Category: Thoughts and Rambles

Meet TC Ragstix

For the past couple years, I’ve had a casual, informal writing partnership with a friend I made in California named TC Ragstix. Through my well-advertised dryspell, he has been almost as encouraging as Ehren Ebbage.

Looking over the material I’ve eked out over that wretched stretch, I dare say that some of it is my (our) best work. (Believe or not, this often happens to artists during their worst creative droughts. They keep poking and digging, seemingly without any inspiration, despising the execution of every stroke. Finally they step back and look at what’s there: “Hey! That’s not half bad!.”)

TC’s contribution is substantial enough that I will be sharing writing credit on my 2013 release (whenever that happens — hopefully before 2014).

I credit TC for getting me unstuck when it comes to creating absurd, fun characters. He said: “Don’t be afraid that humor is gonna overshadow whatever serious stuff you’re talking about.”

Me: “Yeah, but I don’t to write novelty songs.”

TC: “If you do it right, your songs will be more meaningful. You disarm the listener by creating something fun, and then you melt their hearts, or you hit ’em the gut… or maybe you just wanna make them think.”

He went on to say, “What is wrong with you Northwesterners, always so deep and meaningful… All that grey wet weather?”

When I ran these thoughts by Ehren Ebbage, he nodded: “Humor has always been a part of your work, Shipe. You didn’t already know that?”

No, I didn’t know that. But now that he’s mentioned it, I’m thinking of “Imitation Man,” “Villain,” “Honky Tonk Romans,” “Another Disaster,” “Junkies on Film,” “What Right Do We Have to Fall in Love,” “American Wisdom,” “Livin’ in Exile,” and “Better Off Without You,” “Surfin’ the Shock Wave.”

But what’s really funny is that, in every one of those songs, I was being deadly serious, broaching subjects that i find profound and unsettling, if not downright dark. It seems like every time I dive into stuff that affects me most deeply, at my best, humor naturally arises.

It reminds me of what Bruno Kirby said about acting in comedy: “You can’t really play a result (comic effect)… I just play the character’s point of view…”

The humor comes from fully and sincerely embodying a characters value system and all of its associations. The humor is almost unintentional, which is the best kind of comedy.

Anyway, I am convicted into sharing songwriting credit, even though he doesn’t want it. If it weren’t for him, my live solo acoustic sets wouldn’t be kickin’ forward with “Jesus,” “Beast is Back,” “The Decider,” “A Drinkin’ Man” (he preached me into playing on ukulele). Oh, and “Pit Bull Rescue Woman” which was originally the brainchild of John Grimshaw.

Shipe SW Tour Days 9 &10 – Race to Austin: gig un-booked!

Insomnia hit me bad after my Thursday night Pecan Grill show. I tossed and turned in an El Paso Motel 6. On one hour of sleep, I was awake at dawn to drive 8 1/2 hours for my opening slot at Gypsy Lounge in Austin.

As I drove out of El Paso, along the Rio Grande, I was suddenly hit by a an unpleasant surprise. Although Mapquest had promised me that I would arrive in time, I hadn’t noticed that the drive time was based on West Texas speed limits! Sure, you can drive 600 miles in 8 hours… going 80 miles per hour!

I don’t like riding my beat up 1990 Toyota Corolla Wagon so hard, full of gear. But what could I do? I’m a professional. I pony-expressed it all the way through “no-country-for-old-men,” freaking out the whole time, listening to my car’s every rattle, whistle, squeak and any utterance of old-automobile pain. By the time I got to Austin, my beloved vehicle had acquired 37% more rickitiness. (Isn’t that the technical term? Or is rickiticity?)

The good thing about the drive is the condition of Texas roads. They are so smooth. Either the great state of Texas has impeccable road priorities, or Rick Perry makes good use of Obama’s Recovery Act funding.

When I arrived at the Gypsy Lounge, guess what!? I was not slated on the bill. In fact, there was no “bill” at all. A dj was scheduled to start spinning at 10:00 pm. For the moment, however, I wasn’t even thinking about performing. I wanted a refreshment. Like range-riding cowboy just off the dusty trail, busting through the saloon doors. “Bartender, give me a drink!”

I played anyway. The owner asked me, “Are you good?”

“Yes, I’m good.”

For the time being, I have no will to get angry at my booking contact. I’m mostly here in Austin for the Pit Bull Events this weekend, hosted by Austin Love-a-Bull.

The V.I.P. Kickoff Party is tonight at 7:00. And the Texas-Size Pittie Pride Parade & Festival is tomorrow.

Shipe @ Moon Time, CDA (8/4)

The management and staff at Moon Time in Coeur D’Alene treat touring artists better than any other similar venue.

It has been a while since I’ve been here. New faces. (Lex, I missed you!)

I forgot how noisy this gig is. Probably the noisiest venue I play. A line from my song “Honky Tonk Romans” comes to mind:

“I was singing just like a bird / But nobody heard my beautiful words / I must looked and sounded so absurd.

However, as I’ve said a hundred times before, noisy crowds are listening more closely than they appear. Invariably, I discover afterwards that they’ve heard things in surprising detail. Specific songs, lyrics, musical passages. So I never give a lazy performance… no matter what.

The sight may seem bizarre — a singer-songwriter in a dimly-lit raised section of a noisy drinking/restaurant establishment, pushing it out like his life depended on it. I’m sure there are few hipsters who find it almost comical, misinterpreting my earnestness as desperation. But I keep the between-song stage banter to a minimum, let the music do the talking, and folks show their appreciation.

Certain songs grab them. (This is how I know they’re listening.) The tune that turned heads last night? “Jesus.”

It’s a new one. And I don’t quite understand why it has become a hit. At every single show, I am approached: “Which album is that ‘Jesus’ song on?”

Essentially, “that Jesus song” is a twist on Appalachian hillstompin’ Gospel. I wanted to call it “A More In-Your-Face Jesus” (a phrase I lifted from an article I read about a painter in the South who depicts a Savior sporting a mullet, with tattoos & piercings and muscle — the kind of messiah that children could look up to as an ass-kicking hero… instead of that ineffectual gentle shepherd who said “suffer the little children to come unto me.)

I chose not to title it so sardonically; I never want to come across as making fun of anybody. (If there is humor in a satirical piece, such humor is more effective when borne upon honest affection for the subject.)

The lyrical content is a strident, machismo warning about the head-rolling that’s bound to happen when the Messiah returns pissed off. It’s a lot of fun to perform, I tell ya! I mean to offend nobody. And if anyone does get offended, I just hope they can take a moment to think about what it is we artists do. We tell stories. We put on characters. We have fun indulging in language and scenarios that strike our imagination.

I like to think of this song as my All in the Family moment. Do you remember that sitcom from the 70’s? Archie Bunker was a hilarious character. Liberal progressives and cultural activists laughed at his bigotry as satire. To them, he looked utterly, ridiculously ignorant — a clear portrayal of the banality of reactionary prejudice. For rightwingers and reactionaries, Archie “told it like it is,” putting liberals like “Meathead” their place with poignant working class expressions of frustration in a changing world.

In retrospect, we all know the correct take on Carrol O’Conner’s portrayal. But at the time, everybody was happy. My conservative dad liked him. My liberal mom loved to hate him. And the network had a long-running hit.

So, what I have here is a tune that gives some people a laugh at the satire they find in it. Others — folks who are “believers” —are free to enjoy the song as a strangely executed twist on Appalachian Gospel. They are welcome to. I see no reason why not. It’s always best when I perform it without irony. And truth be told, the “more-in-your-face-Jesus” is a character right out of some preachers’ sermons. I didn’t make Him up.

Shipe @ Oregon Country Fair (7/8)

Yesterday, I had my strongest Oregon Country Fair show ever. The crowd was generous at Shady Grove Stage. And I felt good. They didn’t even seem to mind as I had trouble tuning my guitar under the hot sun. (Read further for my theory as to why this year’s set is better than the past.)

I’ve been performing at Fair for two decades now. Almost every year, I’ve appeared on one of the many side-stages — semi-acoustic or entirely acoustic.

A few blissful times, with my old band The Renegade Saints, I’ve rocked the main stage.

This evening, Matt Butler’s Everyone Orchestra headlined. And I am fondly reminded of year I was exceedingly blessed to join them. I say “exceedingly,” because E.O., as an entertainment act, is what Country Fair is all about. They are not a “band” so much as a “gathering of musicians” by invitation — a different lineup every time — horns, guitars, percussion, strings, turntables, old-timey stuff, banjos and mandolins, exotic things like sitars and ouds. Whatever and whomever Matt finds intriguing. They are absolutely unrehearsed. Matt directs them with hand signals and a grease board through a series of improvised pieces.

My bands — The Saints, The Blue Rebekahs, The Scapegoats — and my solo act, for the most part, have leaned towards the serious side of song. Not exactly what you’re in the mood for when surrounded by painted bodies, stilt-walkers, centaurs, clowns, fairies, carnival barkers, and other swirling odditorium entities.

The Fair is a vaudevillian/circus sideshow melded with rootsy hippiedom and craft-booth creative capitalism. It’s where you go to see entertainment that you can’t get at your average local venue. Yeah, there is some fairly conventional reggae, hip-hop, jamband, and socio-political folk. But the real appeal is the unusual stuff: juggling troupes, burlesque, circus music, exotic vaudeville, and some acts that I can’t even describe.

There are a lot of homemade instruments, played by the makers who have mastered them. My own set on the Shady Grove stage was preceded by Shovelman, who built a guitar out of shovel, and plays virtuosic weird blues. After me, came the legendary Baby Gramps with his eccentric old-timey dobro.

This year, I was promoted as “Thurberian character-filled Americana.” Ha! If there is one thing that Oregon Country Fair is all about… Well, The Fair is about a lot of things. (Strange and bizarre things.) But one thing here, that we celebrate mightily, is the ancient art of story telling. And if there is one way to make “Americana” sound like it’ll fit the Country Fair vibe, it’s to call it “Thurberian.”

All that dovetails nicely with the developments in my own craft and career over the past 3 years. Between songs, I must have talked to the crowd nearly as long as the songs themselves. And my songs nowadays are full of a lot more stories and characters than they used to be.

By the way, if you’re interested, James Thurber was a mid-20th century satirist who wrote my favorite fairy-tale: The 13 Clocks.

Pit Bull Rescue Woman

I said I’d do it, and I did it….finally. My cohort John Grimshaw and I made a video/slideshow out of “Pit Bull Rescue Woman” (Thanks to a multitude of contributors in the world of Pit Bull Rescue, the list of whom you’ll see on the YouTube posting.)

Although the song waxes tongue-in-cheek, I hope the message of gratitude and reverence rings out loud and clear.

I’ve got a confession, though: The seed of this idea does not belong to me. It belongs to Mr. Grimshaw.

Back in April, I had just returned from an event in Phoenix, a benefit for May Day Pit Bull Rescue. I had had such a rewarding experience, and I was so impressed with the woman who ran the operation, that I couldn’t stop bragging about how smart, organized, and authoritative she was. And somewhere in the conversation, the subject came up that she also very attractive… uh…. as a woman…

“Oh,” said John G. “Is she single?”

“Um,” I said. “I don’t know.”

“Well,” said John G. “Maybe next time I could go with you. And you could introduce me to her.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“What do mean?” he replied.

“Well” said I, with unusual thoughtfulness in my reply. “She’s a pitbull rescue woman.”

“What do you mean?” asked John G.

“A pitbull rescue woman,” I replied, “ain’t for the faint of heart.”

“Is that right?” said my friend John Grimshaw.

Moments later, I found myself sitting on the couch in the next room, a little dazed, and wondering why I had said what I just said, as if I really knew what this pitbull woman was like. And suddenly, I heard, faintly from the other room, my friend John Grimshaw strumming lightly on his guitar, and singing: “Pit Bull Rescue Woman, she ain’t for the faint of heart………”

And this reminded me: One of the great secrets to being a successful songwriter is knowing when a good song is staring you in the face. “Pit Bull rescue woman; she ain’t for the faint heart.”

I confess, I’m a little embarrassed, as a songwriter, that I missed the obvious song-hook moment.” But that’s what’s collaboration is all about.

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Shipe @ Art & The Vineyard (7/2)

It’s rare to play a full-length featured solo set on a big stage at a festival. 90 minutes is a long time to carry a show by yourself, but I love it. In the past, I would take on some accompaniment for a gig like that. (Jerry-Groove on upright acoustic bass or Ebbage on lead guitar. Or both.) But from here on out, 90 solo minutes on big stages is exactly what I want, as often as possible.

The hour-and-a-half went by in a snap, and I could have easily gone another half-hour. It might have been nature of the event. You know, wine & art in the park. And it might have been the home-town welcome. But the moment was surprisingly intimate — suitable for a singer/songwriter sitting on a chair, wearing a tie and a fedora, with a guitar, a ukulele, and a few stories to tell. It was just me hanging out with an audience sitting on blankets in the sun on a grassy field. Not much different from a wine-bar or coffee house gig.

My eyes were opened to the potential power of the solo set about 6 years ago, when I was booked as an opener for Jerry Joseph at John Henry’s in Eugene. Jerry was on a solo acoustic tour, without the Jackmormons. But I didn’t have a solo set worked up at the time, so I brought my band The Blue Rebekahs.

Conventional wisdom says that full bands play after acoustic acts. But conventional wisdom also says that John Shipe plays before Jerry Joseph. So I asked him: “Hey Jerry, is it all right that I brought my band?”

Jerry answered, “I ain’t afraid of no f–kin’ band.”

(Now, before you interpret this brusque response as rude, I should tell you that Jerry later invited me to sit in on his set. After I jammed on two songs, he said, “It sounds so good, why don’t you just stay up here and play the rest of the show.” Graciousness with fellow musicians can be one of Jerry’s golden features.)

In that moment, I vowed to also never be afraid of playing solo, in any environment, on any stage, on any bill. The trick is to make sure that your acoustic versions are not merely quieter versions. They are different; not less. You gotta lean into that difference. Sing along with the solo acoustic instrument that you’re playing in the moment, not the absent band in your head. Furthermore, as you embrace the intimacy, you’ll find it surprising just how aggressive, rockin’ and big you can get all by yourself. But it must make sense in sonic context. (I have discovered this in my acoustic version of Al Toribio’s “Letter Home.” In The Renegade Saints, this song is powerful, grandiose Southern rocker. By my lone acoustic self, I enter the song softly, relaxed. 3 minutes later, I find myself belting out the vocals and banging out the chords, but in an entirely “acoustic” way, earned through a gradual intimate trajectory.)

About that ukulele. I’m still working on it. I can’t keep it tune, my rhythms are plain, and I haven’t yet tapped into those wonderful uke-swinging 4-note chords that make it so special. But damn! It never fails to be a showstopper. One woman came up to me later: “When I heard that ukulele, I came running over to the stage to see what was going on.” So, no doubt I will be delving deeper into uke territory.

Shipe & Walker @ Rock Creek Tavern (6/30)

Last night, old friend and fellow Renegade Saint Mike Walker—back from Africa—sat in on piano at Rock Creek Tavern in Hillsboro, OR. Delighted, I’m hoping it’s a prelude to more such gigs. (Add Alan Toribio to mix… and/or Dave Coey, and we get closer to real Renegade Saints shows. But I like these acoustic sectionals, sometimes wondering if I actually prefer their subtlety and warmth to the spectacle of unbridled Saintly gargantuanism. We used to advertise such meetings as “Petty Saints” gigs. The rule was, any combination of 2 or 3 of us was Petty Saints. If we had the entire front four—even without Ned the drummer—we called it a Renegade Saints show. With Ned the drummer, we have a very special kind of beast, after which I’m usually prescribed bed-rest for several days.)

Mike is a “listening” player. He pays close attention, responsive to the singer/songwriter’s dynamics. You easily witness his concentration. He doesn’t just learn the chord progression and plow through it. This visceral manifestation of musical respect, in the moment, brings out ever more pronounced dynamics in the lead’s performance, resulting in emotion. There is more space-between-the-notes. Starker melodic trajectories. Quieter, more intense low spots. More aggressive highs.

It’s a paradox: With the right musical hands, you can discover new levels of feeling, mood and nuance in under-rehearsed material.

Mike was a session cat on my last album, so he’s somewhat familiar with newer Shipe stuff. But I didn’t want his whole night to feel like “hanging-on,” so I gave him a lot of my older tunes. Wow! I hadn’t realized how much I’ve changed since those rockin’ days of yore. I was darker then, driving at something, like trying to scratch an itch that I couldn’t reach. (Which is why you play with a band sometimes, ’cause you gotta hand someone else the scratcher for those certain hard-to-reach places.) A few of these songs are on the Saints live album. Mercy Saints Alive!

Mike plays with a lot folks in Portland. But right now, his main act is with those other four Saints I’m talking about in Mexican Gunfight.

Musical Instrument Museum amazes (Phoenix)

After my protracted CD Release/Promo Campaign, I find myself creatively drained, waiting for the well to fill up again.

Whatever starts those juices flowing again, one never knows what it will be: a good read, a special gig (like the Mayday Pitbull Rescue benefit I just played) …a vacation, or maybe just time. (Time enough to get utterly bored and sick with your idle self.)

Last Saturday, I was moved by a visit to The Musical Instrument Museum, in Phoenix.

If this place doesn’t inspire you, you’re heart has hardened to its core. This is Tony Bennett’s favorite museum in the world. (When it comes to all things musical, you can count on Tony Bennett’s opinion as God’s final word.) Carlos Santana, who is featured in a display, is overwhelmed by it.

The place is huge, exhibiting the music of the entire world–thoroughly and in depth, with reverence and affection for all cultures. With your headset on, you walk through several gigantic rooms–one for each continent–listening to incredible music from all over in the world. Each and every country–even those smaller European nations recently re-partitioned after the break up of the Soviet Union–has its own booth, with video and signage explaining its culture, history, and the engineering of its instruments. This place is a geography and anthropology lesson through music.

When I talk of being inspired, I don’t mean that I am merely enhanced, intellectually, by introduction to unfamiliar and obscure musical forms. I mean that my very soul is touched, swollen with emotions.

As you take in each country, one-by-one, you can’t help think about the human connectedness that defies the boundaries on the map. Moving from Central to North Africa, you witness similar instruments, similar sounds–gradually changing as you head towards the Middle East. Turning East towards India and the Orient, and it changes further, retaining vestiges of what you left behind in Africa. Or continue North, to those “Stan” nations, and to the Himalayas, and the Mongolian Steppe, and hear high mountain jamming Asian style. Or go West, and hear those exotic sounds mutated into Eastern European style among Mediterraneans, Slavs and Czechs, and Gypsies and Balkans.

These micro-thin common threads running through our musical DNA are unmistakable. Back in Africa room, I watched video after video of desert-dwelling and bush-dwelling virtuosos picking handcrafted stringed instruments; I knew I was listening Appalachian banjo-picking. Paste 300-year-old Scottish, Irish & Welsh folk tunes onto African banjo meditations, and you end up with Ralph Stanley.

Let’s face it, music has always been way ahead of us.

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Northwest Indie Music puts “Villain” in top 10 of 2011

I’m glad I still qualify as a Northwest Musician, so I could be reviewed by a young man named Andrew Fickes of Northwest Indie Music.

Andrew says: Villain” is hands down among the top 10 releases of 2011.”

Villain has been reviewed more than any I’ve released so far. Most of the reviews are kind, some glowing. None, so far, are blanket pannings. But I am truly glad that Andrew likes it, because he’s one of the few critics who pays deep attention to the story-writing. Most critics talk about the “sound.” They refer to content only in passing. And this, in some way, tips off the lack of time and attention lent to the material. Read more »

Italian Shipe Review still untranslated

I love getting reviews from overseas in European languages, because the suspense lasts while I seek a translation into English.

Recently, a new online friend from Italy posted a review of Villain on his blog: Resto in Ascolto. Admittedly, I already know I’m in friendly territory here, ’cause we’ve communicated back and forth by personal e-mail, and he has said some nice things. But I am fascinated by the whole idea of language, dying to know how he describes my music to his fellow countrymen.

First, I scan the review in the original language, trying to decipher as best I can. (I took French for 5 years, and studied Old English, so there are some European words whose meaning I can guesstimate. I enjoy this linguistic exercise.) So far, I see the phrase “album dell’anno.” If this means “album of the year,” I’m going to faint. And when I wake up, I’m sending him flowers.

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