June 16, 2005
by BOB DORAN
YOU MIGHT KNOW RICK SHEA AS ONE OF THE GUILTY MEN, the band that backed Dave Alvin last time he came to Humboldt. [Rick Shea in photo above]
Shea opened the show with some of his own well-crafted songs drawing on a wide range of music, from Appalachian old-timey to classic country.
Calling just before a gig in Orange County, Shea noted that he's been "trying to get a pardon" from The Guilty Men. The rigorous touring was getting to him, and the truth is, he has his own music to pursue, most of it mining that deep country vein.
Shea moved to San Bernardino when he was 12 years old and soon after began his musical exploration. "When I started playing in bands, I quickly fell into playing in country bars and truck stop bars. There were a lot of them and if you had a feel for country music, you could play six or seven nights a week and make a living at it. So I started doing that at a young age.
"It was the honky-tonk bars that introduced me to country music. That's where I heard a lot of the old songs, learned them from the other guys who were doing the same thing. A lot of them had connections to the Bakersfield guys; they'd been around the places that Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens and Merle Haggard came out of."
When Shea graduated from high school in 1971, the country sound was infecting Los Angeles and bands like The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers were integrating wailing pedal steel and bluegrass harmonies into rock.
"I came into it listening to bands like Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Neil Young," said Shea. "The Grateful Dead played Merle Haggard songs. The Burrito Brothers were a big influence. That's part of what drew me into country radio at that time."
Of course, contemporary country radio is a different animal. "At this point I don't pay any attention to commercial country music. I don't feel like it has any connection with what I do or the kind of thing I try and base what I do on, which is Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell -- music that goes much further back."
Shea is touring with another SoCal country band, I See Hawks in L.A. "We're good friends, in fact I'm working with Paul Lacques [from I See Hawks] this weekend. We do a lot together, play some acoustic gigs."
Here in Humboldt you see them all the time: hawks perched on a freeway sign or a light pole scanning the grass in the center divider searching for prey. They serve as a little reminder that nature perseveres despite the urban overlay. And it's the same thing in Los Angeles. Thus the name of the band, I See Hawks in L.A.
"That's exactly what the band's name is all about," said Paul Lacques, calling while on a break from his day job. "It's also about our declining awareness about our natural surroundings. We ask our friends and people at our shows if they ever see hawks in L.A. Almost all of them say no. But all you have to do is look up. I still see them every two or three days. That lack of awareness keeps us from making certain decisions we have to make soon if we want to survive as part of this natural system."
Lacques started the band in 2001 with his brother Anthony and Rob Waller. "We've always loved country music and I've been in country and bluegrass bands since the '70s, but at that point we were coming from very different bands. I was playing in a band called the Aman Folk Ensemble. It was a touring group that had been around for about 40 years supporting a folk dance company -- very eclectic world music and all without electric instruments.
"Rob and Anthony were coming out of a rock band called The Magic of Television. They played roots music with a country feel and were moving toward more country. They did a couple of Gram Parsons covers and countrified versions of Lou Reed songs. They were flirting with country but hadn't made the leap. The three of us decided we'd try the straight-ahead country approach."
With its crying pedal steel and close harmonies, the latest I See Hawks in L.A. album, Grapevine, brings to mind that classic era of California country rock, late '60s records like The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
Lacques doesn't mind the comparison. "Sweetheart of the Rodeo is one of my favorite records and there's no denying that The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers influenced us. We also do some pretty straight ahead old-time bluegrass stuff, which will show up a little more on our new record. There are many influences cross-pollinating."
Among the songs on the Grapevine disc is one titled "Humboldt," a paean to the county and its local cash crop. "I'd be glad to plant corn in the ground, but corn don't go for $3,000 a pound in Humboldt," sings the vocalist, stretching the county name through several bars.
"I know we're not being fair to the region," said Lacques. "We've all been through there, but it's certainly painting an imaginary landscape. It's not like writing about Los Angeles, which, unfortunately, I know like the back of my hand.
"We come from many ideologies. I'd say Rob and I are very far left, really far. Our bass player's a libertarian and we have huge political arguments, but we all agree that the government should leave people alone. We all feel the hammer coming down and America slowly turning into an oppressive society with a powerful central government.
"We particularly feel that laws about people's personal behavior should be eliminated -- the drug laws in particular are a major disgrace. People should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to alter their consciousness or not. I hope we don't exploit the image of the county or people of Humboldt, but the theme is that people should be free to do what they want."
The Rick Shea/I See Hawks in L.A. tour comes to Arcata Sunday, June 19, for a 10:30 p.m. show at The Alibi on the Arcata Plaza. Admission is just $2. For more on Rick Shea, go to www.rickshea.net. The I See Hawks in L.A. website is at www.iseehawks.com. Watch for a new Hawks disc by year end, tentatively titled California Country.
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