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Shannon Lawson Biography

Last updated: 05/29/2003 03:34:29 AM

In today’s hyped-up world of making and marketing music, to call someone a “total package” could be easily dismissed as hyperbole. The closer you examine newcomer Shannon Lawson, however, the label genuinely fits.First, there’s the voice ­ a strikingly big sound that rattles around inside your head with so much power it makes you want to strap on a surge protector. His style is an intriguing hybrid of influences, sometimes bluesy, sometimes soulful, and quite often traditional country. Then there’s the musicianship. Lawson’s guitar and mandolin fuel his sound with the proficiency that comes from years of working crowds in bluegrass, country, rock and blues bands. On top of that, he is an accomplished writer, penning 10 of the 11 songs on his debut CD. But if you ask the 28-year-old musician what he thinks landed him a deal with a major Nashville label just a year after arriving in town, he’ll say it was a moment during his live show before MCA Nashville execs when he launched into a completely unlikely bluegrass version of Marvin Gaye’s R&B classic, “Let’s Get It On.” Yes, “If you feel, like I feel….” with a banjo.“I jumped down off the stage, broke it down to just a drum pattern, and sang without a mic to the entire floor,” Lawson recalls. “I learned how to throw my voice during all those years of playing clubs that had crummy PA systems. Someone told me later that they [the MCA Nashville brass] said ‘He’s either really crazy, or really good’.”

The overwhelming consensus among fans and critics who have heard his debut CD, Chase The Sun, is the latter.Lawson’s musical journey virtually embodies the contemporary Southern experience. He was raised in Taylorsville, Kentucky, a tiny town 40 miles Southwest of Louisville that has been home to his family for generations. “I’m not sure how far we go back, just seems like we’ve always been there,” he laughs. Lawson spent his childhood cutting and hanging tobacco with his father and four uncles. For entertainment, the family played music, performing at cinder block halls and jamborees in the area. While the grownups picked bluegrass on his grandmother’s porch, Lawson and his large brood of cousins played underfoot and sometimes sang along.When he was four, Lawson picked up his uncle’s Epiphone guitar and joined in until he got blisters on his fingers. At seven, his father ­accomplished on the guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and dobro ­ bought his son a half-sized Yamaha classical guitar. Lawson learned chords, and began strumming out tunes such as Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” on the nylon strings. Like most kids in the South, Lawson began exploring rock and pop influences during his teen years. He was heavily influenced by his siblings, an older brother who played Eagles’ cover tunes in a rock band, and his sister, a folk singer who was into Joan Baez. “We would always be singing three-part harmonies in the car ­ ‘Ticket to Ride,’ ‘Shambala,’ stuff like that,” he says. In high school, Lawson formed his own band, which he describes as a quirky combination of “classic rock and country.” Influenced by his father, who by that time had begun exploring the more complex guitar styles of Andres Segovia, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, Lawson honed his own skills by mimicking the virtuostic rock sounds of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But country still tugged at his heart. “We’d be in the middle of Ozzy Osborne, and I’d play John Anderson’s ‘Swingin’’ or some Willie Nelson or Gene Watson song,” he says.Upon high school graduation, Lawson left Taylorsville to attend college in Louisville. Shortly into his academic experience, he got an offer that would change his life. A seasoned blues musician called Top Hat hired the young guitarist to play in his club act. Lawson left school to tour fulltime with the group, playing guitar and eventually singing soulful lead on blues covers such as The Dramatic’s “In The Rain.” “It was just an incredible experience,” Lawson says. “Here I was, this 18-year-old kid, the only white guy in an all-black group. It taught me so many things. It not only taught me how to be a musician, but how to survive. If it weren’t for Top Hat, I wouldn’t be here.”

Just as suddenly as he came into Lawson’s life, Top Hat disappeared from the Louisville blues scene. As a result, Lawson wound up booking the band, managing affairs and developing the act’s set list. As a sideline, the young vocalist/guitarist began picking up work with a local folksinger, performing with her in area coffeehouses. Here, he rubbed shoulders with a new set of colleagues that brought him back to his family roots -- local bluegrass and acoustic artists. In 1993, Lawson hung up his blues hat for good to turn fulltime attention to his new group, The Galoots, a bluegrass-based act that incorporated Lawson’s experience in rock, traditional country and blues. “It was the moment when my career and life really came full circle,” he says.The Galoots soon became a standing-room-only act on the Louisville club scene. “I didn’t want to do just bluegrass standard covers,” he says, describing the group’s innovative live style. “We turned it into more of a show. Top Hat taught me how to do a set list. And it was like a roller coaster. We’d come out and hit really hard, then slow down, then go out just as hard as we came in.” Lawson used his years of experience putting on shows in clubs to whip fans into a bluegrass-meets-blues frenzy, taking the stage by yelling “Big Yee Haw, Y’all!” He became well known for his unexpected roots covers of pop tunes, from the Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’ Post” to Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower.” This is where the bluegrass cover of “Let’s Get It On” developed, the only tune on Lawson’s debut CD which he did not write himself.During this time, Lawson also became a prolific songwriter, with The Galoots producing two independent albums of original material. They soon caught the attention of the local music press and radio scene. One fan was a local deejay named Mandy Snider, who invited Lawson to appear on her show. She became a fan, and soon began booking and managing the Galoots, convinced that Lawson had the talent to make it as a solo act. She also married him. Two days after their honeymoon, they packed up a U-Haul van and headed to Nashville.Based on his songwriting ability, Lawson landed a publishing deal with the Extreme Writers Group. As his demo started landing in offices in Nashville, music execs wanted to know who the powerful voice on the tapes belonged to as well. Lawson’s talent soon came to the attention of MCA Nashville A&R Manager Shane Barrett, who brought Lawson’s music to label President Tony Brown. After a showcase in Nashville (the one where Lawson jumped off the stage for the a cappella version of “Let’s Get It On”), Brown and MCA Nashville Chairman Bruce Hinton offered him a contract. There still remained the questions: With whom should Shannon be paired in the studio, and what direction should his big sound take? Producer Mark Wright (Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Gary Allan) had heard the buzz about the Singer/songwriter, and was impressed by the powerful voice and diversity of style he had heard on Lawson’s demo tape. “I love making records on great singers; that’s my whole deal,” Wright recalls. “Shannon just blew me away. We met for lunch, talked it over, and I walked away knowing I wanted to work with this kid.”

Wright was struck by Lawson’s wide range of live musical experience. “This is a kid who played in a bluegrass band in Kentucky, and a blues band in Chicago,” he says. “He can sing country and R&B. I wanted to give him the freedom to experiment with all those different styles.” Consequently, the producer booked a recording studio for an entire month in order to let Lawson play with the material, try different approaches and use experimental instrumentation. “That way, if we got off schedule it didn’t matter so much, and we were able to try things, keep them if they worked and throw them out if they didn’t.”

For example, Wright and Lawson asked Chris Thile of Nickel Creek to play a mandola on the track “This Old Heart.” As an experiment, they ran the acoustic instrument through an amp “to give it a real crunchy sound, very different,” according to Wright. The team wasn’t reluctant to craft songs that were instrumentally driven, such as “Bad Bad Bad” and “Chase The Sun.” Of course, Wright said his kids love Lawson’s bluegrass cover version of the Marvin Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On.” “They had never even heard it before,” he said.Wright says he is most proud of Lawson’s debut CD, “because we wanted to make the best Shannon Lawson record we could make. It shows his voice, his incredibly broad base of styles, and ­ the best thing is -- I can honestly say it doesn’t sound like anybody else.”

Lawson’s debut CD showcases his diverse musical background. Whether singing straight-ahead country, smoky blues, driving bluegrass or mellow ballads, it’s clear this is one debut artist whose track record clearly creates a completely fresh sound.