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Hard To Peg 

Jon Shain lets his many influences shine through

Jon Shain and Leon Russell don't have much in common except maybe that they're both hard to categorize. Russell does that mysterious carny rock god pose, while Shain, who shuns labels of any kind, might grudgingly accept something along the lines of blues guitarist with jazz inflections who's also a singer-songwriter of the Americana persuasion. In other words, he works in a variety of genres. Russell proved to be no help in defining things when he and Shain shared a bill in town recently, too.

"I'm not qualified to tell you anything about Leon's opinions," Shain laughs. "I didn't get to meet him. I don't think anybody gets to meet Leon. My band Flyin' Mice opened up for him 10 years ago, and it was the same deal. He stays on the bus until his show, and then he does the show, and after the show, he goes back to the bus. He did the same thing 10 years later, so I guess that's his show ritual."

Indeed, Charlotte audiences have had many opportunities to meet the Durham native over the years. His former band, the aforementioned Flyin' Mice, used to play at Jack Straw's on 7th Street. "We made a lot of friends and got to know quite a lot of people in Charlotte," Shain says. "Since I've gone back under my own name, I haven't reconnected or really seen any of those people. I don't know if we all just got older, or if they're all hanging out somewhere else."

The Mice were an eclectic bunch that Shain says "didn't let any genre keep us from trying something." Starting as a blues duo in "89, the band got bigger and started playing bluegrass, doing covers of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley when their guitarist got a banjo. "They called us psychedelic bluegrass," he remembers, "and I think we got called that before these bands like String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon were really around. It was all kind of happening around the same time, but we were probably just a bit too early to cash in on that scene. All those bands are huge now," he adds.

The group didn't use set lists and they played a lot of jams, but Shain eventually grew tired of some of the songs going on for 12 minutes or so. "Yeah, I kinda burned out on the jam band thing. In fact, playing in a jam band for a while ruined me for going to see any of "em with my friends now. I've got friends who are still into that scene and they want me to go check this out and that out, and I'm just not interested, really."

His next band, Wake, was categorized as country rock, along the lines of the Flying Burrito Brothers. In some ways it was folksier than the Mice, but parts of it were louder and rocked harder because of a two electric guitar attack. Shain patterned the sound after the Jayhawks and Blue Mountain, a loud country rock kind of thing, but with distortion on the guitar, and another, more specialized effect. "We didn't have a pedal steel player, but we had a guy who could make those sounds," he says.

Nowadays, however, it's just Jon, solo or with an accompanist, or sometimes the Jon Shain Trio. Things are a little calmer musically, and there's no more bluegrass, though the guitarist admits while that genre creeps into his playing as an influence at times, he's now more interested in tone than speed. "I think the blues and jazz side of things help nurture the tone out of your fingers more than that kind of breakneck speed thing."

Shain says there's a part of him that would still like to be a rocker. "But to do that requires traveling with a drum kit and having a large vehicle and splitting up the money four ways. Logistically, I'm not at a point where I can do that now."

Shain's latest release, No Tag, No Tail Light, on his own Flyin' Records label was recorded with the help of his trio. "But those guys are in demand around the Triangle with other groups as well, and none of us are 21 any more." For No Tag, the singer says he was striving for the kind of classic song that people would sing along to 20 years from now. Writing the lyrics is a stream of consciousness thing, he believes, "but with the melodies is where these songs get into your head and you can't get "em out. Like all the old songs that Frank Sinatra's like somebody composed these classic melodies and I'm trying to find them. A lot of it is what I've listened to over the years and letting that soak in."

But don't expect to find a laid-back, 40s style sing-along. Shain sounds like a rocked up Steve Forbert with a John Hiatt edge, an earnest tone backed by a rocker's soul. He's an accomplished picker and slide player who can shake things up considerably as he demonstrates in the nimble-fingered "Worried Messenger." "Getaway Car," a Pancho Villa escape fantasy about vanishing like the Mexican Robin Hood "into a dust cloud, into the night / in a getaway car with no tag, no taillight," is currently receiving the most airplay. But the album isn't a one good single type of record. "Give My Regards To Brother Ray" recalls Van Morrison and Shain proves that the blues doesn't have to be the same old 12 bar, woke up this morning shuck with "Second Chance Blues," an inventive twist on the my-baby-done-left-me-so-I'll-get-drunk-and-get-beat-up-for-you blues.

Shain has found the sounds of jazz and blues tend to get their claws in you as you get older, and he believes it may account for the slow but steady growth in the sales of his album. "I think just because of being on your own label there isn't going to be this all at once splash the way major label releases come out and are advertised in every magazine and then the guy goes on Leno and Conan O'Brien. I think this is just gonna kind of organically grow."

Jon Shain plays the Evening Muse on Saturday, September 6. Call the club at 704-376-3737 for more info.

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