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Rick Shea: sideman steps out forward once more

By Jeffrey B. Remz, January 2000

Rick Shea has not exactly stood out of the musical crowd for most of his two-decade long career. In fact, he has been more of a sideman than a front man, often playing behind the likes of Dave Alvin. Now he's looking for daylight.

But that doesn't mean the Californian has not been putting out solid, West Coast country music. After 1995's all but unknown gem, "The Buffalo Show," Shea just put together a compilation of recordings previously available only on cassette and new songs on "Shaky Ground" on a tiny southern California label, WagonWheel.

He may get more known as a result. The LA Weekly named it one of its top 10 of 1999.

The Merle Haggard devotee put out 8 of the 13 songs on cassette in 1991. "We sold a thousand or more of those," he says from his home. "It wasn't any more after that." After that, the recording went out of circulation.

(West Coast musician) "Cody Bryant had always liked it a lot," says Shea. "When he got a label going, he wanted to reissue it. He had it remastered. We did five new songs to go along with it."

There is not a great difference in sound between "Shaky Ground" and "The Buffalo Show." Both contain a slew of well-written songs with strong melodies and a definite nod to West Coast country.

"Shaky Ground" contains covers of "Wanted Man" (a song from the Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan catalogue), "All My Friends (Are Gonna Be Strangers)," (Haggard) and "Muddy Water" (Stonewall Jackson).

She contributed new tunes "Touch My Hand" and "Cold and Lonely Shadows."

While happy to contribute the new ones, Shea says he was "really happy that Cody and the other people involved were real interested in the (old) songs. They worked their way out of my repertoire. A couple of them of them are working their way back in now. I tend to focus on the newer songs that I've written or just recorded. It was good to have them out on CD."

Shea describes the new tunes as "fairly dark songs. That kind of surprised me. I don't think that's my general focus all the time theses days. I try and write some songs with a definite sense of humor. There's really not any of that in that batch of songs."

When not pursuing his own solo career, Shea often can be found at Alvin's side. He has played with him two years running on a regular basis, although they first started playing together about 10 years ago.

Shea, 46, says he is satisfied doing both his own shows and being a sideman.

"I like them both a lot," Shea says. "I've always enjoyed working with other people in their projects. I would never want to have to stop doing either one. If I had to make a choice, I'd do things on my own because the songwriting to me is important. Once these songs of mine are written, it's real important to me to get them out there - to play them to people so they'll hear them."

"I kind of worked myself into a situation where I was busy enough," he says. Shea also has worked with Katy Moffatt, Jann Browne, Chris Gaffney, Syd Straw and Patty Booker.

"There's a lot of personal satisfaction, but it's tough to make a living at it," he says.

The Maryland native first got into music during his school days after his family moved to California when he was 11.

"After high school, there seemed to be a good amount of places to play, acoustic music rooms. I tended to do a lot of those until sometime in my early 20's. We started putting together bands. I sort of fell into playing the country bars, the truck stop bars in San Bernardino. That's really where I learned a lot of the songs. A lot of the guys who were doing it were the old timer guys."

"That was all George Jones and Merle Haggard - many many slow songs and all of that," he says.

Shea gave up construction and cabinetry for music full time in his mid-20's. "You could work five, six, seven nights a week," says Shea of the $50 a night he earned for playing music.

He recorded with Heather Myles and Gaffney among others, building his reputation as a solid musician, particularly on steel guitar. His "Foot in the Fire" made it onto 1992's "A Town South of Bakersfield, Vol. 3." Two years later, he was named male vocalist of the year by the California Country Music Association.

Shea also contributed to the recent "Man on the Moon" soundtrack, playing steel guitar. "I got to play with REM on a couple of songs," he says. "It was kind of over before I knew it was happening. I got in and was busy right away and what I was going to play and getting the material together."

Shea hasn't seen the movie or heard the soundtrack, so he has no idea what, if any, of his playing made the final cut.

Two decades into it, Shea still is plying his trade in a tough business.

"There are a lot of reasons not do it. I was kind of always able to strike a balance that worked with the home life. After we had the kids (Shea has boys 10 and 16), I'd be around during the day. Until about five, six years ago, just about everything I did was a at night."

Starting a new album soon with hopes for a major indie releasing it, Shea sees daylight ahead.