“The Great Divide is a story of love and life; of happiness and hope; of loss and discovery. It’s the story of a journey that spans generations, and is ultimately about trying to find your way home. And I’m as proud of this story as any I’ve ever told.”
Montgomery, AL is 280 miles from Nashville, TN. But in the early 1960’s, that wasn’t too far for the AM radio waves of the Grand Ole Opry, where in the back seat of a 1958 Chevy, a young Tommy Shaw lost – and found – himself in every note, and where the seeds of a life in music were planted.
The songs, stories and voices carried over WSM’s airwaves from those many miles away didn’t just inspire him; they etched a compass in him that would forever guide his life’s musical journey.
Though Shaw went on to become one of the brightest stars in rock ‘n roll as the singer and guitarist of Styx, his early love of roots music always burned bright. The sense of purpose instilled in him at that early age has led him on a remarkable path of musical discovery and storytelling, and ultimately, has led him home, to “The Great Divide.”
Shaw’s bluegrass debut, “The Great Divide,” has been a long time in the making.
“We’ve been working on it for six years,” Shaw says. “I needed it to breathe and take my time with it. As a newcomer, I put myself at the feet of some of the best bluegrass players in the country to learn from them. I wanted to make an authentic album that captured that feeling I had as a kid, listening to those songs and feeling as if they were speaking directly to me.”
The songs on “The Great Divide” cover a wide range of themes. But like so many great songs, it’s not the theme that speaks to the listener as much as it is the story, and the way that the story is told.
“Part of the magic of bluegrass is the storytelling,” Shaw says. “These are story songs. I think songs that take you on a little journey are the best ones,” Shaw explains. “A song can have that kind of an arc. I wanted each to have a happy ending, or at least a sense of hope, of optimism. I wanted to have a chorus you are happy to sing, even when I’m singing about something that might not be so happy.”
“Not so happy”, like the story of a man stepping in front of a swing saw?
“My father used to tell this story from his childhood,” recalls Shaw. “His father took this a job managing sawmills in the woods and brought my father along to be a water boy. One day a worker wasn’t paying attention to the swing saws and stepped in its path. The saw just about split the man in two before he fell over dead. For a little boy, that’s a tough thing to see. But here we are in bluegrass; it’s a great place to tell stories like that. I think my dad would be charmed to have his story immortalized. He was a fan of my music. I think he would be able relate more to this music than anything I’ve ever done.”
Shaw’s lifelong journey as a songwriter is not unlike the arc of the stories he tells on “The Great Divide.” Like the stories in his songs, his own story spans generations, as his songs have left an indelible impression on listeners for four decades. His own story is one of discovery and re-discovery throughout a distinguished career, in which he hasn’t feared risk for the sake of growth. And his own story is one of coming full circle – finding his way home – after 40 years, and fully reconnecting with the music that set him on his path as a child in Alabama.
Shaw discovered something else, too, during the writing process – Mother knows best.
“I finally came to terms with the fact that my mom has been right about things pretty much the whole time,” Shaw says. “She always said things will work out, and they always do. On this album, I wrote heartbreaking romantic things, but I always heard her voice telling me ‘it’s all going to be okay.’”
Of all the similarities between the arc of Shaw’s songs and the arc of his life’s journey, perhaps the most striking is this – the sense of hope and optimism that he works to instill in each song, no matter the subject, rings true to the listener in a way that reaches far beyond this album. “The Great Divide” proves that Shaw is far from the end of his personal arc as a songwriter, and leaves the listener both hopeful and optimistic that he will continue his journey – his constant willingness to discover and re-discover – and share it with us in the way that only he can.
Because when he does, we can all hear that voice in our heads saying, “It’s all going to be okay.”