There's been no shortage in recent years of mainstream country artists returning to their bluegrass roots - Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Marty Raybon come to mind, and there are many more. Now nearing 60, Alabama native Tommy Shaw went the arena rock route, becoming the voice and songwriting heart of Top 40 stalwarts Styx throughout much of the '70s and '80s. That history notwithstanding, Shaw's upbringing in Montgomery found him playing a lot of the same kinds of joints that gave fellow Alabaman Hank Williams his start four decades prior. With "The Great Divide," Shaw convincingly shifts his singing and writing talents to the raw country and bluegrass music he grew up with. The result echoes strongly of the energy and vitality of New Grass Revival (and no accident that Sam Bush is part of the supporting cast).
Shaw had a hand in writing all 11 tracks, and he displays a knack, in the classic country vein, for telling stories on cuts like the title track, as well as on Sawmill, Shadows In The Moonlight, and especially on Umpteen Miles, an epic tale of fathers passing on their (often deadly) occupations to sons trapped in turn by the same fate.
The most engaging piece, though, may be Give 'Em Hell Harry, a four-minute biography of the 33rd president done in Woody Guthrie, finger-pickin' style (with fiddle help from Stuart Duncan) that is irresistible. For a guy who spent countless nights shouting to the back rows of 20,000-seat venues, it's a remarkably intimate and conversational interlude, and it's almost worth the price of the album on its own merits. The bluegrass purists will no doubt grumble about the presence of drums on a few tracks, but Shaw sincerely demonstrates his love and respect for the music here.