Album review: Tommy Shaw, 'The Great Divide'
Sterling Whitaker, Classic Hard Rock Examiner
March 22, 2011
Tommy Shaw is undoubtedly best known for his three decades playing guitar and singing in the superstar rock group Styx. On Tuesday, March 22 the rocker switched gears, releasing a bluegrass album entitled 'The Great Divide.'
If it seems like a stretch for the man who wrote arena rock anthems like "Renegade" and "Blue Collar Man" to put out an album that features all acoustic instruments and guest stars like Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam, well . . . turns out it's really not. Shaw takes to bluegrass like the proverbial duck to water, sounding so relaxed and at home in this genre that he instantly makes you forget all about Styx.
The album opens with the rollicking, up-tempo "The Next Right Thing," instantly establishing the baseline for the rest of the record. Shaw's voice is perfectly suited to the high lonesome sound of bluegrass, and he and Dwight Yoakam's vocal harmonies, as well as the trade-off instrumental solos on the track, set the tone for the album as a legitimate bluegrass effort. This is not Jon Bon Jovi trying to market crossover adult contemporary as country so he can grab a market share. This is the sound of a musician who has wandered through many genres coming back home to his roots.
Over and over again, Shaw displays an understanding and genuine respect for the true songcraft and storytelling tradition of bluegrass. The lyrics on this album reflect the common themes of love, pain, hard times and loss, but always with a twist of optimism and a unique perspective that is often missing in the genre, which has its share of bland, rote songs. Shaw and co-producer Brad Davis wisely chose to surround themselves with some of Nashville's top talent, and players as good as Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush can only take great songs and make them even better.
Particular standouts include "Sawmill," a case of very dark subject matter that somehow winds around to the strongest, most uplifting chorus on the album. "The Great Divide" is simple, straight storytelling, but again with an interesting twist, and Alison Krauss provides a hauntingly beautiful harmony vocal. "Shadows in the Moonlight" is a romantic and ultimately tragic tale of lovers on the run (or is it?), with another exceptionally strong chorus melody and lyrical twist. "Get on the One" should be playing on every country radio station in America right now, the chorus is so simple and immediately catchy.
"Give 'Em Hell Harry" is probably the most challenging song on the album. The verses are basically spoken word delivered over sparse acoustic fingerpicking, and the lyrics were inspired by a book about Harry Truman. If that sounds bizarre, well, it really is, but in an unexpectedly good way.
The album closes with the Southern gospel feel of "I'll Be Coming Home," which seems fitting. With 'The Great Divide,' it's as if Tommy Shaw has come home to his true musical self. Sure, there are going to be Styx fans who are incapable of catching the extreme curve ball Shaw has thrown them, and there will likely be fans and critics who just don't get it or even want to get it. But for those who are willing to listen with an open mind, 'The Great Divide' is an exceptional album of its kind, and one of the best bluegrass releases of 2011 so far.