Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Tim Shelton, lead singer and rhythm guitarist of bluegrass band Newfound Road, about the band’s steadily evolving sound, why he enjoys the band’s current lineup and learning to be entertaining.
CP: How did the summer treat you guys? Any big festival appearances?
TS: We're proud of all of it. We put 110 percent into every show we do. We've been busy. We've played all over the country, literally. We zigzagged between the East Coast and the West Coast and a lot of places in between. We've done lots and lots of shows in the Southeast. They've all been fun, and we've had a blast this summer.
CP: You started playing music in church, right? Walk me through your personal musical origins.
TS: I was kind of a late bloomer. I started playing in church when I was 16, starting on the bass. I started singing in a local group called The Beacons. We played regionally in Southwest Ohio, primarily, and in Kentucky and Indiana, occasionally.
I had some good musicians I learned from in that band. Once I got to playing, I knew I wanted to play music on a more serious basis and do things a little differently, musically.
I started with three other guys in the summer of 2001. We officially played our first show in January of 2002. I'm the last remaining original member. The other guys have been here anywhere from three to five years. It's been fun.
The music has gone from all gospel to more secular music. It's continued to evolve even from where we started from once we did our second record, which featured bluegrass. We were fortunate enough that that second album - which was about gospel and bluegrass and acoustic country - spawned a number one song for us, which got the attention of Rounder Records. We've done several projects with Rounder, three to date, and we've got a DVD coming out next year.
CP: I know that how long you've been together probably isn't a common topic of conversation during band practices, but I was interested to see that guys just passed 10 years playing together. What does performing for a decade mean to you?
TS: [Laughs.] I honestly haven't even taken the time to sit down and think in those terms. We're just so busy out doing it and going up and down the road doing all the things involved in managing a business. This band is a business. It's the music business, but I take it very seriously. It's what I do to make my income. I haven't even taken the time to sit back and enjoy the fact that it's been 10 years.
CP: Have those 10 years been enjoyable, for the most part? There's been a lot of change, obviously.
TS: There's been some change, but in comparison to other bluegrass bands, not as much as you'd think. We've been fortunate. The three original guys left, but it's been pretty much the same with the exception of some bass guys who have turned over. It's been consistent for the last three years with two members, and one guy has been here over five years.
I've been real fortunate that there's not been a lot of turn over. With some bands, every four or six months you can almost guarantee that there will be some changes. We've been fortunate that there hasn't been that much change.
There have been some ups and downs. No matter what you do, there will be ups and downs in your business, and the business has certainly changed rapidly, over the last few years, especially. It continues to do so.
I've tried to stay on top of those changes, and we work with people who are good at what they do. We've got an agency that books us in a lot of different markets, not just bluegrass festivals but also in performing arts centers, arts markets and folk festivals. We've been trying to stay on top of the music and the business itself.
There have been ups and downs, for sure, but overall, it's been a good 10 years or I wouldn't still be doing it. When I stop having fun, I'll quit doing it.
CP: You guys began as a band splitting the difference between gospel and bluegrass. In recent years, that has shifted to emphasizing bluegrass. Was that a difficult shift to shift gears like that?
TS: Not at all. It was very natural and continues to be natural. With this band, it has allowed me and the band to evolve musically and play some more acoustic/pop/country style music and still keep our foot in bluegrass. A lot of the stuff we do now, especially when you listen to our new live album, is not just traditional bluegrass. A lot of it is, but a lot of it isn't.
That's been because the guys in the band now are capable of playing all kinds of music. We all love and listen to different kinds of music. It's been an easy transition, musically. We caught a lot of flak from some fans when we progressed musically away from gospel and did other things. We caught a lot of flak there, but for us, the transition has been easy and enjoyable.
CP: You're clearly pretty comfortable with stretching yourselves, musically. Do you see a point at which you'd feel uncomfortable experimenting? Are there limits to that evolution?
TS: I'm not going to say we're going to stop evolving, but we'll have certain limits. We don't have goals or aspirations of being a death metal band or anything too far out there, but I certainly listen to a lot of rock and metal and country.
There are elements of all those genres that come out in our music. If you watch our mandolin player during a show, when he's taking a solo, he's out there. That's just who he is.
Musically, we'll continue to evolve, but we're not going to do whatever just because we can. There will be limits. I don't know what to limit it to, but there will be limits.
CP: What about the gospel roots? Do you still feel a connection to that music in what you're playing now?
TS: We still keep a toe in it. We just did a whole gospel show in New York last weekend, and we hadn't done one in a long time. I was pretty nervous about it because we hadn't done one in a long time, and it was a 90-minute set of all gospel music. It's kind of a struggle to come up with that much material when you don't do it every week or even twice a year. I did enjoy, though.
We continue to do some gospel, just not as much of it. That music is still a part of our music. Maybe a smaller part, but it's still there.
CP: How did you end up with this current lineup?
TS: The bluegrass world is pretty small, and you cross paths a lot. I crossed Boohers at a festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. They were in a family band at the time. I got to know them there. Josh Miller I met in California but was familiar with his work from before then because he was in band with Carrie Hassler and Hard Rain. That's how I met all the guys.
Carrie's schedule was getting slow, and The Booher's family band decided to get off the road, so Joe was available. When I needed a mandolin player, he was the first person I called. When we changed personnel in the bass position, Jamey was in a band called Grass Town, and he was wanting to play music with his brother again since he hadn't done that in a couple of years.
It was good timing, and it all worked out. It's the most fun I've had playing music.
CP: In the bio, the writer suggests you think of this current lineup as the best in the band's history.
CP: What makes you think that? What doors have these musicians opened for you, creatively?
TS: Well, their ability, for one thing. Not that the other guys weren't talented. Everyone who has crossed paths with this band has been talented, in their own right. But with this lineup, they have a ton of energy on stage, more so than a lot of other bands.
Musically, they all like, listen and can play a little bit of everything and create a little bit of everything. Josh is a really talented writer, and all the guys are creative enough to add to his stuff. He and I occasionally collaborate on stuff.
It's just overall. The stage show, the live show and the original material we come up with, as a band, and a couple of collaborations in the band. That's why I feel that way.
CP: As you've started booking shows in venues for groups that aren't the core audience of bluegrass, you said you've had to become better entertainers. How does that the need to entertain in addition to playing well affect your approach to performing, as the band leader?
TS: It's freeing. For a long time, I was afraid to act like I was having fun on stage. That was from the gospel background. Not that you can't have fun in gospel music, but it was a more solemn approach on my end in the presentation of the music. It wasn't entertainment; it was more of a ministry-type situation.
As the band has changed and evolved, I've allowed myself to entertain, because that's what it is: The music business is an entertainment business. People buy a ticket to be entertained, so you should be entertaining. We try to do that.
By doing that, we try to have fun, and I think it's contagious. We try to act like we're having fun because it is fun. We don't have to act or try very hard; it just is, and we let that be known while we're on stage.
It seems to be working, because the venues and markets we've go into where it's just us, when we return to those markets and cities, the crowd has grown every single time. In some cases, it has grown by 200 or 300 percent.
It's been very fun or freeing and the audience gets into it that way. It helps everything; it really does. The better the live show is, the better everything gets.
CP: Was being an entertainer a difficult role to take on, coming from that gospel background, or did it come naturally when you started trying?
TS: It kind of came natural as I started trying to do it, but getting to the point where I allowed myself to do it was very difficult for me. I'm a bit of an introvert off stage and can come across as a bit antisocial, but I'm not. [Laughs.] I'm very comfortable being quiet and to myself.
So to be on stage and let my personality come out and be comfortable on stage was a bit of a task, at first. I had many conversations with the founder of Rounder Records about that.
I was almost resistant to it at first, but once I allowed myself to have fun and be that way on stage and once I surrounded myself with musicians who did that naturally, it made it easier for me to come out of my shell on stage. It's been a great transition.
CP: According to your bio, you're attracted to the writing of folk artists like Jackson Browne, Dave Loggins and Bill Withers. Can you think of particular ways that their songwriting affected your own approach?
TS: I wish I could say that. I haven't done enough songwriting, other than my writing on personal experience. My writing almost always comes from a mood or a feeling or something derived from a situation I've dealt with.
CP: Give me some examples. When you're inspired, what tends to spark your creative interest?
TS: Writing typically comes to me when I'm personally dealing with something or somebody I know is dealing with something. The only instance I've collaborated on something with someone that I can kind of relate to some of the lyrics is off our new record. It's called “If You Will Pretend,” which I wrote with Josh.
Josh had the basis of the idea, and we honestly just wanted to write something that was kind of sexy and different and not typical in bluegrass and acoustic music. We wanted to write something that was targeted to females.
We had a review on iTunes that said that my voice lent itself to “baby making” on “Same Old Place.” I laughed when I read it, and I said, “If you think that's hot, listen to this.” That's how we came up with the idea.
That's the only time I've written something where I wasn't going through a situation or wasn't feeling close to a situation. The other stuff I've written has been personal, where I've gone through some kind of heart break, heart ache, sadness or anger or I've know someone who has.
CP: Those are some dark emotions. Where do the happy songs come from?
TS: You know, we don't have many happy songs, if you listen to our music. [Laughs.] Especially the last couple of records, it's been depressing, bluesy, anger music. We're not the happy, hoppy, bouncy bluegrass band, even though some of the instrumentals can sound that way.
There's a certain level of pissed-off aggression in our bluegrass music. The acoustic stuff tends to be more sad. I just love that feeling singing. I don't know why; I don't know what's wrong with me, but I do.
When I listen to music and material and artists, what I listen to the most of right now is probably a newer guy named Amos Lee. I'm just blown away by his writing and singing, but I gravitate towards it because there's a lot of sadness in his material.
CP: Do you consider songwriting as a kind of therapy?
TS: Maybe. I don't know. [Laughs.] I don't feel worse. I guess, it's kind of cathartic. It's just something I get out. I guess it is therapeutic in a way. I don't sit down with the intention of going into therapy while I'm writing though. It's just like, “I'm feeling this way. How can I turn this into a song?”
CP: You guys put out “Live at the Down Home” in April. What are you working on now, recording wise?
TS: A live DVD. We just finished wrapping up some interview footage for that. I don't have a release date. There will be a live album with some bonus footage and some extra tracks that weren't on the album. That's the next thing coming down the pike, the live DVD of “Live at the Down Home.”
We've never done anything like that, and we're looking forward to getting that out there. It just allows people, especially with the interview footage, to get a feel for who the band is, personality wise.
And hopefully, we'll get in the studio some time next year. I love that process. We're gathering material now - lots of sad stuff. [Laughs.]
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...