Performer calls on California roots
As origin stories go, it’s not particularly elegant. But perhaps it’s fitting veteran singer-songwriter-guitarist Rick Shea’s recording career began in an understated, decidedly un-glamourous fashion.
“Somebody hit my truck in the parking lot of Kmart in San Bernardino,” recalled Mr. Shea. “After the usual headache, I got a check from the insurance company. I took a look at it, looked at the damage to my truck, and thought, ‘Well, I could get an album started for this.’ So, I put a little spray paint on my truck to cover where the paint had been knocked off, and started my first album.” The resulting album, “Outside of Nashville,” was released on cassette only in 1988.
A Covina resident since shortly after that first record, he recently released “The Town Where I Live,” and he’ll be at Claremont’s Folk Music Center on Saturday, January 20 to promote it. Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show are $12 and are available at the door or the store.
Born in Maryland, he spent his youth from age of 11 on in San Bernardino. It was there he soaked up the sounds that fostered his distinct California musical palette: Norteños, country, blues, Irish music (O’Shea!), and all that sprawling, mixed-bag rock ‘n’ roll radio from the late-1960s on into the ‘70s.
By his teens, he knew he wanted to play music, but had no idea how to go about it. So, he began hitting up open mics, got a band together, and learned his trade on the job. His skills progressed to the point where he made his way to the local bars and honky-tonks, playing weeks at a time in house bands at long-gone spots like the Silver Spur, Clyde’s, Colorado Kid and Bob and Bernie’s Brandin’ Iron. It was the musician’s equivalent of finishing school, only with less “elocution” and more, “don’t get electrocuted.”
All of that fieldwork paid dividends. Since “Outside of Nashville,” Mr. Shea has lived every young musician’s dream: he’s supported himself and his family—he and wife Susie have been together for more than 35 years, and they have two grown sons—exclusively through music. Over the years that’s meant playing solo shows in Ireland, backing up 80-year-old “Queen of Rockabilly,” Wanda Jackson, performing on cross-country trains for the “Roots on the Rails” series, and everything in-between, from coffeehouses to Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a tough thing to keep doing,” he said. “I understand that, and I think I’ve been really lucky. The fact that I’ve played with other people, and did a lot of stuff for a long period of time, I’ve always been able to sorta make a living at this. So, I consider myself really very fortunate.”
With “The Town Where I Live,” Mr. Shea is now 10 records into a recording career of consistently literate, soulful, critically-acclaimed country, folk, blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His place alongside such California institutions as Dave Alvin—with whom he has a long-running musical partnership—is well established. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, a master of the Telecaster, and a pedal steel, mandolin and acoustic guitar virtuoso.
Vocations aren’t always callings; a lot of us punch in and punch out, do our 40, and look for gratification elsewhere. But Mr. Shea is both good and lucky enough to make his living doing something that brings joy to him and others. He’s what musicians call “a lifer,” and he’s seen his job go from analog to digital, from the roadhouse to the laptop, and he’s still standing.
“I enjoy it as much now as I ever have,” Mr. Shea said. “If anything’s changed, I think—I hope—I’ve gotten better at it. That’s kind of what I’m working toward. I honestly do feel that I continue to get better.”
But his greatest satisfaction hasn’t come from accolades—of which there have been plenty—or prime gigs.
“The personal relationships have always been the best part of this for me,” he said. “It’s not anything I thought of going into this. When I was younger I just knew I wanted to play music, but the friendships and relationships I’ve made have really been the special part of this for me.”
His laid-back style in interviews, onstage and in life, has served Mr. Shea well. He’s not one for a cascade of notes. He’s a “less is more” performer and producer, one whose career has been bubbling just under the profile of contemporaries such as Butch Hancock, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Hayes Carll.
If there were justice in the music business, he’d be standing next to Steve Earle or John Prine. He’s modest, mellow and grateful for his success, but not unambitious. “The Town Where I Live” is being released next month in Europe, and he’s angling for a return to the continent, to reconnect with friends, fans and promoters.
“I’m hoping to,” he said. “It’s been about four years, so I’m overdue. At this point I still haven’t really nailed anything down. It’s really whether things line up on their end, and they have openings and it makes sense. It’s an expensive thing to do. I have to work it out so it makes sense financially. All the logistics and transportation are a big undertaking.”
In the meantime, there are plenty of chances to hear him around Southern California. Along with the January 20 date at the Folk, there’s a Wednesday, January 17 show at the Cinema Bar in Culver City, and he’ll be backing Ms. Jackson next Friday, January 12 at the Observatory in Santa Ana. All his solo and band dates are on his website, rickshea.com.
At the Folk, he’ll be joined by his band, longtime bassist David Hall, Steve Mugalian on drums and percussion and Stephen Patt on guitar and accordion.
“I’m really happy and excited about it,” he said of the Folk date. “It’s been a little while, at least a couple of years. Ellen [Harper, the Folk’s general manager] and Jerry [O’Sullivan, longtime Folk employee] and everybody there have been very supportive. I feel like I’m part of the family. It’s a great place. They’re one of the good ones.”
Rick Shea’s “The Town Where I Live” is available at iTunes, Amazon and at rickshea.com. He’ll appear alongside his band, The Losin’ End, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, January 20, at The Folk Music Center, 220 Yale Ave., Claremont. Tickets are $12 and are available at the door or by visiting the store. More information is at folkmusiccenter.com or (909) 624-2928.