Shawn Pittman is interviewed by David Mac in the August 2012 edition of BLUES JUNCTION Productions. Shawn talks about his influences, his early years coming up in the Dallas blues scene, his Delta Groove debut, “Edge of the World,” and more!
Interview by David Mac / BLUES JUNCTION Productions (Published August 2012). Photo by Jeff Scott Fleenor.
David Mac (DM): Shawn was there a lot of music in your house growing up?
Shawn Pittman (SP): Yeah, I guess you could say that. I grew up in Cleveland County, Oklahoma in the small town of Noble, near Norman. My mom played piano, my grandmother played boogie woogie piano and my granddad had a guitar. My brother played drums. Its’ strange because I was watching my grandmother play, and I loved it. The first memory I have is standing near the piano while she was playing. I really dug that boogie woogie stuff.
Then, when I was eight, I took piano lessons but I didn’t like it. I was playing by ear, and the teacher told my mom “He is not looking at the music.” but somehow I was playing it, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much. My mom said “You’re going to thank me one day that I made you play piano.” Because I learned that basic stuff, later on when I started to play, I had that foundation. She was right.
My brother had a drum kit. I’d sneak into his room and play. My granddad had a guitar but I was only able to make noises on it until I met my piano teacher’s son. I was friends with him. He would come over when I was fourteen, he played guitar and I played the drums. I’d just watch him play his guitar and I thought “Man, I want to do that.” He showed me some Chuck Berry things. When I figured out Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed, it was off to the races.
DM: Where did you first start listening to blues music, records…radio?
SP: When I was fifteen or so I started to tape the local blues radio station and I didn’t always know who I was listening to. I would record it right off the radio. I liked Stevie back then. I don’t know any teenager that didn’t. I got into Jimmie Vaughan a lot when I was like 19 or 20 when the Strange Pleasure album came out. He took me into some deeper things. Both of those guys were like doorways into the blues. It turned me on to guys like Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Guitar Slim, Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Albert King and others. Then when I heard Hound Dog Taylor it was like “Oh, man!” I love that raw stuff. I kind of go in phases, but I tend to stick to the raw meat and potatoes kind of stuff.
DM: When did you move to Dallas and how did that move effect your development as a musician?
SP: I moved to Dallas when I was seventeen. I moved on my own. I stayed with my uncle and I went to high school my senior year in Dallas.
DM: Where did you go to High School?
SP: I went to a music and arts school called, Booker T Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. I went there with a guy I knew from Oklahoma, named John Christie. He was a really good saxophone player. So he and I moved to Dallas and stayed with my uncle and we went to that school. John really excelled, he was in the jazz lab band. I was just learning and I just wanted to play blues.
I was kind of ready to pack up and go back home because I wasn’t doing too well in school. My uncle helped me out by taking me around to different places to pick up on some live blues. He took me to a club in Dallas called Schooners which was a legendary joint. It was like the place to go. Sam Myers would be there all the time. All the good players would be hanging out. Pat Boyack was doing his thing. Hash Brown was always there. It was a different time back then in the early 90’s
DM: Sam Myers was one of my favorites. I really miss him.
SP: Oh yeah…He was playing with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets in those days but when the band wasn’t on the road he was always hanging out at Schooners. He would just sit at the bar all night long and at the end of the night, he’d come up to the bandstand to sing and blow harp. Sometimes he’d get up and play drums. It was great to hear someone that good.
I went to a festival that same year where B.B. King was headlining. Also on the bill were The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Dr. John and Buddy Guy. There were a lot of local artists on the bill as well. Mike Morgan got up and sat in with somebody on guitar and I remember just being in awe of his playing.
DM: We have talked about your influences on guitar but you are also a singer and play other instruments as well. Let’s get into some of that starting with your development as a singer.
SP: Back in Oklahoma a guy name Cunard Bigby showed me a lot of stuff. He showed me some intro blues piano, some intro harmonica. He told me that I need to sing. He said, “You better learn to sing because what happens if the singer doesn’t show up for a gig? What no gig?” So I was just about 15 and I started trying to sing. It was really hard. It wasn’t sounding like what I wanted to sound like because I was kind of shy. I mean guitar players like to hide behind the guitar but I just kept trying, I kept doing it and I just think over time I started getting terrible (laughs).
DM: Your latest CD, which came out last year on Delta Groove Music, was I believe your tenth CD.
SP: Yeah, I have ten out there if you count the European compilations.
DM: Let’s talk about your first CD and that experience.
SP: I made the record in Dallas. My friend John arranged all the horn parts. We kind of reunited for that. I rounded up some players. I had Johnny Woods on bass. I got some of Lucky Peterson’s guys. It cost me $3000 to make the CD. Ron Levy had just started up Cannonball Records. I remember Ron saying, “I want to be the weapon not the target.” He liked the record and he bought it from me for $5000. I was able to pay back the people that I borrowed the money from. That was the first Cannonball recording.
DM: Have you found a process or a formula that you use when making a record?
SP: It was never the same. Sometimes words came first. Sometimes music came first. I would write a batch of songs. Then I would get those ready and demo them. I used to demo those with a little tape recorder. I would go into the studio and sketch it out, kind of like drawing or painting or a picture. Now over the years I’ve built some relationships with good friends and we write together.
DM: Like Lewis Dixon, who co-wrote about half the songs with you on your latest album, Edge of the World, I am not familiar with Lewis.
SP: He is a real interesting guy. He is not a musician. He is a friend. He is a semi–retired attorney who lives in the Texas hill country outside of Austin. He has a vineyard and makes Texas wine. He grew up in Houston and lived across the street from Billy Gibbons. They went to high school together and he and Billy always liked blues music. But he had a lot of things in his head. He worked for a very successful law firm and was trial lawyer. He has some pretty wild stories. He’s done everything from divorces to murder trials. He always comes up with these phrases. Like the song. Scent of your Benjamin’s (singing) “She’s down with the scent of your Benjamin’s.” He had never written a song before. He called me one time and said, “I wrote this tune. I’ll send it to you.” I was sort of reluctant at first but when I heard it, I liked it. I sent it back to him and he was delighted because I kind of made a cartoon out of a stick figure that he started. We started doing that and now we’ve got another batch ready to go for the next record. He’s a prolific guy.
DM: On Edge of the World you play all the instruments except the horns.
SP: Yeah…It started out of necessity, it wasn’t intentional. I had a little home recording equipment, basic stuff that I use for demos. I rented a drum kit and a piano. The idea was just to make the demo to send it to people to just see if they’d want to help pay for a recording studio. I sent it to Delta Groove and Jeff (Scott Fleenor)liked it. I told him what I was trying to do and he said, “Randy (Chortkoff) likes it the way it is.”
DM: Jeff co-produced the record with you, yet you were fifteen hundred miles apart. I remember a couple of years ago Jeff telling me how tedious a process it was to make a record this way.
SP: It was real hard for us. He had never made a record this way and neither had I. I didn’t even know how to send MP3s over the internet. It was an experience for me just learning how to use a computer to send files over by email. So that’s how we did it. I would record it. Then I would send it to him. He would listen to it and give me feedback. Then I would go back and try to make the adjustments. The hard part about it was that he wasn’t there while I was doing it. Sometimes I would over compensate.
DM: What do you mean?
SP: Well for instance, He’d say “Come up with the bass a little bit on that” and then I’d overshoot it and send it back to him. He’d say “Yeah, not so much.” So I’d have to go redo it. He helped me listen to it in a different way. He’d give me ideas on how he thought it would make the song better and I would go and try to execute that. He had a big role in the making of that record. He has big ears. I don’t listen to records the same anymore.
DM: You recently moved from your home in Kyle, Texas just outside of Austin to Los Angeles. Why?
SP: I wanted to be closer to my resources in the music business. I wanted to be close to my label, Delta Groove Music. I moved to the Sherman Oaks part of the city. It’s near the offices of Delta Groove. I wanted to get a fresh start. I also wanted to gain a better perspective. So far it’s worked out great. I put together my own band. There are so many great musicians out here but I didn’t want to play with a pick up band every night.
DM: Let’s talk about the new band.
SP: I put together a band with a bunch of guys who want to be a part of a band. They all love blues and they are all young. I am 37 and this is the first time in my life I am the oldest guy in the band. Travis Swanson is a guitar player from Michigan. He has really amazing jazzy chops so our styles are very complimentary. Travis is only 22 years old.
Dan Eisenberg plays upright and electric bass. I have played with him before, but only once. I needed a good bass player. He is out of Texas. I sent him an email and asked him if he wanted to move to LA. He mailed me back and said, “Louisiana?” (laughs) I said, “No L.A. Los Angeles.” He just got here today.
The last piece of the puzzle is a drummer that I played with when I lived in Austin. His name is Andy Martin. He’s 28 and he’s a lowdown shuffle blues player, pretty intense and likes the raw stuff, like I do.
DM: It is great seeing young people making this music.
SP: That’s what I was trying to achieve, a group of young players that can play and make it exciting. I hope we can attract a new generation of people that can keep it going. I want people to see that there are young people playing this music too.
DM: I love the name of the band.
SP: We are Shawn Pitman and the Rhythm Rascals. It’s fitting man, because we are a bunch of rascals.
DM: What’s next for you rascals?
SP: We have that show at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa on the 26th of August and then we are playing our way back east starting with shows in West Texas, Corpus Christi and East Texas, then all the way to Tallahassee, Florida. We go back to Texas and do some shows in the Austin area and then we fly out to do shows in Luxembourg and then Denmark.
DM: Do you have any plans to do a new album?
SP: Yes, I am going to take this band into the studio Delta Groove uses out here and make another record.
DM: (laughing) You mean you aren’t going to record the whole thing yourself and send MP3 files back and forth to Jeff?
SP: No I don’t want to that again. I’d like the production to be a little more modern but still raw. I want kind of a lo-fi thing. Lewis and I got some of the songs we didn’t use in the last sessions and a lot of songs I’ve worked on over the past eight months at home in Texas. I want the record to have that old rock and roll feel, you know that Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Slim Harpo feel. There will be some shuffles, some swing and slow blues as well. I call it Texas driving music.
DM: What do you think people’s biggest misconceptions are as it relates to you and your music?
SP: I don’t want to be lumped in with that whole stereotype of you know…“white dude from Texas who plays a Strat.” Everybody always wants to throw you in there with Stevie and all that. I try to lean a little bit more towards Johnny “Guitar” Watson. He was a guy who played multiple instruments. That’s where I want to go, be an overall musician who plays great music. So when people come to my shows I am able to give folks more than they bargained for.
DM: I have heard you perform live in trio settings as well as with a secondary guitarist in a quartet. We have talked about this before but I like the quartet setting for your music.
SP: Absolutely. The trio thing is fun maybe for a gig or two but it’s not going to get me where I need to go. I feel like I finally get a chance to stand and show people that there are things that I really like beyond just the guitar, but I also know that I still want to give them that too. I want people to know that when they come to one of my shows, that I am going to play a little piano and blow some harp as well. It gives the overall presentation more depth, more variety.
DM: What kind of misconceptions do you think a lot of folks have as it relates to blues music in general?
SP: Early in my career, I wrote about drinking, and trouble, and a lot of times you get caught up into thinking that that’s what blues is about and what being a good blues player is about. It’s not about being in a bad situation so much as it is about overcoming your situation and being able to laugh at yourself. It’s really about making people laugh and lightening up people’s spirits. If a song sounds sad, it really may not be. It may just be about somebody else. When it seems like everything is going wrong sometimes and it’s not you, it’s funny (chuckles).
DM: We have talked before about a mutual interest we share outside of music…
SP: Oh yeah…my first passion was football. The first thing I learned was how to throw a football. I got a job when I was a kid cleaning up Owens Field after Oklahoma Sooners’ football games. The cleaning crew was admitted into the stadium for free and we would watch the first half on television then they would let us watch the second half from the sidelines. It was great until the game ended and then we had to clean up after 72,000 people.
DM: Do you still follow college football?
SP: Of course, and I am still a Sooner fan. That wasn’t always easy living in Austin with all a million Texas Longhorn fans everywhere.
DM: Do you have pro team? I can probably guess who that may be, based on where you grew up.
SP: Dallas Cowboys…that boogie woogie playing granny of mine was a Cowboy fan too.
DM: What are some things that folks might not know about you?
SP: I guess that I am a Mormon. A lot of people shy away from that topic but it is part of who I am. My spirituality is important to me. I am not preachy or anything. Hey do you want to hear a good Mormon joke?
DM: Of Course.
SP: “What’s the difference between a good Mormon and a bad Mormon?”
DM: I give up?
SP: The temperature of their caffeine.
DM: I think I get that. (laughing)
SP: We aren’t supposed to drink coffee but we all drink diet coke or whatever.
DM: What else would you like people to know about Shawn Pittman?
SP: That there’s no secret to success. It’s only through hard work that you can accomplish anything. I like to beat the odds. I like to do things that people say that you can’t do. Anybody that plays blues sort of has to look at it as a challenge. I like to play good music and want to play the music that I like listening to. I like to work hard and want to be a family man. I got married about 15 months ago. She is still in Texas. Being apart is hard but she knows I’m in Los Angeles for a reason and a purpose. The harder I work, the closer I feel like I’m getting to where I need to be which is taking care of her.