One could consider Rees Shad a survivor. Over the course of a prolific thirty six year career — one that boasts nearly 30 releases — he’s demonstrated his ability to create music that’s both poignant and profound, stories shared from the heart but which resonate with universal appeal.
It’s little wonder that the legendary Graham Parker once said of him, “a rare class inhabits the man’s songwriting that’s rarely found today.”
That remark is especially significant considering the literary tone Rees takes in so many of his songs. They originate from a late 19th Century Queen Anne Victorian house in Western Massachusetts, the place Rees and his wife Pamela call home.
It’s hardly surprising then that his latest album, aptly titled '6 Strings and a Story', is a retrospective of sorts, a selection of favorite songs revisited in stripped down acoustic settings. In the liner notes, Rees speaks of his usual practice of playing new songs for his wife in order to gauge her opinion. He notes that the couple are often at odds — not over the songs themselves, but rather the way they’re recorded.
“Interestingly, our individual opinion of record production finds the two of us parting ways,” he explains. “She often will hear what I bring back from a recording session and express disappointment in how the intimate and passionate one-on-one experience of my song has been, in her opinion, diluted by the additions I have made, or how I’ve interpreted the song for my audience, or even how I’ve changed a phrase or two. She often says she longs to hear the song in its original unblemished representation… just me and my guitar, sitting in the living room, telling the story in my head with passion, focus and sometimes even an imperfect execution.”
Having recently celebrated the fact they’ve been together 44 years — 38 of those as a married couple — Rees came up with the idea of doing a solo album — purely solo in fact, involving only a single guitar, vocal and, as he puts it, “a few nuggets from the catalog that I still like to sing.”
It made for a perfect anniversary gift for his wife, but in a larger sense, a gift to the public as well. Recorded at The Clubhouse Studio in Rhinebeck, New York by Paul Antonell one April afternoon in 2023, and mixed by Doug Ford the following July, the album spans a selection of songs written over the course of more than 30 years, from 1990 to the present, with three new compositions included for good measure. Scheduled for independent release on October 6, 2023, it presents an ideal compendium of Rees’ music to date, one ideally suited to faithful fans as well as those that may discover his music for the first time.
The songs delve into various themes, all flush with both poignancy and perspective. “Faulkner County Blues” was inspired by stories Rees was hearing about earthquakes currently rattling his mother’s home state of Arkansas that were being attributed to fracking. It originally appeared on his 2013 collaboration with Sixto “Butch” Roxas, 'Half A World Away.'
By contrast, “Mustard in the Gravy” is a new song that’s also targeted for an upcoming album of fully produced original material due next January. “I include it here because not only is it a really fun song to play, but it also represents a change in the direction of my musical journey from folk songs to more jazz-informed Americana,” Rees noted. “The Freddy Greene down-stroke chop has creeped into my playing more and more over the years. More importantly however, this song was inspired by reading Anna Malaika Tubbs’ wonderful book The Three Mothers, which was recommended to me by my dear friend Rocio Rayo. For years Rocio has been a voice of social justice in my life that continues to help me evolve into a better and more empathetic human being.”
“Isn’t it the Journey?,” a song originally recorded on Rees’ 'Songs From the Surf Shed' in 2000, was the result of a nightmare Rees had one night where he dreamed he lost his wife, but then heard her voice speaking calmly and carefully about focusing on the present, rather than obsessing about what may or may not come to pass. “Right before I woke up I heard her voice telling me to ‘focus on the journey, honey’,” Rees recalls. “It’s an obvious, but important, point of view that all of us frequently forget to consider. I woke up and scribbled these lyrics down in my dream journal.”
“Hero’s Son,” a song from Shad’s 1994 debut 'Anderson, Ohio', is also borne from a decidedly personal perspective. It came to him while sorting through some family photo albums where he found two pictures placed opposite of each other. “The left photo had my paternal grandfather fully outfitted for the trenches of World War I in France, while the right was my father’s bootcamp image as he prepared to head off with the Navy to fight in the Pacific at the start of World War II,” Rees recalls. “I am fortunate to have been born as part of a generation that fell between the conflicts of Vietnam and the Middle East, and so I never had to serve in the Armed Forces. I think I might have been a conscientious objector in either case, but while looking at those two images, I suddenly imagined how such status might have impacted on our family. My grandfather did, in fact, get exposed to mustard gas, and my father was plagued by nightmares of being blown out of a troop ship he commanded at the end of the invasion of Okinawa. My mother succumbed to cancer, after which my father and I worked hard to repair what had always been a difficult relationship.”
“Grand Daddy fought in the Northern Seine; a witness to the ghost of Charlemagne
The Northern Lights or the Holy Ghost
Drove him out of his bunker toward a German Host
Mustard gas tore his lungs apart, but he was driven by a hero’s heart
He told my Daddy, and Daddy told my son how the First World War was won.”
(NOTE: “Hero’s Son,” “Mustard in the Gravy,” “Isn’t it the Journey”, and “Faulkner Country” Blues” — along with other songs from the album, specifically “Mrs. & Me,” “Anyone But You,” “Mickey Mouse Romeo,” and “Mercy Street Reflections” — will be offered later this year as specialty offerings via Leesta Vall Sound Recordings — limited edition, handmade lathe-cut record releases offered as one-of-a-kind, direct-to-vinyl live sessions for individual consumption.)
“These songs were written over many years,” Rees continues. “I grew up with the influences of ‘60s music, and those sounds had an impact on my arrangements. I’d be satisfied with the songs, but creating the specific sounds that enhanced those melodies was like the icing on the cake. However ,when I was making this album, I had the chance to listen to these songs again and rediscover the essential music while hearing it in the way it was originally intended. It was an extraordinary experience. We not only got down to bare bones but to real bones.”
Those “real bones” offer further examples of Shad’s allegiance to authenticity. Born and raised in New York City, his interest in making music was nurtured early on. He borrowed his father’s Dictaphone to record his first song at the age of four, and, once he got older, he became immersed in New York’s iconic music scene, from Gerde’s famed Folk City to CBGB’s, the birthplace of punk and any number of eclectic and iconic artists. He initiated his career as a sideman while performing with any number of bands prior to relocating to upper New York State, where he soaked up the sights and sounds of those rustic environs. He subsequently built a recording studio in his home and started making music in earnest. His debut album, Walls, was released in 1993 and 30 years later, he’s as prodigious as ever.
Notably, Shad has constantly reinvented himself, veering from his ongoing notoriety as a passionate and pervasive singer/songwriter into the realms of electronic music under the guise of an alter ego, Fester Spunk. He’s also adopted the role of a comedic rocker, courtesy of the comedy troupe Scheissfinger, and also makes new music with his ongoing ensemble, The Conversations, a jazzy Americana group that includes drummer Bobby Kay, bassist Jeff Link, and percussionist Carlos Valdez.
At one point, Shad took a self-imposed hiatus from the music business that lasted some twenty years until recently making his return. Having returned to live performance, he’s earning some of best reviews of his career. The Dallas Observer described his songwriting style as “personal… complete, and well done.” The Boston Herald called his songs “literate and moving.” BC Magazine added its kudos, declaring “Shad is a master of short story songs whose characters interact and reoccur in eloquent musical vignettes where each song adds to a wide- ranging and meaningful narrative with each successive album.” Stereo Review called his work “enthralling,” while the Boston Herald hailed his efforts as “unexpectedly literate and moving.”
A man of many talents — aside from music, he holds no less than three master’s degrees , in Education, Technical Communication and Design & Technology — he’s also spent nearly twenty years working in higher education and is credited with The City University of New York’s first program in Game Design. He authored the game design textbook, “Einstein & the Honeybee,” and was credited with designing any number of board games. An avid woodworker, he’s also a luthier, an interest borne out of his love of music, invention and pursuing every creative avenue that he encounters.
“Ultimately, It’s all about the storytelling for me,” Shad says. “I believe the listening process should be interactive. I’m hoping to help lay the crumbs that people inevitably will want to follow… all the while striving to light up my listeners’ imaginations.”
With his new album, 'Six Strings and A Story', that thread of intent becomes clear — unfiltered and unembellished, all the better to express an inherent passion and purpose that Rees can clearly claim as his own.