Rick Shea and Brantley Kearns
Trouble and Me
Tres Pescadores Records
by William Michael Smith
Rick Shea and Brantley Kearns are multi-instrumentalist mainstays of the Los Angeles roots and traditional music scene. While they've often performed together as a duo over the years, this is their first official "Rick and Brantley" recording. Folky, traditional, and acoustic, it is an absolutely straightforward, honest, unpretentious record. And it's no accident that they begin the album with a picker's delight Shea instrumental composition titled "Carolina California" that is a complex, layered acoustic romp in the Appalachian tradition but with an undeniable modernity. Doc and Vassar comparisons should leap to mind.
While Shea is an established figure in the Southern California roots scene who has released four albums of his own work, including Sawbones in 2000, his most recognized work has been as a hot-picking, multi-instrumental (steel, acoustic, and electric guitar and mandolin) sideman in Dave Alvin's Guilty Men. Shea has also recorded or appeared with Chris Gaffney, Heather Myles, Christy McWilson, Katy Moffatt, Phil Tagliere, and Mark Insley.
Kearns is currently part of Alvin's touring band, but his most high profile work was with Dwight Yoakam. Kearns played fiddle and sang those distinctive harmonies on Yoakam's breakout album, Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. as well as on Hillbilly Deluxe, Just Lookin' for a Hit, and Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. Kearns has also played and sung harmony on innumerable recording sessions in about any genre one cares to name. His credits include Billy Joe Shaver's Highway of Life, Jesse Dayton's Hey Nashvegas!, Supersuckers' Must've Been High, and multiple records for Heather Myles and David Bromberg. He even recorded with punk legend Mike Ness on Under the Influences.
It only seems natural that Shea and Kearns enlisted Alvin to co-produce. Alvin has a Grammy on his shelf for Best Folk Album (Public Domain) and has several notable production credits including Tom Russell's Rose of the San Joaquin and albums for Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, rockabilly legend Sonny Burgess, Red Meat, Katy Moffatt, Candye Kane, and the latest by Christy McWilson. Greg Liesz, a longtime Alvin musical fellow traveler, lends his considerable dobro skills to the project.
The album actually assumes two distinct personalities depending on who is taking the vocal lead. In a blurb for Shea's Sawbones release, Alvin said Shea has a voice he'd kill for. Shea has a clear, distinctive Western timbre that is easily identifiable to anyone familiar with his other work. I've heard it compared to Kevin Welch. Shea's vocal tracks, like Jim Ringer's well drawn folky love song "Rachel" or Shea's own Southern flavored "Parish Road," would fit seamlessly on Sawbones with a bit of electrification. But there is no electrification, so what we get is lively playing and singing that wrings plenty of emotional content and meaning from the rhymes. Shea grew up in San Bernardino, giving his plaintive but catchy cover of Mary McCaslin's "San Bernardino Waltz" an extra dimension. And Shea actually gets a young Merle Haggard vocal vibe on the title track, which features the brilliant lyrics of the recently deceased Harlan Howard and Kearns spot-on trademark country-soul harmonies.
Trouble and me, we're old buddies you see
I've stuck by him, he's stickin' by me
Goodbye, honey, be thankful you're free
That you're not stuck with ol' trouble and me
--Harlan Howard, "Trouble and Me"
Shea also sings on the sentimental and delicate country-folk Shea-Alvin song, "Let My Horses Run Free." Both Alvin and Shea have a considerable jones for "Western" or "cowboy" music, the music of the ranches and campfires, and this is an excellent example of what happens when two seasoned songwriters collaborate in an old form. They draw some wonderful rural images that capture the spirit of a man not only facing the end of his days but of the rural Western way of life. My grandfather was an old cattleman who didn't quit riding until he was 77. I wish he could have heard this song before he died.
The days have grown shorter, there's a chill on the wind
These old bones have grown tired, my blood's running thin
My friends and my family are just memories
Time to take off my saddle, let my horses run free
While I was already familiar with Shea's singing voice, I had never heard Kearns as a lead singer before listening to Trouble and Me and I was simply stunned. Kearns has a delightful, authentic, old-time hillbilly voice that works well for standards like the Carter Family's "Loafer's Glory" or Alvin and Shea's arrangement of the traditional folk romp sing-along, "Sail Away Ladies." With his Jimmy Martin-channeling-Doc-Watson voice, Mr. Kearns could front any bluegrass band on the planet. His "Ain't It Almost Like the Old Times" certainly catches the authentic old-time, front-porch mountain music feel.
Kearns has two showstoppers here. One is the innovative country-blues Dave-Alvin-touch arrangement of Blind Lemon Jefferson's "Black Snake Moan" featuring Kearns' dry vocal and some electrifying Cajun fiddling. With Alvin on National steel guitar and Chris Gaffney's gently rocking accordion, this track is straight from the bayous south of I-10. Kearns' voice has both a wonderful loose flexibility and a hard snap that makes it perfect for a double entendre blues. It is this voice that makes his version of the Texas traditional "No More Cane on the Brazos" so numbingly pleasurable. The fact that he can do it within the structure of a bluegrass waltz beat makes it all the more effective. And his world-weary aching-back Del McCoury vocal treatment is as real as the brutal cotton-picking labor in the Brazos River valley that spawned the original field-holler.
Should've been on that old river in Nineteen-and-five
There is hardly a man that is left alive
Should've been on that old river in Nineteen-and-ten
They was workin' the women just like they was men
With Alvin's deft handling, Trouble and Me is intimate in the extreme. Aesthetically, it alternates between what sounds like playing in the living room on the tracks Shea sings and playing on the back porch when Kearns takes the microphone. Little touches like the wacky jaw harp on "Loafer's Glory" and "Sail Away Ladies" and occasional harmonies that sound like a cross between a backwoods church and a prison choir set the album apart from other "traditional" albums, giving it a deep, unhurried, organic feel. Shea credits Alvin's ears and vision along with careful pre-production rehearsals and a common vision with Kearns for the album turning out to be the honest, intimate jewel that it is.
"We just wanted to do our best to capture the sounds of the acoustic instruments," Shea said, "since that is so much of what Brantley and these songs are about."
Equal parts craft-conscious roots musicians and students of the music and its history, there can be little doubt that this project is a labor of love for Shea, Kearns, and Alvin, more a question of their personal musical integrity than of hit records, commercial possibilities, and financial rewards, more about self-respect and keeping the faith than about fame and fortune. With the flood of "traditional" music washing over the record buying public in the wake of the sales success of O Brother, we can only hope that something this exceptional doesn't get lost in the crowd. Whatever happens commercially with Trouble and Me, I don't believe Kearns or Shea will have any trouble looking in the mirror each morning.
* It's quality discs like Trouble and Me that signal that new-found So Cal label Tres Pescadores Records is out to make a name for itself in the world of roots music. Check up on Rick and Brantley, Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts, and $1000 Wedding at www.trespescadores.com
Contact William Michael Smith at: firstname.lastname@example.org