I have a really cool sister. Like, way cooler than me. Sarah is a sophomore at Missouri State. I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with her as I would like, so when Sarah asked if I wanted to go see a five dollar concert with her in downtown Little Rock this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. All she told me about the band was that it was a blues-rock group out of Fayetteville, and she thought I would like them. Sarah was right, as usual.
My first thought after I heard Shawn James and the Shapeshifters play that night was “This is the best southern rock I’ve heard in a long time.” But describing Shawn James as a southern rocker just doesn’t do him justice. He’s also blues and bluegrass. Not country bumpkin bluegrass that sounds like a banjo thrown into a pigsty. This is dark bluegrass, with roots going back nearly a century. After the concert, I asked James which of his albums I should buy, and he pointed me to On the Shoulders of Giants. The first track, “Hellhound,” is a beautifully distorted throwback to Robert Johnson.
On the Shoulders of Giants is James’ nod to the blues artists who came before him, the “Giants,” if you will. The other album I picked up that night, The Gospel According to Shawn James and the Shapeshifters, is the real fusion of rock and bluegrass/blues that hooked me. The vaguely blasphemous title advertises the dark spiritual themes of wandering and condemned fate that characterize the album.
James’ voice carries a lot of the music. He croons some amazing baritone melodies, and once in a while he’ll add a growl that would make a scream metal vocalist proud. The lyrics aren’t anything grandiose; sometimes James will extend one word for eight measures, but they fit the music entirely. These words and melodies will get stuck in your head with just one play-through. They’re quite catchy.
Actually, “catchy” is a trivial word for this music. Catchy is what the one hit pop artist with a four chord song and a Millennial whoop does to make money. James’ music is infectious. It’s simple to remember, but it’s rich to hear.
I won’t pretend that the Shapeshifters or their unique blend of folk and rock are for everyone. If you want something peppy to listen to, you should look somewhere else. But if you want something a little different or that has a bit more depth, try Shawn James. You might just love it.