By Eleni P. Austin
Some people are born to make music, even if they never get famous from it, even if they never make a living off it. They’re compelled to write songs and play, it’s as essential as breathing and eating. This has definitely been the case with Rick Shelley. Creating music can be a solitary experience, but sharing that creation offers a rush like no other.
Surrounded by the Blue Mountains and Walla Walla River, Rick grew up in the small town of Walla Walla, Washington. Coming of age in the ‘70s, Rick participated in the usual rites of passage, playing sports, chasing girls, and doing enough school work to get by.
Right when he hit adolescence, he became acquainted with James Danielson and Eric Turner. Music was the common interest that cemented their nascent friendship. Rick had already begun fooling around with a Gibson guitar an older cousin had left behind. Although he had no formal training, he showed some proficiency. Eric had a drum kit and James was a preternaturally talented guitarist. The friends decided they should form a band.
Cycling through a series of (best forgotten) names, the fledgling trio hired and fired bassists with ruthless precision. Still, they were making a name for themselves, playing around town. They began to dream of a future in Rock N’ Roll. By 1986, they were finished with High School and California bound. Eric’s family had some history in Palm Springs, so they landed there. It was close to the Rock N Roll capital, Los Angeles, but much less intimidating and expensive.
Inspired by disparate influences like Bob Dylan, Motley Crue, Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks and Van Halen, the trio began searching for a bass player that would share their vision, finally in 1989, they met Nick Oliveri. Just 16 years old, the budding bassist’s influences hewed closer to Punk and Metal. He steered the Walla Walla boys toward the subversive sounds of the Ramones, Iggy Pop and the D As RagTag, the four-piece began gigging around the desert and built a solid fan base. As lead singer, Rick displayed a lean athleticism and a front-man charisma that was particularly appealing. Their sound was a Glam-Punk-Metal hybrid that sandwiched comfortably between Guns N’ Roses and Jane’s Addiction.
RagTag signed with a manager who insisted they relocate to Los Angeles. Despite the punishing pay-to-play climate of the Sunset Strip, they managed to play legendary venues like the Whisky, Gazzari’s, the Country Club, the Roxy and the Troubadour. Ultimately, the manager couldn’t deliver as promised, and after a year the band imploded.
Nick reconnected with his high school pal Josh and formed Kyuss. Rick, James and Eric returned to the desert, married, and started families. Still, the need to make music persisted, so they recruited Nick’s brother Dean (who is an amazing bassist in his own right), and reconvened.
By this time the guys were in their mid-20s and they began integrating influences like Jazz Fusion pioneer Miles Davis, the Blues of Buddy Guy and Albert King, the improvisational genius of the Grateful Dead and the narrative prowess of Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. Looking for a way to blend these antithetical styles, the guys honed their sound over lengthy practice sessions. It seemed apropos to name their band Woodshed, since woodshedding is slang for tenacious musical practice.
Woodshed easily fit into the Jam Band paradigm created by the Grateful Dead and maintained by a number of mid-90s disciples like Dave Matthews Band and Blues Traveler. Rick now split vocal duties with James and played rhythm guitar. Their music struck a balance between epic improvisation and lean economy. The band had a lengthy run from 1992 until 2004. They recorded two studio albums, The Fires Of Spring in 1994 and Let It Roll in 1996.
But they made their reputation as a live band, touring extensively through Southern California, and opening locally for everyone from L.A. Guns to Gene Loves Jezebel to the Untouchables. Their 2001 live effort Goodnight Irene captured the true magic of the band. In 2004 they recorded a fourth album in the high desert at Rancho de la Luna that remains unreleased.
Although Woodshed had cultivated a healthy following, commercial success and national exposure eluded them. First Eric, and then James relocated their families back to Walla, Walla and the band quietly went on hiatus, never officially breaking up.
For the next decade, Rick weathered a devastating divorce but remained a dedicated dad, raising his three kids. Finally, as the kids became more independent, his need to create music was rekindled. Musing on the twists and turns life takes, he began writing songs again. By late 2014 he started performing live at clubs around the desert. Playing solo was both scary and exhilarating. Rick had always channeled his music through (sometimes hypercritical) committee, he experienced a new measure of freedom going it alone.
Following 10 years of relative inactivity, songs just came pouring out of him. He quickly amassed an enviable arsenal of 40 new songs. He recorded demos of each, playing all the instruments, and layering in the harmonies himself. Not long after, he contacted Chris Unck, owner of High Lonesome Studio in Joshua Tree. A multi-instrumentalist, Chris has toured with Pink and Butch Walker, and is front man for his own alt.country band, the Black Roses.
In the Summer of 2015, Rick and Chris sorted through Rick’s growing catalogue of compositions and carefully chose six songs to record a debut EP. 1909 Miles arrived in November of 2015, and received rave reviews. Rick was nominated for three categories at the 2016 Coachella Valley Music Awards, including Best New Artist, a bit of an irony, since he began his career in 1989.
The next 18 months were a whirlwind of activity. During that time Rick shared stages with artists like Cisco & Dewey, celebrated British Folk-Rocker Jasmine Rodgers, award-winning songwriter Travis Meadows and Country legend Jann Browne. He’s performed at Pappy & Harriets, the Joshua Tree Saloon, the Songwriters In The Round series at the Beatnik, the Mint in Los Angeles, Long Beach’s annual Buskerfest and Songs Alive Songwriter Night in Orange County.
In the summer of 2016, he and Chris headed back into High Lonesome, paring down his 50+ catalog-o-hits, they recorded 12 songs and the result is his first full-length album, Hope Wrapped In Razor Wire.
The album opens with the low-key charm of “Sing Waiting On A Friend.” Strummy acoustic guitar connects with stripped-down electric riffs, and a percolating rhythm. With a few deft lines Rick sets the scene; “Another tired morning the shadows fading, the light comes through the window/The night before tastes just like rum and nicotine, the old songs I was playing echoed off the barroom wall, last night I couldn’t stop thinking about you, so I sang ‘Waiting On A Friend.’” It’s a lonely portrait of a rootless musician finding solace in one woman’s arms as he pines for another. Chris Unck’s extended Keef-tastic solo slyly reiterates the song’s wry genuflection to the Rolling Stones.
Since emerging as a solo artist, Rick has acquired a lyrical sophistication that feels light years away from his Woodshed songs. Although his forte has been the artful dissection of romantic relationships (that mostly go wrong), two tracks here take him completely out of his comfort zone.
Inspired by a line in a Rexroth poem, he wrote the song “Dead Horse Hollow.” Here he shares the harrowing true story of 57 Irish immigrant workers hired to lay railroad line in Pennsylvania. They were worked nearly to death over a two month period. Subsequently, all were cut down by Cholera and buried in an unmarked mass grave.
Banjo and dobro notes intertwine over hammering percussion, as Rick unspools the saga of Duffy’s Cut. “Five hundred pounds of hardened rail line holds the engine and the gear, Duffy’s Cut won’t bleed out willing it won’t cry or shed no tear/Let the whisky kill the sorrow, the gut it will not save/Don’t go weak near dead horse hollow they’ll just dig another grave.” The anguish in his voice is palpable, underscored by swooping fiddle runs that split the difference between Celtic lamentation and Country comfort.
“Highway 99 (Bakersfield)” is much more light-hearted. The infectious melody is powered by a pedal-to-the-metal backbeat, walking bass lines, serpentine acoustic licks, searing pedal steel notes and an electric solo that’s positively Buckaroo-riffic. On the surface the lyrics limn the hardscrabble existence of long-haul truckers; “I got 18 hours to roll in, that’s if everything goes right/I’ll be pushing luck and blowing smoke through an unforgiving night.” But take a closer look and it’s evident that he’s offering subtle commentary on a relationship that’s as stable as a jackknifed Big Rig.
A central theme of this album seems to be revisiting heartbreak and examining psychic wounds that have yet to heal. Both “Easy Lies” and “Long Way Around” address careless infidelities and casual cruelties that happened long ago, but still feel fresh today. On the former, keening pedal steel threads through a loping melody, anchored by brushed drums and over-lapping acoustic and electric guitar. Rick’s voice is sweet as molasses but it can’t camouflage the ache as he confronts adultery and betrayal; “These streets know you better than I do, you are truer to them than to me/They look the same when you walk out on them, but a wrong street is like misery.”
The sunny, minor- key melody of the latter belies the melancholy mood of the lyrics. Acoustic and electric guitars dovetail over a wash of keys, bowed bass and a propulsive rhythm. Emotionally adrift following a wrenching break-up, the only key to solace is practiced avoidance; “I know if I see you then all bets are off, I know how it is in the town/Take the long way around.” It’s possibly the sweetest, saddest song he’s ever written.
Rick’s sharp observational skills are showcased on two tracks, “All She Really Wants” and “Hope Wrapped In Razor Wire.” On “All…” lonesome pedal steel cradles knotty acoustic riffs and stutter-step percussion. The opening lines say it all; “There’s a hawk feather hanging from the heart of this woman that I know, but I don’t know her well/She tells me stories of the places that she’s been to, all the lovers that she’s through, little secrets little lies.” His language both is evocative and economical as he tries to see past woman’s affectations hoping for a genuine connection. Sadly there’s no there there.
The title track offers intimate details from a late night assignation; “She had wings that were tattooed down the length of her back revealed as her dress touched the floor, another of a dagger through the heart of her breast, piercing in through the core/She looked lean as she moved on through the dim light, almost seemed to be etched by fire/Before she leaned in to kiss, I read the word on her neck, it was ‘hope’ wrapped in razor wire.” A fiddle swoops and saws over the arrangement, accentuating the bittersweet tableau.
It feels as though Rick can’t outrun his own demons on both “Home To The Bed I Made” and “Kisses Bitter.” The former plays out like an emotional travelogue, mileposts marking moments of consternation and ennui. Here spitfire fiddle runs spark and pinwheel, mirroring the mood of inherent dissatisfaction.
On the latter, his voice cuts like honey and wood-smoke, tender, but resolute. Reverb-drenched guitar gives the melody a spectral feel. Rick takes a personal inventory and comes up wanting. Haunted by youthful indiscretions and poor choices, release only comes through sleep; “When I do, I dream I’m free/The ground just slips away, got no hold on me.”
The final three tracks form a tender triptych hoping for sweet connection and possible redemption. “Right Back In My Arms” is a twangy two-step that revisits a failed romance hoping for closure; “When we were younger the city had a luster, it had a way of talking you believed to be true/You were beautiful, me I was careless, paint the two together, well, you’re bound to get some blue.”
“Sweet Poetry” wraps a knowing mea culpa in an achingly pure melody. Rick’s plaintive tone is buttressed by an iridescent guitar solo sure to melt the listener’s heart. Finally, “The Heart I Never Had,” waxes and wanes, powered by a chugging rhythm, weeping lap steel and quavery guitar. Hoping for some emotional rescue, he’s back on “another long open highway…” but peace of mind remains elusive.
This album is pretty close to perfect, but Rick couldn’t have done it alone. He shares production chores with Chris Unck who also plays drums, percussion, backing vocals, banjo, bass, bowed bass, keys and lap steel (phew). Rick tackles guitar, bass, dobro and percussion. Other players include Bob Furgo on fiddle, Damian Lester on upright bass, Matt Pynn on pedal steel and Tyler Saraca played drums. Gabriella Evaro provided sweet backing vocals on “Easy Lies.”
Hope Wrapped In Razor Wire is everything you could want in a record. The lyrics are suffused with heart and soul. The melodies hit the sweet spot, equal parts Rock N’ Roll swagger and good old Country comfort, (with none of that bro-tastic bitter aftertaste). Rick’s youthful dreams of Rock N’ Roll were deferred, to honor obligations and commitments, to raise a family and have a life. But his music is better, richer and more resonant for his experience. There’s something to be said for delayed gratification.