Rick Shea found he had an affinity with the guitar from an early age. This was the start of a life as a noted guitar slinger, singer and songwriter which has seen him release seven albums, either under his own name or joint albums with Patty Brooker and with Brantley Kearns. He also has produced a number of albums as well as playing guitar with California roots artists like Dave Alvin, James Intveld and Heather Myles. When not playing, Shea works in a music shop. His life is surrounded by music and he continues to make a living from his music. His love for his music means he continues to record and perform even though he has never seen the financial rewards he should have. Lonesome Highway caught up with him on his recent visit to Dublin.
When you’re thinking about making a new album what’s the starting process for you?
Basically it’s just coming up with the songs. The recording process sorts itself out pretty easily as I’m recording myself these days and I know so many other people that record and have studio set ups. So the biggest step is coming up with the ten to twelve songs that I want to record.
In order to get twelve do you write more to get those?
I’m not really like that, I usually just write the ten or twelve songs but there may be five or six songs along the way that I don’t complete as I might get sidetracked with them.
Do you write to a particular theme or just take them as they come?
I generally can’t think that broadly. I tend to focus on one song at a time. They can come from a little guitar part, that I like, where I think “that’s a nice little guitar part” and then I need a reason to play it. That’s a good source of inspiration. Quite often I think of myself as a guitarist first and so often in the writing process that can seem like excuses for me to play the guitar. They come from different places. I can have a general idea and work from there or sometimes it’s a melody or a chord progression. For me it’s any angle that gets it done is ok.
Do you find the lyric writing hard in that case?
It can be. But it also can fall into place very nicely which sometimes surprises me and some times makes me nervous.
Is co-writing an option then?
I like to co-write but I generally don’t sit down with a person and say “let’s write a song”. I usually come at it from where I already have something along to a certain extent and I’m either having trouble completing it or I think this person writes in that style and that they could bring something complementary to it. That’s usually my approach to co-writing but I’ve also been brought in from the other way. People have had songs where they feel that they’ve gotten to a certain point and they’ll say “what do you think of this” and we can then complete a song together. They way they do it in Nashville where they sit down to write by appointment is not the way I do it though I have done that with a few people and one girl in particular Jann Browne, who did a lot of writing in Nashville. She was very good, she had a lot of ideas and she was fast. I get nervous with that as I feel I need to sit down and mull things over.
You have worked with Jann and Rosie Flores and made a duet album with Patty Brooker...
Yes, I was very happy with that album. She and I did some co-writing for that. We also sat down and worked out all the vocal arrangements.
She plays bass doesn’t she?
She does. She’s learning to play the bass. It worked out well for a lot of the smaller shows we did together.That made it easier to do some things.
You mentioned earlier that the California country scene isn’t as strong as it used to be. What to you attribute that to?
It’s kinda fractured, But the people I tend to see moving on were people who, while not making a judgement or anything, had moved to California at some point from somewhere else. They were trying to get something going and had worked for a certain amount of time there and got to a certain level and maybe then felt that it had stalled and maybe thought “I could have a little more success in another place”. People who I work with a lot, who I know, are people who grew up there and their families are there and are probably not going to go anywhere else. They’re pretty deeply tied to California.
You moved around a lot growing up as you came from a military family. How did that affect you?
I’ve been in California since I was twelve years old. The story of California is of people coming there for different reasons and so the rarer thing is those who have roots going back generations. It is a place that people seem to be drawn to and in that sense I do feel very much a part of California.
When you settled there what inspired you to first pick up a guitar?
Just being a kid and being attracted to it. Music always appealed to me and I had played a bit in the school band and then just through friends. I seemed to be able to pick parts pretty quickly and I recognized that I seem to have a natural thing for it. Then, fairly quickly, I picked up an old Fender guitar, my parents got it for me and at that time having a Fender guitar was the greatest thing.
So was it Beatles, Stones and British Invasion through to Bakersfield and Buck?
That is pretty much how it happened. I have to say I wasn’t as much of a Beatles fan when I was younger but I did like the Rolling Stones and some of the grittier and blusier based groups like The Animals. I pretty soon began to discover band like Buffalo Springfield, The Grateful Dead and Byrds which led to the Flying Burrito Brothers and then I got really into country music radio. That’s when I was in high school. That when I first really listened to Merle Haggard and I understood it but not in a way that I could verbalize it at the time but I knew that a country music song in the hands of someone like that was a very real expression.
That may be why Music Row tries to move the core audience to a younger audience as usually it has been appreciated by people who have lived a little more.
That’s what it really was for such a long time and that was one of my favourite things about it. You’re right the commercial country music today is youth orientated and market driven. I don’t think that’s good or bad that it’s just what it is. The music that I listen to and that I’m involved with is pretty far outside of that.
Does that affect your career?
I’m very, very happy to be doing this for as long as I have. It is a tough life and I heard someone describe it as, something that never occurred to me before, “a blue collar job”. It then occurred to me that it really is. The aspect of being onstage has some glamour to it and everything but beyond that it’s hard work, traveling especially. But, as I say, I’m fortunate to be able to do this.
When you play onstage solo or with an artist like Dave Alvin you seem to be totally absorbed by the music.
That’s the place I would try to and want to be. Depending on the situation I might be work very hard just to try to remember where the songs are going. I do a lot of shows were there’s no rehearsal. You listen to songs and try to learn them and then jump in and do the show.
Is that exciting or terrifying?
There’s definitely some excitement involved but if I don’t feel I’ve prepared enough I can be pretty worried.
Who do you enjoy playing with?
It’s hard to really nail down but I really enjoy working with female vocalists. I love the songs and for me as a male singer their themes and sentiments work within certain boundaries. To work with a great girl singer opens up the whole feeling of what songs can be about.
That’s a favourite thing of mine and I guess I get to do it plenty with women like Heather (Myles) and Patty (Brooker). I’m not doing anything like that currently. But otherwise working with Dave Alvin has been great as he was truly one of my musical heroes and still is.
Getting to play with him was a real highlight for me.
Is it difficult playing in a band with another great guitarist?
I’ll tell you that nothing has really felt much better to me than when I would play a solo part on the guitar and Dave would turn around and give me a little smile or a wink. He’s gets very wrapped up in his performance and even communicating with him on stage can sometimes be difficult as he’s so focused so that’s a wonderful thing for me.
You also play pedal steel guitar, do you get asked to do that much?
It just depends, there have been times when I’ve played it more often than not but I’m making less effort to focus in that as I think that in the past playing guitar or pedal steel in other people’s bands has made it a little confusing for people who come to see me play and sing my own songs and define just what exactly it is that I do. Is he an multi-instrumentalist, a guitar player or is he a singer/songwriter. Maybe playing guitar is not as confusing but the whole nature of playing pedal steel guitar is different as a lot of people don’t really understand the instrument itself. How it makes the sounds it makes so I’ve been playing that more in the studio. If people want me to record I’m happy to do that. Aside from that it’s a very heavy instrument to carry around.
How does that fit in with having your own studio?
People send me tracks and I’ll record on those and send them back which is nice and I do that without having to leave the studio but that doesn’t happen enough for me to just do that. But along with all the other things that I do it keeps me going.
Your production is that something you enjoy as much?
I do. I don’t think in terms of my being a producer out for hire though, taking on any projects. For me it’s usually someone I either know or whom I’m familiar with who I have a lot in common with musically. Then I can see really clearly from when I first hear the song what I can do with it. Maybe not entirely 100% but I know that I can produce that album. That’s the way it works for me. It’s kinda on a selective basis. It’s another part of the handful of things I do.
Who have you most recently worked with?
The Good Intentions from Liverpool. Their album is just completed. They came out to my studio. I had played on their first album through a friend of mine Charlie McGovern who was producing that. They had sent vocal tracks over and we had played to that. I got friendly with them through e-mail after that so when I was over in Europe last year I took a side trip up to Liverpool and played with them. We then talked about possible ways to approach doing a new album. So I set up sessions with people like Dave Ravens and we tracked for about four or five days with them (R. Peter Davis and Gabrielle Monk) and they then took the tracks back to Liverpool to have some of their guys play on it.
It opens you up to working with musicians anywhere in the world.
It’s the magic of the internet. It’s amazing to me as I’m technically fairly proficient and I understand all that I’m working on.
Do you miss the set-up of a group of musicians playing together in the same room?
We still do that to a certain extent, sometimes more than others. The recording I do with Dave Alvin is done getting everyone in the studio at the one time and to play the song until we have the arrangement and the performance that he or whoever is producing is happy with. It’s not always possible. The more common thing is to have bass and drums and an acoustic guitar and maybe a vocalist to get a performance at that stage and then to continue to add the other things at a later time.
Has it helped you to sell your own music?
It has. What I think the internet has done is to open up the whole playing field to everyone. Put’s them on a more equal basis so that almost anyone can make an album now and promote it on the internet. It has meant that there is a tremendous amount of music and albums out there. You have to do everything you can to draw attention to your self.
Which means, as you were saying that there needs to be less confusion about what it is that you do.
That is very important. It’s something that I should think a little bit more about.
Having played in Europe a lot is there, for you a difference, than in the U.S.?
So far there is. The audiences have been very attentive and they’re there to hear the songs and music and there’s not any real distractions. I have had a great time.