Sometimes it takes only one note to bring you back to a long forgotten memory. Then again, it just may be the instrument playing that note, that will allow you to journey back in time. For him, it's the haunting sound of the accordian that brings him back to his youth. He was just a lad, but he can still remember it like it was just yesterday.
His father was a hard working, blue collar American who worked as a lineman for the local electric company. He worked hard all day and even throughout the night, especially during storms and hurricanes. After work, like any typical father in the 1970's, he would stop off at the local tavern for just a nip or two.
On the weekends, well that was a different story. His father was a member of a local polka band called The Happy Travelers. The group was not your typical polka band as they had a full horn section that turned them into a power house when it came to music.
To this day, he can still hear his father tell the old joke "Yeah, we're the Happy Travelers, were not happy and we don't travel." Nonetheless, he remembers sitting in the living room of the old house with it's shag carpet, listening to the beautiful music his Dad and friends would create.
Music has always been a part of his life. He smiles and his face lights up as another memory comes into his mind's eye. His memory flashes back to a little boy sitting on the floor with a 45 record player. With his father gone all the time and his mother not seeing eye to eye, tensions were high in his house hold.
"My Dad was a drinker and he came home pretty buzzed every night from work and he was gone playing music every weekend." shares Country Music singer and songwriter, Shawn Byrne. "There was a lot of friction between him and my mom. It was rough for a lot of years until they got divorced. But as a young kid, you find ways to escape. I went for the records and headphones. I absorbed, even from the earliest, earliest, earliest memories - I remember my first birthday present I ever got was a little 45 record player. I was probably four-years-old. I got 'Cupid' by Sam Cooke, the 45. I got 'Sailing' by Kris Kristofferson. 'Let My Love Open The Door' by Pete Townshend and there was one other song, record that I got for my birthday that year. That was it! I was just addicted to records. We had one of those big council record players, with the tubes in it, that just sounds awesome! My Dad's record collection was Beatles... we had every Beatles record, we had every Rolling Stones record. We had Hank Williams. We had Johnny Cash. We had all this honky tonk stuff. But I became obsessed with the Beatles. I would just get lost in the White Album and just put headphones on and just stare off into space. I would just like meditating on the notes. Those records had all the stuff...it was just amazing to me. The music was beautiful, the melodies, the instrumentation...it was amazing. It just blew my mind. For years, all I did was listen to records. What I was doing was, and I didn't know it, I was training my ear. Fast forward almost thirty years and I'm still doing it!"
Great country music entertainers do not come from places like rural Connecticut, or do they?
The road from Middletown, Connecticut, to Nashville, Tennessee, clocks in a nine-hundred and ninety-four miles, but it's quite the journey. Especially if you're trying to become a country music singer.
For Shawn Byrne (pronounced Burn), his journey has led him to meet some very interesting people along the way. His vast love and respect for music persuaded him to delve into learning how to play the guitar. The self taught musician ended up at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. For Shawn, learning formal instruction did not work into his mentality of what music was.
It was a simple job and meeting a very talented handicapped woman, that led him to the Perkins School for the Blind. Byrne was so inspired by what his charges could create that he decided to take the ultimate plunge into the music industry by heading to Nashville.
With a lot of hard work and a bit of elbow grease, Shawn had become one of Nashville's most sought out guitarists and demo singers. Soon he found himself working and touring with country music's top artists like James Otto, Rodney Atkins, Mark Collie, Ashton Shephered and Kelleigh Bannen. Although the work was good and it paid well, it really wasn't what he wanted in music.
By this time, Shawn had honed his writing skills to near perfection. Now it was his time to create an album worthy of the greats he grew up with.
On March 29, 2016, Shawn Byrne released his latest project called Slow Bullet. The album features an array of twelve genuinely honest songs that depict authentic subjects that are performed using real country music melodies. Most of all, he showcases his vast talents as a songwriter as each song is written or co-wrote by Byrne.
The album opens with a beautiful tribute song called "Haggard Song." Shawn mixes the instrumental styling that Merle Haggard was known for with his own musical style to create this tribute to the legend. The song is ingenious as Byrne uses the titles of Mr. Haggard's more notable songs to tell the story of a musician who moves to Nashville to follow in his musical hero's footsteps.
"I couldn't even pinpoint it, it's everything!" shares Shawn when asked who his musical influences are. "It's everything. I just can't say it's...I love Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and it sounds so cliche, 'cause everybody says you know Merle Haggard and Waylon.
"Ray Charles he said one of my favorite quotes and I like to steal this quote all the time - Ray Charles said there's only two kinds of music...good and bad.' That's kind of where I'm at. I love anything that's good, anything that moves me and speaks to me, I love. I just can't say I love one artist. Who's my biggest influence? All of them. Put 'em in a bucket and I'll dump 'em on your desk! There's a hundred of 'em!"
Shawn teams up with Chuck McCarthy to write a tribute to the West Virginia coal miners who lost their lives in a song called "Diamonds And Coal." This sincere ballad conveys the message of two different worlds, the coal miners and the owners of the mines.
Another tribute song that Shawn includes on this extraordinary album is called "Lucinda." At one point in his career, he worked with a band that opened for the legendary singer and songwriter Lucinda Williams. Byrne does his best to capture the persona of Ms. Williams in this country rock song.
Symbolism is quite prevalent in writing a good song and what would a good country album be without a song about trains? Shawn brilliantly uses the symbol of a train wreck to depict an unhealthy relationship in "Off The Rails." This song combines a bluegrass baseline melody and the traditional sounds of Hank Williams with a slight rock-n-roll acoustic guitar riff to create an inventive song.
Shawn taps into his love and respect for Johnny Cash as he includes two quite comical songs with "Titty Pink Cadillac" and "Beer Tree." Both songs are based on true stories...
"This girl, I know, told me about her Grandfather, that's a true story. Other than I made up some of the other bits." laughs Shawn. "He was this eighty-year-old playboy living in Texas and he drove what he called his 'titty pink Cadillac.' So I had to write that one. It just made me laugh...I had to put that one to a song. He was just a rancher in Texas, a cool drink of water who just happened to be an old guy. She told me that he would tell her that he taught Elvis how to play the guitar. That Elvis, in his younger days, would stay at his ranch when he was passing through Texas and that he taught Elvis how to play some chords. So he had this legendary status. I have this whole picture in my head of this guy. Pretty much what you hear in the song is mostly fiction. But I figured if an old guy like that is driving around in a titty pink Cadillac and he supposedly taught Elvis how to play guitar - God knows what else he did."
Shawn paints the picture of this 'legend' using a classic Texan - Bob Wills style melody. This is the first of several songs that will hit our list of Top Songs of 2016, while earning the nomination for the Spirit Award's Song of The Year Award.
Perhaps one of the best songs on this album is found in "Beer Tree." Performed as a half sung and half spoken word song, this captures a Jeff Foxworthy type character as it tells a true story of a practical joke.
"I must've been four, or five, or six...I don't know. I was pretty young and my Dad was a big beer drinker. We're talking the 70's now, you know. So he always had a long neck Bud in his hand. He would tell me, exactly like the song...go out and plant it and I did." laughs Shawn. "I'd go out there and water the bottle caps everyday. Then one morning I went out and he had actually stuck the bottles in the ground. I'm like 'Oh my God a beer tree's growing!' Of course they're all laughing their ass off. So I had to write that one for my Dad...he gets a kick out of it!"
Shawn adds to this story as he embellishes it further. This too will hit our list of Top Songs of 2016 and earn a nomination as well with it's fun lyrics mixed with Johnny Cash-esc mentality that's performed in a Merle Haggard style melody.
Another song that will hit our list of Top Songs is "Old." The lyrics of this song refers to how old things are better as it rides a gentle and pleasant country melody that is quite reminiscent of the music George Strait would often sing.
Shawn loves to draw the listener into his songs with great melodies that are mixed with lyrics filled with metaphors. You will certainly find a great analogy in "Lonesome Ol' Guitar" as he compares a musician's guitar to a woman. Guitar lovers and musicians will positively connect to this one with it's beautiful message that rides sound waves provided by an acoustic guitar.
Lacy Green lends her vocal and songwriting skills to aid in "Big Crazy Love." Performed in a modern two-step country melody, this is a simple song about two people in love.
The absolutely best characteristic that Shawn holds as a songwriter is his deep-seated capability to capture subjects, feelings, people and places to create a song. Many songwriters have this skill, but none like Byrne. He has this unique talent to draw from the deepest reaches of his soul to create such passion that resonates through the speakers. The three remaining songs on this album are proof of his ingenuity.
The first song, "Shackled In Chains," captures his observations of seeing small town America losing the battle against big chain corporations. Performed in a soft southern rock style, Byrne uses a play on words while maintaining the listener's attention.
The second song, "Stars And Bars" is the song that truly captured my attention. I was searching all the albums waiting for review, for songs about soldiers for our Memorial Day Honors issue. Thinking this was one, I took a quick listen only to find one of the most powerful songs to come out of Nashville. In this song, Byrne captures the story of a boy who was raised in a family filled with hatred and animosity. The boy grows up following his family's beliefs only to land in jail, after killing another man. This song speaks volumes towards the history of racism as it tells one man's story.
"That story is real. I don't know anybody personally, but that guy exists." shares Byrne. "He exists hundred times over. There's probably people still in jail rotting because of something stupid...and they should."
In recent history, many Americans were in an uproar about the symbolism of the Confederate flag. Shawn uses the flag as a image to articulate an important part of American history. This is one song that needs to be heard to the last note as Byrne brings a sense of hope to the character in the last line of the song.
Many listeners will take this song the wrong way due to the lyrics. It was Shawn's respect for history and the hope for a better future that made him write such a compelling song.
The final cut on the album is the title cut. Performed as a graceful, heartfelt ballad; "Slow Bullet" is the perfect country music song. Through his life, Shawn has known many people who have had to fight a demon called alcoholism. He pays tribute to his friends in this honest ballad as he uses the metaphor of a bullet to a person who is slowly killing themselves with alcohol. This song is the final song on this album to hit our list of Top Songs of 2016, while earning a nomination for the Spirit Awards Song of The Year Award.
George Jones recorded a song in 1985 that asked the question "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" It spoke about all of the great legends, like Johnny Cash, and asked who was going to carry on the mentality, the heart and the soul that real country music has maintained over the years. Since the release of this song, the music industry has been searching for entertainers to carry on the legacy that was formed by such great legends like George Jones and Merle Haggard. Over the years, the music industry has tried its best to introduce us to entertainers that may be able to carry on that torch. But, over the years, the industry has failed to find that person or entertainer.
In listening to this album and speaking to Shawn Byrne, I am confident that we have found the answer to that old question "Who's gonna fill their shoes?" In each of these songs, Shawn is able to capture the spirit of the legends that he grew up listening to and assimilate that into his own music. So much so, that we pulled the entire album and nominated it for the Spirit Award's Album of The Year Award.
He was just a little boy who grew up with a love and respect for good music. Now, he's a man who helps create beautiful and awe-inspiring music.
Ladies and gentlemen...
Mr. Shawn Byrne...
(This article was printed in the July / August 2016 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
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