How a thrilled Suffolk songwriter got to play the Grand Old Opry
13:13 04 August 2014
For Tony James Shevlin music is his life. He has lived and breathed it for as long as he can remember. He’s been a familiar face on the Ipswich music scene organising open mic and singer-songwriter nights in local pubs and playing with Beatles cover band Star Club and a changing variety of local bands.
Without suggesting that he’s on his last gasp, it’s fair to say that Tony has been around the block enough times to know what’s what.
The late 1980s found him in New York with his band Shev and The Brakes – all big hair and shoulder pads – recording their debut album for Columbia Records.
At the time everything was rosy. Then Columbia was sold – the new owners wanted to slim down the number of artists under contract and suddenly Shev was out in the cold and the band was no more.
Tony returned to London and carried on gigging and recording. At one stage he shared studio space with Jools Holland’s favourite vocalist Sam Brown as she recorded her hit debut album Stop. Her brother Pete did some engineering and guitar work on a couple of Tony’s tracks at the time.
Along the way he made a documentary about one of his heroes Geno Washington as part of a documentary season promoted by Anglia Television and Eastern Screen.
It seems that Tony is a man with a pal in every port. He’s written songs for bands as diverse as REM and The Troggs and his song Cut Me was nominated as the Amnesty International Anthem of Peace, and has been performed worldwide by umpteen different artists.
Despite the ups and downs of a musician’s life, he retains his love of performing and is helping to inspire the next generation of musicians by lecturing at Suffolk New College.
He still gigs regularly in Suffolk but he’s recently realised a long-held dream to not only visit Nashville, one of the music capitals of the world, but also to perform there.
Also, he didn’t want to visit Musicville USA empty-handed so recorded a new album to provide with a clutch of new songs to perform.
The new album Songs From The Last Chance Saloon was recorded at a small studio in Otley with a band made up of his favourite musicians and was designed to represent the breadth of Tony’s music.
The songs and the arrangements have that country/Americana feel with a little bit of 1960s Dylan, a healthy dose of solo Beatles and a touch of Squeeze.
“In some ways going to Nashville with a purely country album is a bit like taking coals to Newcastle. They do country but, for me, Nashville is the home of song writing. Take away the pedal steel guitar and all the various guises that country has gone through, at the heart of it is good song writing.”
Speaking to Tony about the album and it’s clear that he’s hugely proud of the finished product. His eyes sparkle as he talks and summons up a host of examples to illustrate every point.
What does emerge from the conversation – and it’s not surprising given his history – is that he’s delighted that modern technology has allowed him to make a professional album, on an affordable budget, right on his doorstep.
No longer are musicians in thrall to big record companies to make their voices heard. If a record company drops you there is no need for you to be silenced.
Making this album was a real milestone. It was a statement of identity. It was to provide material for his Nashville trip but also was a reflection of who he was as a musician and a valuable opportunity to collect together his best work.
“Music for me has always been about connecting with people – storytelling. I always knew I would be standing up singing these songs to other songwriters so it was important that they stood up in an acoustic environment.
“I was originally only to make an EP because I needed something to take to show them what I do. However, I put the word out to people who have been to my gigs and followed my career over the years and I asked them, if I made an album what songs would you like me to include?
“The songs that came back really surprised me. There were a few of, what I call, my greatest hits which are still in the set but there were some real obscurities. One guy said: ‘You used to do a song at the Khartoum in Croydon in 1985 and it’s always stayed with me.’ That was Paradise South Ealing. It has become the oldest song on the album. I hadn’t performed it for 20 years but it meant something to him.
“So the album was really about asking the people who have supported me over many years what they would like on the album but it was also an opportunity to right some wrongs.
“A couple of the songs I chose were performed by bands I was in at various times. When you give a song to a band then it takes on a life of its own and not necessarily the one you would have chosen for it.
“For example Champagne Taste on a Lemonade Pay when it was first done had a strong reggae bass line on it but I always wanted it to sound like JJ Cale. I always heard it with that country-blues feel.”
He said that the need to preserve his aural template for the songs manifested itself in him playing all the guitar and bass parts on the recording sessions.
The essence of the recording process was the songs themselves along with Tony’s voice and the guitars. “I wanted them recorded in a way that allowed me to go out and sing them straight. Any other instruments we overdubbed was just added window dressing. They were nice but if you stripped them away you still had the essential elements of the song which is how I perform them live.”
The material on the album covers 30 years of song writing. “I remember recording the original version of Paradise South Ealing on the night of the October hurricane in 1987.
“During the recording session someone said: ‘Cor, it sounds a bit windy out,” but we didn’t pay it much attention. We always recorded through the night and the following morning we emerged to what appeared to us as a post-apocalyptic world.”
In addition to the classics, Tony has made room for a couple of recent additions to his song book – Crazy and Nobody, the latter title won a song-writing award from the Musicians Union. “I’m really proud of that one because it’s always nice to be recognised by your peers.”
He said that country is such a wide description that it’s difficult to pin down. “I would say its much more Americana. In the 1970s country became quite discredited because they went for a very lush production values – the Nashville Sound they called it. The reason they did that was that they didn’t know how to react to rock’n’roll.
“Elvis Presley was a country artist, he was one of their own, but he helped create rock’n’roll by wedding country music to blues and to gospel.
“What country is now doing is getting back to it roots. It was never about lush production and orchestral backing. Hank Williams was one man and a guitar with a bunch of good songs.
“What people like Johnny Cash did, along with Emmy Lou Harris, Willie Nelson and Steve Earle is show Nashville not to be afraid of who they are. Forget the large scale production, forget the strings and choirs and focus in on the voice, the song and the guitar.
“At least that’s one side of the equation, that’s the real country in the bars and clubs, the other side is country-pop, that’s the industry side of it where they are all looking for the next Taylor Swift.
He said journeying to Nashville was a like walking into the best dream you could ever have. “The people were so friendly and so welcoming. Nothing was too much trouble and, of course, once you open your mouth, they just love an English accent.
“At the end I think I was starting to sound like Hugh Grant. I caught myself saying ‘Gosh’ at one point and I never say ‘gosh.’”
He said that he had planned it as a working holiday. He didn’t want to be a tourist just visiting the sites. He wanted to play and mix with the local musicians. He hired a guitar and in the end had to hire a taxi to take it back to his hotel as the store owner didn’t want transported on the local bus.
“They don’t like buses. Buses are for poor people but I love them. They were a great way to get about and allow you to see the real Nashville.”
He said that he hooked up with a local musician in a bar who volunteered to be his fixer. “He had been a serviceman stationed in Britain in the sixties and he had been helped and shown around by the locals when he was over in the UK and he said this was his opportunity to ‘pay it forward’. So he got me into bars and clubs – and restaurants a lot of gigs happen in food places over there. He helped me to play to a genuine country audience.”
He said that getting up on stage and playing alongside real homegrown country musicians was one of the real highlights of his career.
“The gigs happened really early in the evening between six and 9.30 and then you would go on to an open mic night somewhere. There would be everyone from an old-timer reminiscing about playing with Glen Campbell and Dolly Parton to raw beginners. There was a nice nurturing feel to life there and it was great that they treated me as one of their own.
“There’s music everywhere. It’s an industry town. Your waiter, your bus driver, the guy who pumps the gas at the gas station, they’re all musicians. They are all writing songs and they come out to these music nights.
“I was in this restaurant and there was this great song being played through the music system. I called the waiter over and said: ‘Whose this by, it’s great?’ He looked at me and said: ‘It’s me.’ So if the waiters are writing great songs, I knew that my stuff better stand up.”
Although it was a working visit, Tony couldn’t resist a few touristy moments including a visit to Nashville’s famed Studio B, the recording home of Jim Reeves, Chet Atkins and Elvis Presley. “It was such an amazing place. I was overwhelmed. I actually found myself crying. Roy Orbison recorded here – all The Everley Brothers stuff was recorded here.
“The guy who took us round knew I was a musician and when we got to the piano that Elvis used on his sessions, he said: ‘Do you want to play it?’ I was completely taken aback, I thought what should I do? So I did Elvis’ Crying In The Chapel – he used to sing gospel songs as a warm up until he was ready to record – and then I did one of my own. So I got to play Elvis’ piano in Nashville Studio B. I love the history of it all. Studio B is Nashville’s Abbey Road.”
He also paid a visit to the Ryman Theatre home of the Grand Old Opry and got to play Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart in front of an audience. “I went up on stage just to get my picture taken. I strummed the Martin guitar they handed me and it was in tune. I thought: ‘Hank Williams stood on this stage. Let’s go for it’ and started singing Your Cheatin’ Heart, thinking that they would stop me but they didn’t. The rest of the people on the tour started clapping along and it ended with a big finish and a wonderful round of applause.
“So I can say that I genuinely got to perform on the stage of the Grand Old Opry.”
Tony said that his welcome was so warm that he’s already planning a return visit with a fresh batch of songs. It seems that sometimes taking coals to Newcastle does pay off.
Songs from The Last Chance Saloon is available from independent record shop Time Out in Ipswich or as a download from www.ohmercyrecords.net