Story slinger

Story slinger

Songwriter and guitarist Rick Shea shares story songs and more from his new album at Coffee Gallery Backstage Thursday and the Fret House Saturday

By Bliss Bowen 09/11/2013

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Some songwriters gut-spill so many emotions it’s as though they cut a vein over their guitar. Others look to the world around them for source material and craft stories based on what they see. Count Rick Shea among the latter.
The San Gabriel Valley tunesmith and sometime Dave Alvin sideman has penned great tears-in-your-beer heartbreakers, but his métier is narrative songwriting in the tradition of classic folk and country balladeers like Marty Robbins.

Shea, who calls himself a “pretty indiscriminate” reader, loves short stories. Over the course of a half-dozen albums, he has earned respect from peers, critics and audiences with clean but muscular guitar playing and very human stories grounded in personal detail. “Magdalena,” “Emperor of the North,” “The House That We Once Lived In,” “Georgia Pines,” “Shelter Valley Blues,” “Nelly Bly” … they all pulse with a redolent sense of place and vivid, conflicted characters. Those characteristics also distinguish “Sweet Bernardine,” his newest and most accomplished album.

With “Gregory Ray DeFord,” Shea gives the economic crash a face: a would-be Jesse James he learned about while touring — a “regular guy” who robbed banks after losing his construction business, until police caught him. “I’m really happy with the song but it’s such a sad story,” he says.

Less tragic is “Mariachi Hotel,” inspired by a Boyle Heights location. “John Shea From Kenmare” is Shea’s melodic reconstruction of his great-grandfather’s incredible life.

“He was the first of this line of the Sheas to come over from Ireland in the 19th century,” he recounts. “He was the first to enlist in the Union Army from the state of New Hampshire. He was captured by the Confederate Army, I think in Louisiana, and taken to prison camps in Virginia. My aunt used to tell me the camps were horrifying, full of disease and starvation. He used to go out to the fence and sing a song in old Irish, and a young girl [outside] heard him singing; she was from County Kerry, and they struck up a conversation and a kind of a friendship. After a while she began to sneak him food. He said that was the only reason he survived the camps. When I went to write the song last year, I did a little research, and John Shea actually testified before Congress in 1869 on the condition of the POW camps.”

Shea performed the song while touring Ireland last year. Response was good, but ... “They’ve seen quite a few Americans of Irish background coming over and trotting out their Irish heritage,” he says with a laugh. “It’s an old story for them.”

Rick Shea opens for New Zealand singer/songwriter Donna Dean at 8 p.m. tonight, Sept. 12, at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena; $15. For more information, call (626) 798-6236. Shea appears in concert with Mary McCaslin at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Fret House, 309 N. Citrus Ave., Covina; $15. For more information, call (626) 339-7020.


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