Tony’s epic road trip to discover America’s musical soul
PUBLISHED: 12:27 21 August 2017
bwolski - Fotolia
Singer-songwriter Tony James Shevlin has just recorded a new album which details a three month tour of the back roads of the USA. Arts editor Andrew Clarke met up with the musician who has a taste for Americana
Singer-songwriter Tony James Shevlin has always been bewitched by the names of iconic US towns and cities immortalised in classic American songs. In an attempt to visualise places like Kanas City, Phoenix and Amarillo, he devised a three-month road trip – just him, a car and a guitar. The result was enough new songs to fill an album, which he has just recorded called, appropriately enough, American Odyssey.
The road trip came in the wake of his previous album Songs From The Last Chance Saloon which had been picked by US Country radio and independent stations across America,
The Ipswich-native said: “One of the songs on Last Chance saloon was Run ‘Til We Drop which was hinting at what American Odyssey would become. It was about the freedom of life on the road and having the freedom to take a chance.
“American Odyssey was a huge gamble – sending me off to play America on a three month tour. The record company who put out Last Chance Saloon said we’re getting a lot of foot-fall from the States, lots of sales and downloads, we think you should go out there and try and sell it some more.
“So we went to all the local independent radio stations that were playing the album and asked them to recommend somewhere to play. The first place we approached was a club called Reggie’s in Chicago and said: ‘Tony’s coming to the US, would you like him to play at your venue?’ and their response was: ‘Great when cane he come?’ And that was the response all over.
“When we had done all the suggestions from the radio stations then it was pretty much looking at the map and going: ‘We’ve got Chicago and Kanas City, what’s in-between? St Louis - okay let’s book something there.”
Out on the road, Tony found that songs came naturally to him as he was driving. “Every town that’s name-checked on the album I have actually been to. I had a portable voice recorder in the car which I used to compose and sing into while I was driving. I also found once I got back home and started to arrange the songs that virtually all the songs I composed on the road were in the key of D because I was clearly influenced by the background sound of the car wheels running on the tarmac.”
Tony, who had all ready made friends with musicians and songwriters in Nashville, on previous visits used the capital of country music as a base before heading out on the road.
“I arrived with just the clothes on my back and suitcase. That was it. I hired a car and spent an entire day buying a new guitar when I got in. It was a Martin acoustic and spent the first week just playing and jamming with my friends in Nashville, finding the sweet spots, getting the feel of it before heading out on my great adventure.
“I made a decision very early on that I was doing this trip alone. It really was just going to be me, a car and a guitar because it would force me to meet people, speak to people and actually see the country. If you have someone with you, it is so easy to sit back and let them do the talking or decide on the route. If this was going to be an American Odyssey, it was going to be my American Odyssey.”
Another decision was that if time and geography permitted he would avoid the big inter-state highways and take the back roads through the small towns and where possible travel as much as he could on the fabled Route 66, the east-west road immortalised in the early rock’n’roll song.
“Also, you have no idea of the distances involved. I did one mad 12 hour drive from Kanas City to get to the next gig which I only just made and on another occasion I had been driving for two days and I was still in Texas.”
Tony also paid some musical tributes along the way visiting the graves of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, country titan Hank Williams and soul legend Arthur Alexander as well as some famed recording studios including Sun Studios in Memphis where Elvis, BB King, Howling Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis cut their early sides, along with the FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
“But the people were so friendly. My accent was great at opening up doors, particularly in the south and in the small towns where they don’t see a lot of tourists or British people. I stayed with one couple in Alabama who I had met crossing the road in Miami. They loved my voice, I invited them to have a beer with me and they offered to put me up when I came through Alabama and that’s what they did.
“The album is a true reflection of my trip. It’s a musical diary, full of impressions and thoughts from my time on the road.”
American Odyssey by Tony James Shevlin is available to buy online from itunes or as a CD from www.tonyjamesshevlin.com