Renegade,” or a hillbilly take on “Too Much Time on My Hands” — two of the more memorable sides he’s written and recorded with Styx, his rock and roll day job. No, The Great Divide, featuring 11 new songs that Tommy Shaw either wrote or co-wrote, finds him on guitar, mandolin and resonator guitar alongside a terrific group of rootsy talents — including Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, Stuart Duncan, Byron House and Scott Vestal. Krauss and Dwight Yoakam even lend harmony vocals.

Tommy Shaw comes by all of this honestly, believe it or not. The Great Divide is no bored dilettante move. As a boy growing up in Montgomery, Ala., Shaw remembered sitting in the backseat of a 1958 Chevy listening to the legendary Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts from WSM in Nashville. And he brings that same sense of wonder and exhuberance to The Great Divide.

Sure, you hear hints of his former self: “The Next Right Thing” deftly blends bluegrass and the kind of pop/rock songwriting that drove Damn Yankees, his 1990s collaboration with Ted Nugent and Night Ranger’s Jack Blades, up the charts. Same with the title track, and the lovely “Afraid To Love.” But check out “Calvary,” which might have been a hit on country radio, if not for Shaw’s lasting association over three decades with rock music. Then, there’s Tommy Shaw tearing through a list of lip-smacking deep-fried culinary delights on “Back In Your Kitchen.”

Throughout, he sounds completely, utterly at home. It’s like listening to someone slowly revert to a comfortable kind of slang when they get around childhood friends. And that makes “I’ll Be Coming Home” the perfect album closer, in more ways than one.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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