While Wilmington tends to have a tight-knit music scene, it’s still not often we get leads from local musicians about fellow artists with whom they aren’t sharing a stage. ILM’s Penny Pierce reached out to encore several weeks back to make sure we knew about Jon Shain and his upcoming performance. The almost 30-year veteran singer-songwriter from NC’s Triangle area will play at Ted’s Fun on the River on Thursday, March 2.
Shain’s acoustic and improvisational style of guitar often leads him to combine elements of blues, bluegrass, swing, and ragtime in his music. His last album, “Crow the Dawn,” was released back in January, 2016. The 14-track record was a collaboration with award-winning songwriter and Prairie Home Companion guest Joe Newberry (guitar, banjo).
“The songs I wrote with Joe leaned more heavily Americana,” he explains, “elements of bluegrass and old-time country thrown in, as that’s Joe’s natural wheelhouse.”
There’s a touch of whimsical jazz horn in songs like “How Happy,” too. Plus, mountain-’grass storytelling can be heard in “Joe’s Blues” and even yodeling in “It Wouldn’t Be Long.” Nevertheless, Shain never strays too far away from his roots in blues. He’s now working on another collaboration project with bass player FJ Ventre.
Ventre and Shain have been playing on and off together since high school in Massachusetts in the early ‘80s. Shain first came down South to study American history at Duke University in 1986. From studying with jazz professor Paul Jeffrey to playing with Big Boy Henry’s backing band and John Dee Holeman, Shain got to meet and play with a number of the great NC blues musicians. He eventually founded folk-rock group Flyin’ Mice in Chapel Hill and spent a good bit of time touring from 1989 to 1998. Shain went solo and says he convinced his long-time friend to move to NC around 2000.
“A couple of years ago, it came to my attention that [FJ] really wanted to be writing songs along with me instead of just being ‘the bass-player guy,’” Shain quips. “I’ve had good success collaborating on songs with Joe Newberry and also with my buddy Jackson Hall (who tragically passed away last year). So I thought, Yes, definitely, let’s try this. So far we’ve come up with some nice stuff.”
While Ventre and Shain have been building an album’s worth of material, which they hope to lay down later in 2017, they’ve recorded and submitted two songs for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series. Their mutual friend Eddie Huffman, author of the biography “John Prine: In Spite of Himself” (2015), is also into filmmaking and offered to help shoot videos. “Song for an Old Friend” and “Bandits” can be found on YouTube. Shain says, if nothing else, these entries have served as useful challenges to finish and release music for people to enjoy.
“It’s good to work under deadlines sometimes to make art,” he adds. “We were still learning them as we recorded them live for the videos.”
His latest material with Ventre draws a bit more from pop and soul influences than any of Shain’s past work. Though he’s done most of the songwriting, the two aforementioned songs they’ve released started off as larger concepts from Ventre. “Song for an Old Friend” was influenced by the current political atmosphere and the desire for community connection and peace. “Bandits” is more of a simple love song between two “raggedy people.” Shain did some rearranging, and they both “trimmed them to fighting weight.”
“I’ll add a bridge when appropriate or often remove stuff that might be superfluous,” Shain says. “We trust each other as we’ve been making albums together for a long time and have many shared influences.”
Shain and Ventre don’t have a timetable per se for this project. Yet, the singer-songwriter admits he gets a little antsy without having some notion of a deadline.
“I’m guessing we’ll get to working on stuff more in earnest when my spring touring slows down a bit in June,” he observes. “FJ and I have been busy in the studio with other people’s work. I do producing, and he has a place of his own, Good Luck Studios in Chapel Hill, where we have been working with other singer-songwriters.”
Shain says they’ll likely record more tracks with Raleigh-based drummer Ed Butler to add a bit more groove. “There’s still a lot up in the air,” he adds, “as we’ve resolved not to arrange the music for studio until all the tunes are done.”
Still, with the release of “Crow the Dawn” in 2016, there’s no rush to head back to the recording studio. Shain keeps busy teaching guitar and songwriting lessons privately and online. He was specifically interested in instructing American-folk music to an international audience, which lead to his video on fingerpicking the Piedmont blues classic, “Step It Up and Go.”
“Usually, with my lessons in my home and on Skype, I work in the direction that the student is most passionate about,” Shain explains. “I have an agenda of things I think every musician should know or be able to play, but I do tailor it mostly to the individual.”
Though Ventre won’t be playing with Shain for most of this current tour, including the stopover at Ted’s Fun on the River, he’ll still be performing a few of their new songs. It will be Shain’s second time playing the riverfront venue.
“I was really won over by the coziness of the room and the friendliness of the people running it,” Shain remembers. “The sound is good, and the audience can have a real listening-room experience in a super-casual environment.”