The Great Divide

Tommy Shaw

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The Great Divide Review

by Thom Jurek

Guitarist Tommy Shaw spent the first decade of the 21st century reuniting with his longtime outfit Styx, making recording with Damn Yankees, and as Shaw Blades with Yankees mate Jack Blades. He begins the second decade making a very wide left turn, returning to the roots music he cut his guitar-playing teeth on in his native Alabama: bluegrass. The Great Divide is not a novelty record, nor does it sound like Shaw is merely flirting with the genre while biding his time until another Styx reunion. He wrote or co-wrote every song on the record, and surrounded himself with some of the best players in the genre: superchoppers like fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolinist Sam Bush, bassist Byron House, banjoist Scott Vestal, dobro master Rob Ickes, guitarist Brad Davis, and just to make things interesting, drummer Chris Brown. The progressive bluegrass set also features a pair of superstar guest vocalists -- Dwight Yoakam on album-opener "The Next Right Thing," and Alison Krauss on the title track (that also features guest Jerry Douglas on dobro) -- one of the real high points on this outing. Shaw's flatpicking skills don't sound rusty at all, whether he's playing an acoustic six-string, a resonator guitar, or even a dobro. The other players push him to play at their level and he mostly does: check his dobro solo on "Back in Your Kitchen," the stomping on "Get on the One," where he works out with Ickes and Vestal, and the strolling closer "I'll Be Coming Home," where his flatpicking chops are in evidence Shaw allows his all-star band to shine throughout this set, with Duncan's fiddle parts on "Afraid to Love," and Bush and Ickes on "Cavalry," to mention just two. There are weaknesses, too, however. Despite some excellent harmonies from his guests and co-producer Will Evankovich, Shaw has to push at his upper vocal register and has to strain to get there. The other snag is in his songwriting; in particular, when he writes on his own. He may be intimately familiar with the genre, but he's rough around the edges when it comes to crafting choruses, and a little wordy in his verses. That said, given that this is a first album, there's plenty to like, and evidence that should he continue pursuing bluegrass, he'll only get better.

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