Shawn James has crafted a sound that’s straight out of mid-20th-century hard blues. It’s just right for an Arkansas rocker who’s proud to call Fayetteville home. The thing is, James was a Chicago boy.
He grew up in the City of Big Shoulders, went to college in Florida and kicked around the country a while then returned home. A onetime bandmate was from Northwest Arkansas and bragged on it so James, now 29, checked it out and with his wife moved here in January 2012. He’s found local musicians who’ve become his “Southern, swampy” band the Shapeshifters, and they’ve made NWA a home base for long national and shorter European tours.
Shawn James will take a solo bluesy turn Tuesday, Jan. 26, at Nightbird Books on Fayetteville’s Dickson Street, the month’s featured wordsmith of the Ozark Poets & Writers Collective. The program starts at 7 p.m.
While the Shapeshifters have a driving, usually electric sound, in his solo and smaller ensemble work James is softer, folkier. In a YouTube music video that’s turned viral (with over 2.8 million views) — youtu.be/_PX4mDbIYB0 — James sings and strums the A.A. Bondy song “American Hearts” with mandolin accompaniment in Colorado’s W.O.L.F. private wolf sanctuary. In a driving snow, several wolves wander and occasionally howl in the background as the two cold but gloveless musicians perform.
Although James’ concert solo performances have him working several instruments at once, something like a one-man band, for the bookshop it’ll just be acoustic and resonator guitars. As the usual monthly features comprise prose and verse stylists, “I’ll do some storytelling on how the songs came to be and the stories behind them,” he said.
“I’m very lucky to have found Fayetteville. I have found quite a lot of musicians to walk along with me on the musical path. Not all of them are still there, of course. Fayetteville’s been a great great town to get all of this started in. People are really supportive, the arts community, the shows, the cost of living, and being dead center in the U.S. is pretty good for touring.”
James is planning on “pulling some old favorites” from his 2014 solo album “Deliverance” and 2012’s “Shadows. Although it’s not on his OPWC set list, one song from the latter, “Funny Little Feeling,” opens with a couple of ambient train whistles:
“What started as a starry night turned into a horrid storm / and now my head is wet with the rain. / It’s not that I expected it or planned for it to come, / it sorta just ended up this way. …
“I got a funny little feelin’ that I ain’t gonna make it home tonight. / My mind’s been spent paying all these midnight dues. / I’m just calling to say that I love you and that I’ll be safe. / I’ll see ya when the morning time comes around again. …”
Otherwise, James has spent the month rehearsing. He and the Shapeshifters resume touring in March. But in early February, he’ll be recording a solo album in Memphis at the historic Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and others made early records in the 1950s. While for many years open as a museum, Sun Studio recently got a new owner, James said, who is returning the facility to its recording roots — where musicians and their producers will use vintage equipment.
His plan in Memphis is to “play kick drum with my right foot, tambourine with my left foot, sing and play guitar, basically. I don’t know if I’ll be bringing the kick drum and tambourine to Nightbird. That might be a little much for that space.”
Guitars and singing, with stories to tell, will be more than enough.
The collective meets the last Tuesday evening of every month at Nightbird. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. An open mic — with a four-minute limit — precedes and follows the featured artist. While young people are welcome, the language and topics at times can be raw.