Shawn Nelson & the Good Buds
What's rising Austin, Texas-based singer-songwriter Shawn Nelson to do after making what the Austin Chronicle rated as "one of this year's best country albums" with 2011's San Juan Street? Just what he's done all along: Sing, play and entertain folks and keep expanding his style, sound and songs plus continue to raise the bar on his work.
He opens the next chapter in his musical journey with Enough, a four-track EP recorded in collaboration with his band The Good Buds: guitarist Will Webster, mandolinist Fletcher Murchison, bassist Joe Beckham and drummer Patrick Herzfeld. It's the organic result of their regular schedule of shows over the last year in Austin and beyond playing a natural blend of styles and influences that has "something to satisfy every music lover," as Texas Music Journal said of San Juan Street. On Enough, you also hear the sound of a writer and his musical compatriots making music to not just satisfy themselves but also challenge one another to "catch some different grooves, stretch out and generate some cool new vibes," as Nelson says of the disc's creation (produced and engineered by Beckham and Herzfeld).
The title track is not so much a protest song, though it cites Woody Guthrie, as much as a double-punching expression of exasperation at the forces that divide people rather than unite them. "I don't know if one side is right and the other side is wrong," explains Nelson. "All of us just need to say we're not gonna take this stuff anymore and come up with a new way of doing things. I don't know what the answers are. But I do know that people have had enough of everything." Where that song is an overview of the state of the nation, the track that follows, "Come What May," grew out of an impulse to explain the world to his young son and became a microcosmic statement of his commitment to always fight to be free. "One Day" takes its cue from the beat of reggae and its message of finding redemption. The EP closes with "Yea Ya Right," an infectious celebration of all the music that inspires him like "Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt, Kermit Ruffins and the Rebirth Brass Band," as the lyrics explain, and so much more.
Nelson grew up in Houston the son of a dyed-in-wool Texan father and mother from one of the port city's prominent Lebanese-American families, hence by nature he knows and draws from a broad and rich cultural palette. He was weaned on honky-tonk country during weekends with his father's family on the Texas coast while originally being inspired to make music when a New Orleans brass band and the jazz players at Preservation Hall sparked his imagination on a childhood visit to the Crescent City. It set him on a course where he "mixes and matches styles flawlessly," as the Austin Chronicle notes.
His first instrument in his early school years was the trombone. After taking up guitar and starting to write songs in college at the University of Texas in Austin, he won a weekly residency in a down-home downtown country music bar, The Back Forty. Nelson also learned about the music industry as an intern at the Arista Austin record label, where he met and spent time with his creative hero, Robert Earl Keen. “He grew up in Houston as I did, and then went to Texas A&M and started playing in college. It kind of opened my eyes and I thought, wow, maybe I can do that.”
After graduation he headed to Nashville and landed a job as a song plugger for the publishing company of songwriter Liz Rose, known for co-writing hits for Taylor Swift. But he ended up feeling that he was on the wrong path, a notion that crystallized when he was drinking at a bar one Saturday evening and Lone Star songwriting icon Guy Clark sat down next to him. Clark had just come from the funeral of his best friend Townes Van Zandt, and he spent the night giving Nelson guidance and a pep talk on musical excellence and significance. “Guy said Townes was the best songwriter that ever lived, and if I wanted to write songs I should study him, and I’d be just fine,” Nelson recalls. So he packed up and headed back to Austin to focus on making the most of his own creativity.
He started a band, Frontage Road, with fellow singer-songwriter John Saba, who now leads the critically acclaimed alt-country group San Saba County. Frontage Road debuted at the famed Luckenbach dancehall and on their next show opened for Bruce Robison. His next group, Crazy Chester, earned two weekly residencies at the Austin clubs Momo’s and Steamboat, played Dallas and Houston, toured outside Texas, and cut an album before they disbanded. Finally he stepped out front to lead his own group, and cut three albums – Shawn Nelson & The Ramblers, Live From Antone's and Ain't No Easy Way – that generated an ever growing buzz on his talent.
Then with San Juan Street, Nelson found his fullest fruition yet on an album "filled with unexpected pleasures" (Austin Chronicle) that was "like a breath of fresh air compared to the stale beer country being served up by a bunch of Texas singer songwriters" (Song Illinois). Produced by Joel Guzman, known for his accordion work with Joe Ely, it featured such notable guests as Matt Slusher and Will Dupuy from the South Austin Jug Band, fiddler Trisha Keefer of The Trishas, and famed Austin jazz trumpeter Ephraim Owens.
It generated strong reviews both here and abroad along with radio play around Texas and across the nation. As Nelson started gigging to promote the disc with Murchison and Herzfeld (who both played on it) they were joined by Beckham (who Nelson plays with in their old-time music side project Honeydew Revue) and Webster ("The best guitarist I've ever played with," raves Nelson) in an outfit whose time together onstage melded them as musicians and friends, hence they became known as The Good Buds that they are. Herzfeld, also a producer/engineer as well as drummer, suggested that the group start recording at Beckham's studio. The Birdhouse (where Blues Traveler recently did a session).
The results, like their chemistry at live shows, brought a whole new magic to Nelson's songs. "It just kind of all came together naturally," he notes. "We just hung out, which is not to say we weren't serious about it. I let them take the songs and arrange them into something bigger than it is when it's just me and the guitar as well as how I may have envisioned them in my head. It was one the easiest, coolest and most fun recording experiences I've ever had. And my songs have never sounded better." As Enough comes out they are already tracking what will be Nelson's next and fifth album to follow soon.
For Nelson, making music is not just his life's greatest pleasure (aside from time with his wife and son) but also something of a higher calling. “I try to write songs that tell the human story. And I try to stick with characters that have a choice to make, a hill to climb or a obstacle to overcome. I feel like I’m a character in this human story as well,” he says.
“It’s all about people and how things affect them,” he concludes. “I’ve never known anything in my life that gives me as much joy as playing music. I feel at this point that I am so deep into it that I can’t turn back now. I can’t do anything else but keep on doing my thing and staying true to myself, and writing songs and making records that I think are good.”