Tommy Shaw – The Great Divide
2011, Pazzo Music/Fontana
Tommy Shaw is something of a rock n roll icon. As one of the principal songwriters and vocalists for rock group Styx since 1976, Shaw (and the band) has cut a career path worthy of inclusion in the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame. Shaw has spent his share of time on other projects over the years, cutting four solo albums, two albums with Damn Yankees (Ted Nugent, Jack Blades) and three as part of Shaw/Blades. Shaw has also appeared on a number of tributes and collections over time. With a tenor voice that’s instantly recognizable, it’s no surprise that some Shaw’s songs (“Fooling Yourself”, “Renegade”, “Too Much Time On My Hands”, and “High Enough”) continue to be staples on classic rock radio. Shaw’s latest album takes him down a new road. Working with some of the finest bluegrass session players around, and with guest appearances by Dwight Yoakam, Alison Krauss and Brad Davis, Shaw’s The Great Divide is an absolute delight.
The Great Divide opens with “The Next Right Thing”, a wonderful blend of pop/rock songwriting and bluegrass style. You could easily hear this tune appearing on a Shaw/Blades album or even as a rock number by Styx, but the bluegrass sound seems to fit perfectly. The picking here is incredible; the backing band the real deal. Yoakam sits in on backing vocals, adding his sound to a complex arrangement full of movement and zest. Shaw is in fine voice here. “Back In Your Kitchen” explores love as expressed through the culinary art. Shaw’s songwriting is sharp and full of good humor, with a light feel that’s sweet and enjoyable. The instrumentation here is deliriously good, and the vocal line is flawless. “Sawmill” almost sounds like it could be Shaw playing with Union Station, matching the latter stylistically in a catchy, old-school country sound.
“The Great Divide” is sweet and melancholy; full of great hope and love. Shaw manages to capture a bit of the high lonesome sound here at times in a ballad with a modern feel. Alison Krauss adds her sweet voice on backing vocals. “Shadows In The Moonlight” is a hauntingly tragic love story told in song. Shaw manages an exquisite arrangement full of dark beauty. “Get On The One” is a high energy turn about grabbing onto your dream and following it to fruition. This is a theme that Shaw has revisited throughout the years in his songwriting, but remains fresh in an allegory of trains and contemporary bluegrass styling. “Umpteen Miles” finds Shaw trying to sound like an Appalachian back-porch singer on the first verse. It works to a degree, but the sound is much better when he graduates to his higher range for the chorus. The story-song is brilliantly written and told; however, exploring the life of someone irrevocably tied to the land he grew up on.
“Cavalry” is a sweet little love song built around traditional instrumentation and a wonderfully fresh pop sensibility. “Afraid To Love” is pure Tommy Shaw; a pure pop ballad with bluegrass instrumentation. “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” is a talk/sing number about Harry Truman’s musical career and how he stumbled into the presidency, suddenly communing with the likes of Stalin and Churchill. It’s an entertaining turn; a nice change of pace. Shaw closes out with “I’ll Be Comin’ Home”, an Americana/rock number done up in bluegrass instrumentation. This is great songwriting, pure and simple, and Shaw’s iconic voice has never been better. It’s the perfect close to a near-perfect album.
Tommy Shaw takes a surprising and pleasing turn with The Great Divide. While it’s not at all surprising for a rock artist to suddenly turn to more traditional musical styles as their career progresses, it’s unusual to make the transition so well. The Great Divide deftly blends traditional bluegrass sound and modern songwriting to create what should turn out to be one of the best bluegrass albums of 2011. Don’t be entirely surprised if Shaw gets serious consideration for at least a GRAMMY nomination this time around.
Rating: 4.5 Stars (Out of 5)