By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Shawn James.
It’s another hot summer night in the land of the Ozarks, emanating that rare breed of heat you can only sweat along the Mississippi. A band pulls up to the bar–sporting wily tumbleweed beards, tattoos, and grins.
A banjo and violin are lugged in tow, and the audience nestles into their booze soaked stools. Whether or not it’s spoken, the denizens of Fayetteville, Arkansas, are expecting an evening of bluegrass music as the five members take to the stage.
Instead, they are greeted by raucous thunder. Barrel-fisted guitar pummels alongside the frenetic thrash of heavy metal drumming. Is that for the banjo and violin? Yes. Both string musicians are head-banging at the front of the stage, shredding with chicken-pickin’ abandon into the heart of the maelstrom.
Some people get up and leave. A couple of fans complain about the abrasiveness, and wish together for a return to the band’s more folksy roots. However a majority of old and new listeners alike gaze on in wonder, pausing only intermittently between a mosh to realize they are witnessing something truly unique.
Shawn James & The Shapeshifters isn’t just another rag-tag ensemble of conventional string dusters. They may build expectations by resembling their Arkansas-based, traditional-playing contemporaries, but these rogue bluegrassers have discovered a noticeably harder edge.
“We get confused as a bluegrass band all the time when we first pull up to a venue,” says James, who is both frontman and principal songwriter. “They see the violin get pulled out, and the banjo and the guitar, and I think we end up shocking more people than not.”
With their most recent release The Gospel According To Shawn James & The Shapeshifters, James and his musical cohorts breed heavy metal, folk, soul, and bluegrass elements together into a hellacious brew that’s best chugged and enjoyed in excess. It’s a sound they’ve aptly dubbed “rock and roar.”
The experiment doesn’t seem like it should work, but somehow ends up sounding like the best idea you wish you’d dreamt up first. The sprite twang and timbre of the banjo sails on top the sludge of distortion, with soaring fiddle to help guide the songs forward.
The Gospel might mark a pivotal sonic sermon for a band that cut its teeth on folk music, but for James it’s just a logical extension of a different kind of gospel he explored years ago. As a young boy living in Chicago, James and his mother would frequent the many churches located in the city’s downtown neighborhoods.
She encouraged her son to join the choirs in impassioned song–which he did with an uncanny naturalism.
After formative years spent reading classical music and opera off the written page, James entered high school and ditched the formal training for a new genre that excited him in all of the ways that gospel never could. Heavy metal allured him, with passions more viscerally exonerated, yet musical nonetheless.
“I had to begin experimenting with different vocal techniques, because the growling and yelling and screaming were new to me,” James tells BTR. “It was very foreign, just growing up the way I did. But I realized how powerful the emotions were, [they] could take the music to another level that many styles can’t do because they don’t see it as ‘right.’”
The songwriter toured for a brief stint with a metal band before an eventual dissolution that left him writing folk songs once again–this time in Nashville, Tennessee. Rather than leaving the barn-burning genre behind for good, James experimented with fusing his earlier roots influences into the heavier textures.
The results were a “dark folk” hybrid that can be heard on his first record Shadows.
What started off as little more than a kick drum, tambourine, and guitar began to shape shift after James received a call from violin player Chris Overcash. The latter convinced the songwriter to play a set at a folk festival in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where another mutual friend, Baker, would be playing tenor banjo. The three struck more than a chord, and James left Nashville to join his newly found musical community shortly thereafter.
In the years since, The Shapeshifters have gained a considerable following in and around the Southeast, even though their most recent output left audiences feeling polarized. Much like Bob Dylan’s controversial transition from folk to electric music at the end of the ‘60s, fans of James’ band are divided about how they regard the heavier, more electric leanings of The Gospel.
“I find that there’s one of two reactions, typically,” explains James.
“Either they’re fans of our older, softer, singer/songwriter stuff and they wanted us to keep to that style, or it goes the opposite way and people love everything we’ve done; they understand that the term ‘Shapeshifters’ not only encompasses the band name, but also the style in the sense that we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into just one genre.”
They might have created folk in the past, but levying the term in a traditional sense is a bit of a stretch. The Shapeshifters released a trilogy of albums over the course of four years; each release embodied a different animal in nature and foretold its plight.
The lonely and fierce survivalist take on a nomadic wolf became the first in the trilogy, simply titled The Wolf. Sparse and haunting blues-soaked vocals perfectly surmise the moonlit hunter–who is rendered all the more melancholic through the addition of a lilting backing orchestra.
For his next album, James secluded himself in the Ozark Mountains with a 30 pound steel resonator guitar. In a marathon feat of just three days he wrote all of the material that would become the second, and far heavier installment, The Bear.
Along with the third and final album of the trilogy, The Hawk (which tells the story of a hawk seeking vengeance on a murder of crows), both releases lumber with a haunting and sledge-hammer-swinging heft that hint towards the heavier tendencies to come. Folk purists or metal-heads alike should take note: shapeshifting might not be in their comfort zone, but it’s worth the metamorphosis.
To hear the rest of our interview with Shawn James, tune into this week’s episode of The Discovery Corner.
Or interpret the band for yourself by clicking here.