Honky Tonk Times Interview

By Shamblin Sexton

There exists an ideal America, one of the heart and soul, as much as of the mind. This America is conjured from our collective imagination. Advertising plays no small part, as do Hollywood, Netflix and Nashville. Marlboro, Madmen and Music Row, myth, money and manifest destiny—this is an America that exists in our dreams and in the art it produces.

Our exaggerated expectations make it difficult for our heroic artists and musicians to live up to our fantastic preconceptions. When an artist arrives not just with his art, but with a backstory close to a Platonic ideal, it’s worth taking the time to listen. Michael Shaw is such an artist and his album “He Rode On” deserves our attention. Let’s meet the man and see what we can learn from him.

You grew up southern Ohio, on the edge of the Appalachians, in bluegrass country. What’s your family’s background? Do you come from a musical family? What is the first music you remember hearing?

My father moved around quite a bit for work so I grew up in Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. I lived and went to college in Athens, Ohio, in the Appalachian foothills near the West Virginia border, prior to moving to Montana. Much of my family is from the south but they’re not what most people would consider your typical southerners. My great grandmother was one of the first women to graduate college in Mississippi and was involved in protests to make the college co-ed. My grandfather and uncle were highly-esteemed college professors. Nearly everyone in the family plays music and/ or sings. My mom taught piano and my grandfather played in a dixieland jazz band till he was in his 90’s. I remember watching his band practice in Tuscaloosa when he was 90 and hearing him improvise a killer jazz solo on his trombone. It was deeply inspiring. My first exposure to music was through my family’s record player. Elvis, Lovin’ Spoonful, Beatles, Oak Ridge Boys were early favorites. My first concert was Waylon Jennings when I was in my mother’s womb. She says she felt me kick in time to Richie Albright’s bass drum.   

Did you start out playing guitar, or was it the drums? When did you start playing? What was your first experience of playing with other people?

My mom gave me piano lessons when I was five and I took off and on for several years. In high school I got into the drums and started practicing seriously. My friends and I formed a band and played Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick In The Wall (Part 3)’ at a school concert (“We don’t need no education….”) I’ve always been the guy trying to organize bands and get everyone together. I guess I like herding cats.

You moved west to the wilds of Montana in your early twenties, where you ended up living on the Bitterroot River. What was it that made you want to be so far away from home?

I wanted adventure. An epic life. Montana was wild as hell, especially in the first part of the 2000’s. I was just as wild. It called out to me really. I was summoned.

You read a lot of books while you were there. Who is your favourite American author?

I devoured some incredible literature once I was free of the educational system and had time to edify myself. Nietzsche, Thoreau, Emerson, Joseph Campbell, William Blake…some of the greatest minds ever. I dove into religious texts like the Tao Te Ching and Bhagavad Gita and lots of Buddhist literature. I would hike in the wilderness alone and all these ideas would ferment in my mind and eventually form my own philosophy.

Thoreau is my favorite American author. He was a great disruptor who spoke truth to power. People don’t even begin to scratch the surface of his philosophy. It’s trendy these day to write him off. Sure, he ate meals with his family in Concord while he was living at Walden Pond. Who cares? He also refused to pay his taxes because he was against supporting the Mexican War which was an act of aggression. He went to jail over the principle of it and while behind bars he wrote “Civil Disobedience” which set the stage for Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. He was an abolitionist through and through and his essay on John Brown is one of the most passionate and incendiary works ever written. He foresaw the pitfalls of the industrial revolution and the factory system. Just a completely free thinker who did not identify with organized religion or political parties or any type of system. No identity politics for HDT! He was a man with the bark still on. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” That is NOT how most people prioritize!!! His courage is almost unfathomable.  

Eventually you landed a job as a ranger in Glacier National Park. Had that always been you ambition?

Being a park ranger was not even a thought in my head when I moved to Montana. But out west I started reading an author named Ed Abbey who was a park ranger for 17 seasons. He was a seasonal ranger and that life appealed to me. It left time in the off-season to work on art and writing and music. At first I thought I would work at all these different parks like Abbey but Montana sucked me in. Once my band Whiskey Rebellion took off and I made all these great friendships, I wasn’t going anywhere. Besides, where do you go after Glacier? It ruins you.   

Your song “Outlaw’s Refuge” has the protagonist winning a horse called Whiskey in a card game. Horses have played an important role in your life. Tell us about the horses you’ve known best and what they meant to you. Do you still have horses today?

Throughout the seven years I spent managing and caretaking a small horse/ hobby ranch on the Blackfoot River, I got to know many horses. My favorite, Elvis, was a handsome Paint that looked like something Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull would ride. He had such a huge personality. He’s the one I’m riding in the “He Rode On” music video.

Without a doubt the two horses I used in Glacier for work, Pancho and Snuffy, were the ones I came to know best. Pancho was my riding horse and I packed Snuffy, except on rare occasions when I patrolled with another ranger and then I’d ride Snuffy. He was a handful at times and most folks couldn’t ride him. He’d been abused or mishandled at some point and it took me a long time to earn his trust. The three of us were a close-knit team that had each other’s confidence, trust and respect.

Good horsemanship is all about “feel” which is a hard thing to quantify. The whole horse whisperer thing has so many mystical undertones but it’s mainly about being in tune with the horse. It’s like a certain empathy. The three of us together in the mountains was like poetry in motion. Even being ten, fifteen miles into the backcountry with no one around for miles, during nasty mountain storms and high winds with surprise grizzly encounters, I always felt a secure seat with Pancho. I never once lost my seat with that horse, or Snuffy, although Snuffy gave me a few rodeos over the years.

When my best friend and musical partner Colin passed away, I took a week off work for his memorial and to host his folks at the ranch while all the loose ends were dealt with. When I returned to Glacier I needed to hit some of my most distant and remote backcountry campgrounds to get them open for summer. I was in rough shape and concerned about being alone, but Pancho and Snuffy took care of me. They rose up and picked up my slack, for I was a ghost for the most part.

When it finally came time for the park to retire my ponies I bought them both at auction so they wouldn’t go to the glue factory or be turned into dog food. I found them both loving Montana homes to spend their remaining days. It was the least I could do for them. These days I don’t have horses or do any riding. But sometimes in my dreams I’m back in the high cold wind with my boys and all is right again.

You spent a considerable amount of time alone, spending a winter in a cabin with no electricity, chopping wood and writing songs, with only a family of skunks for company. Did that solitary life suit you? Do you miss in now? How bad were the skunks?

It did suit me. But, and this is a huge but, I always knew my buddy Colin was back in Missoula ready to put a cold beer in my hand when I needed social time. So knowing that made it much easier to be so remote and isolated. Of course there were times when the isolation was challenging. When the silence was deafening. It could be heaven or hell. But those extremes always lead to good writing.

These days I feel starved for snow-capped peaks and clean rivers and mountain lakes and grizzlies and wolves. Having paradise out your back door was a constant reality that I took for granted. There’s not much public land here in Middle Tennessee. Here you might go to the one public river access and find out it closes at 4:30 PM. You just shake your head. Most of the time the parks close at sunset and there’s a “park ranger” out in the parking lot blasting a siren and kicking you out. Much of the water is polluted and there might be flesh-eating bacteria and brain-eating amoebas. Having an abundance of high quality public land like you do out west is something I miss dearly.

The skunks. First off, they were very poor neighbors. They moved in one winter when I was traveling through the southwest on one of my big solo road trips. When I got back the cabin was so putrid, for they were spraying underneath. Whiskey Rebellion would rehearse there and then we’d go set up at a bar and the whole place would smell like skunk in minutes. Colin kept all my stage clothes at his place in Missoula so I wasn’t “the skunk man.”

The landlord hired this old time mountain man who’s clothes were made from furs he’d trapped. He carried a huge bowie knife and a .44 magnum on his hip at all times. This guy was serious. He taught me how to set traps and then he’d go drown the skunks in the river so he could keep their fur.  

Did you find songwriting easier in that solitary environment, or do you need other people for inspiration?

I’d get inspiration from life experience, often from other people, then retreat to a quiet place to get it down. Songs can come anytime really, they’re usually not planned. Nearly everything I wrote in Montana was channeled. I had very little craft back then. But there was so much inspiration I was constantly filled with songs. I also wrote a good bit of non-fiction prose. There’s a couple manuscripts I’d like to polish up one of these days.

You formed a band, Whiskey Rebellion, with your friend Colin McKnight. What was the music you made together back then? What happened to Whiskey Rebellion?

Whiskey Rebellion was a Montana outlaw country band that created a fun and rowdy environment for people to drink and dance. Our shows were big parties and we handed out lots of free bourbon that the band paid for. We wanted to give back and for everyone to have a great time. That was Colin and me really. We just always wanted to throw the best parties and bring people together.

We played originals and covers. We’d play Merle, Waylon, Hank III, bluegrass tunes, and supercharge them with hot picking and blazing tempos. We had ENERGY. As a drummer I was trying to push and push and create driving momentum. I sucked at staying in the pocket. We just tried to create a kinetic frenzy of excitement. Colin’s Tele picking was something else. Just lightning fast. He could have hung with about anybody in Nashville.

The band probably broke up because I pushed everyone so hard to get better. One of the guys just wanted it to be a fun thing but I was ambitious. I was young and lacked the maturity to be a better band leader.  

You used to play in a log cabin bar made from huge old cedars, out in the Lolo National Forest, south of the Flathead Reservation. That sounds amazing, what was it like? Who were the people that came to hear you, where did they come from?

It was a wild wild scene. It was the heyday not only for that bar but for our band as well. The bar would bus people in from Missoula and folks drove out from the neighboring Bitterroot Valley. People showed up in droves ready to PARTY. It always felt like a boomtown wild west saloon on a full moon night. The rodeo swing dancing was out of this world. Those cowboys threw down and we provided a great soundtrack for their acrobatic feats. Sometimes there were fights but all in all the energy was positive. Those are some of my favorite memories. It was so authentic, so real. Very different than East Nashville where there’s lots of dressing up in high priced vintage western clothing and cowboy boots that have never seen horseshit. There was no cell reception at the bar. Everyone was present. It’s really really hard to find that kind of energy these days. I want so badly to create it but you’re just up against so much. Maybe one day.

The title track on this album, “He Rode On”, is a tribute to McKnight. You wanted him to be in the room in some way when you made this album, how did you achieve that?

I never thought I’d record my debut album without Colin. I figured we’d be playing music and drinking whiskey till we were old men. His father was kind enough to give me some of his ashes after he passed. I took a portion of them and created a home for them inside a bottle of Maker’s Mark. I opened the Maker’s, put some of his ashes inside, shook it up, and took a drink for good measure. Then I resealed the bottle in red wax so it looked like it had never been tampered, minus the ashes at the bottom. I took the bottle into the studio for ‘He Rode On’ and shook it up and did a shot with him whenever I needed inspiration.

Are the songs on this album all new, or are some of them from the days you played with McKnight in Whiskey Rebellion? Which songs on “He Rode On” remind you of those days the most?

All but one (Stick A Fork In It) of the songs on the album I used to play with Colin. Cowboy Boots And A Little Country Dress was the last tune we worked on before he passed. Whiskey Rebellion played lots of these songs: Outlaw’s Refuge, Light of the Moon, Like They Used To, Huckleberry Wine, He Rode On (a faster version sans the final verse.) Outlaw’s Refuge and Like They Used To were a couple of the first songs I taught the band. They go way back to those early Montana days when my beard reached my belly button and I was really taken by that lonesome mountain man lifestyle.

How did this album come about? When and where was it recorded? Who produced it, and who is playing on it? What was that process like for you?

This is a bit of a bizarre story but it’s true: Two days before Colin passed away I was all alone climbing a mountain in Monarch, Montana when I had a vision of the future. Colin had passed and I was trying to get a hold of Grant Siemens (album producer) to help me with my music. Unfortunately that vision came true. When it came time to reach out to Grant, I had no idea how to get a hold of him. I’d met him several months prior at The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering but I wasn’t on social media and didn’t have his number. I reached out to Corb Lund’s management but never heard back. Then I saw they were playing a festival in Montana. I went to the festival and when they finished their set I walked backstage right past security like I owned the place. It was my only chance really. I found Grant and told him what had happened. I gave him a letter with my phone number that explained the situation in more detail. He texted me later that night and said he would help me make an album.

I recorded the album in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is where Grant calls home. Winnipeg has a very deep pool of musical talent and we utilized a couple Nashville pros to round things out. Shawn Dealey (album engineer) owned the studio and it had great vintage analog equipment like Neve mic pre-amps and tape machines and everything you need to get great sounds. We flew out Nashville drummer John McTigue III and then had Nashville pedal steel wizard Robbie Turner lay down steel on several of the tracks. It was very important to record to tape with everyone playing together in the same room. Its a very human/ organic way of doing things. Lots of albums are recorded remotely these days, similar to how we can communicate remotely on our phones or through social media. But there’s something lost when everything is reduced to a system of 1’s and 0’s. I’m old school in that I want the real thing. Everyone else can have the metaverse, I’ll take the mountain.

Some of the songs on this album feel like they may have autobiographical strands twisted in with the fictional narratives How does the song writing process work for you?

Before moving to Nashville I had very little song craft. Most of my songs were channeled. I had no idea what I was doing, but the songs just kept coming. When I moved to Nashville I worked hard at developing craft, which is a good thing to have. Most times all you need is a good title. I’ve written lots of songs from a title alone. Melodies will spontaneously pop in my head. I try to get them down and come back to them later. The best songs come all at once and you’re just trying to keep up with the flood of ideas pouring into you. It’s like a possession. I don’t know where they come from but its like they existed somewhere and they’re given to you like a gift. As to how or when or why they come, there’s no rules. You can eat healthy and exercise and meditate and get plenty of rest or you can be on a ten-day whiskey bender on the verge of a panic attack. Songs come when they want. It’s a mystery.

You are based in Nashville now? When did you move away from Montana? What promoted this move? Did you move directly from Montana to Nashville to make the album? How do you find Nashville after the seclusion if the mountains? Are you planning on staying in Nashville?

I moved to the Nashville area in 2019 for the purpose of releasing my album. I thought it would give my music a better chance. Covid delayed the release and then a shortage in vinyl delayed it further. Coming from Montana, Nashville is like a different planet. From the weather to the landscape to the culture, everything is different. Nashville is quickly becoming like the L.A. of the south. It’s crazy how many people are moving here from New York and Southern California. I managed to avoid exposure to the rat race mentality for the longest time. Not anymore…. So yeah, being that I love wild open land and mountains and clean rivers and the down to earth people of Montana, the transition has been very challenging. I plan on staying in Nashville for at least a while longer, long enough to hopefully gain some traction with my music. But my heart is back where the wild things roam; where the grizzlies thrive and the wolves are howling in the night.

How would you describe your music?

All I’m trying to do is make Michael Shaw music. JJ Cale made JJ Cale music. Sun Ra made Sun Ra music. Dylan and Coltrane and Miles did the same. It’s just music that reflects who I am and where I’m at in life. I want to sell albums and have an audience, but I’m not gonna compromise myself to do so. I like so many genres and there’s great artists in each one. But my music will always be made by musicians, not machines. No 808s. No autotune.

Tell us about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Have you performed there? Do you have a connection to that world? How do song writers fit into that scene?

The National Cowboy Gathering is a very unique cultural event. What happened was my old band Whiskey Rebellion played the annual “Bucking Horse Sale,” aka Cowboy Mardi Gras, in Miles City, Montana. Over the course of that three day weekend, I befriended an eccentric cowboy poet named John Doran. Whenever we weren’t performing, John regaled us with tales of another great cowboy party in Elko, Nevada at the “National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.” Curiosity was stoked and eventually the pilgrimage was made.

The Gathering is just a big celebration of western cowboy culture. In addition to live music and cowboy poetry there’s classes on a variety of western skills. Everything from saddle making to roping, swing dancing to yodeling. I took rodeo swing dancing and yodeling classes that weekend. Musically it’s mostly cowboy-influenced or traditional country sounding bands. Corb Lund plays there sometimes, Luke Bell, Wylie and the Wild West, etc.

Your biography so far reads like a one-man personification of the rugged American male; wood chopping, wild fishing, backwoods mountain honky tonk man. The kind of guy who could not only lay his own hardwood floor, but could go out and fell the trees himself, then play the music for the people to dance to. Where would you plot yourself on the Venn diagram of Honky Tonker-Cowboy-Ranger-Frontiersman?

Honestly I’m not much of a cowboy. I never really worked with cows and I don’t like being fenced in. I’d rather be out in the wild surrounded by grizzlies and wolves and raw untrammeled land. I did study horsemanship from and worked with some great cowboys and I enjoyed their company. But I’m more of a mountain cowboy or mountain horseman or something like that.

Being a backcountry ranger was a very natural thing for me. I enjoyed being a one man operation (“one man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, nothing beats teamwork.” -Ed Abbey) It’s funny cause my first boss in Glacier always told me I needed to figure out if I wanted to be a ranger or a musician. I’ve been lucky enough to do both. I’m just your average wilderness horseman honky tonk playing mountain man philosopher. Its all tied together and one thing informs the next.

There is a school of thought that says no wilderness exists anymore, not once it has touched by man. You have come as close as anyone can in America today to experiencing the sublime in nature. Would you rather escape the rat race, get off grid and live out your days living in a log cabin in the mountains, not knowing what is going on in the rest of the world, or are you also able to embrace the changes and challenges of the modern world?

Thoreau said “there’s nothing older than the news.” I don’t get caught up in the ever-changing narrative of what I should be outraged at on any given week. Its a drama carousel that I choose not to ride. And I’d rather read Tolstoy or Homer or Dostoevsky than nearly anything written today. I’ve never watched reality TV or seen a single episode of Yellowstone, American Idol, The Office, Breaking Bad, Friends, Sopranos, on and on and on…

I see the world trending in a not so great direction. Shallow superficiality and narcissism are running rampant. We settle for appearances. We celebrate mediocrity. The whole celebrity worship thing baffles me. Who fucking cares about the Kardashians? I don’t. It seems we’re losing our humanity to technology. Sorry, but Elon Musk is not the answer. Egotistical billionaires and their rocket ship space fetishes are not the answer. Cell phone culture and social media is rapidly rewiring our brains and eroding our communication skills. The common narrative is that we’re all more connected, but is that true? People can hardly share space without being on their phones. When I see a couple at dinner or some friends at a bar and everyone is on their phones instead of interacting, I don’t call that connection. When people are walking down the sidewalk staring at their phone instead of taking in the clouds or the flowers on the trees, I see that as a disconnect to the world around them. Then there’s the staggering rates of depression, anxiety and teenage suicide. Pharmaceutical companies are thriving right now, for the sicker our society gets, the more they profit. People would be so much better off it they got rid of their TVs and grew a garden. And kids probably should go outside and play with a stick. Let them develop their imaginations, which will eventually become their “creativity.” Unfortunately its so much easier to give a kid screen time. There we go choosing comfort over truth…  

I want to live where I can’t see another house or person, except the people I choose to be with. I want the freedom to walk around naked and howl at the moon and chew the bark off trees and make my own moonshine and grow my own weed. But from Friday night till Sunday morning I want to get together with a supportive community and celebrate life with great music and drinking and dancing. Maybe a big potluck; everyone can bring something from their garden. Balance is key.

What is next for you? Can we expect another album in a year or two? Are there new songs waiting in the wings?

The next album is already written and I hope to record it this year for a 2023 release. There’s a very healthy number of new songs waiting in the wings. I’ve had a lot to write about lately…

What music do you like to listen to when you get the chance? Do you listen to the radio or buy records? Are there any new artists that you particularly like?

I listen to lots of classical, old blues, authentic country, jazz, rock ‘n roll, bluegrass. I listen to WMOT Roots Radio here in Nashville; Chloe Kimes has a great show. There’s some really talented roots artists out there these days. Sierra Ferrell, Charles Wesley Godwin, Sturgill, come to mind. But honestly I always turn to the classics. Mid 70’s Ralph Stanley, JJ Cale, The Stones, Merle…it’s all so timeless.

Dead or alive, who would you have playing with you at your fantasy festival and where would you hold it?

Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Bob Marley, James Brown, Hendrix, Mozart, Miles, Coltrane, Loretta, Dolly, Merle, Waylon, The Dead….so many. I’d hold it somewhere in the middle of Montana of course.

Where is the most beautiful place you have been so far? 

Gotta keep that kind of thing a secret. Let’s just say it’s very far from roads and you’re more likely to run into a grizzly than another human. But if you’re curious, and you promise to respect the land and the critters, I’d love to take you there sometime. As long as we do what HDT advises and set off in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return…..