Texas singer-songwriter Shawn Nelson takes the music he creates beyond its honky-tonk core to offer songs you can dance to that also prompt the listener to think and feel. It’s the natural result of being inspired by as well as meeting and spending time with such Lone Star State songwriting legends as Robert Earl Keen and Guy Clark as well as elements from his life, unique background and musical journey.
On SAN JUAN STREET, Nelson’s fourth album, his many musical and lyrical influences find full fruition as he blends his deep Texan roots with everything from jazz to Tex-Mex to reggae to bluegrass. Produced by Joel Guzman, known for his accordion work with Joe Ely, it features the playing of his band The Ramblers plus such guests as Matt Slusher and Will Dupuy from the South Austin Jug Band, fiddler Trisha Keefer of The Trishas, and famed Austin jazz trumpeter Ephraim Owens.
From the lilting Texas dancehall strains of the opening cut, “Nobody Got A Hold On Me,” to the borderland ambience of the title track, SAN JUAN STREET reflects the ever-growing musical breadth and lyrical sophistication of the Lone Star singer-songwriter movement. Nelson displays a gift for capturing personal feelings we all know like romantic yearning (“More Than California”), unrequited passion (“I Can’t Hide’) and longing for a better life (“Mercy”) that he interweaves with larger spiritual and global perspectives, all of it underpinned by the faith and perseverance expressed on “There’s Time” that is a Nelson personal trademark. Taking stylistic cues from the breadth of his musical inspirations, he weaves bluegrass (“Anna Lee”), reggae (“Daydreamers”), Tex-Mex (“Dreams In The Desert” and “San Juan Street”) and more into a distinctive country-based roots rocking sound all his own.
SAN JUAN STREET is the culmination of a musical career that began in a genuine good ole honky-tonk, The Back Forty, in downtown Austin when Nelson was a student at the University of Texas. A budding singer, songwriter and guitar player at the time, he summoned up the pluck to audition for its owner and won a regular gig at the joint, where he got an education in entertaining hard-drinking barflies for the rest of his college years.
Not long after, Nelson also landed an internship at the Arista Austin record label, and got to meet the artist who prompted him to start playing guitar and writing songs, Robert Earl Keen. “I was inspired by Robert Earl because he seemed like a normal guy,” Nelson explains. “He grew up in Houston as I did, and then went to Texas A&M and started playing in college. It kind of opened my eyes and I thought, wow, maybe I can do that.”
Keen came into the Arista Austin office to secure a deal for his album PICNIC, which Nelson heard him play the songs for through the open office door of the head of the label. Then he was invited to come along with them to a Cowboy Junkies show that evening. “Imagine getting to interact with your hero not just as a fan,” he notes. It gave Nelson the impetus to pursue his dream.
After graduation, he moved to Nashville to work as a song plugger for the publishing company of songwriter Liz Rose, known for co-writing hits for Taylor Swift. His time in Music City was an important learning experience for Nelson, but eventually the siren’s call of the Lone Star State beckoned him home.
The first sign came when he was having a drink late one Saturday night in a bar, pondering whether Nashville was the right place for him and his music. Suddenly Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark sat down next to him and gently slapped Nelson on the back and offered to buy the next round. Clark had been at the funeral of his longtime pal and fellow Texas musical icon Townes Van Zandt earlier that day. In a highly emotional and sentimental mood, he spent the next few hours talking with Nelson about life, music and songs.
“Guy said Townes was the best songwriter that ever lived, and if I wanted to write songs I should study him, and I’d be just fine,” Nelson recalls. “I’m not sure I’ve even scratched the surface of that study.” Yet Nelson’s songs on SAN JUAN STREET do show a similar gift for imbuing the Texas country-folk song with larger themes and spirit that range from the historical to the mystical.
On arriving back in Austin, Nelson started a band, Frontage Road, with fellow singer-songwriter John Saba, who now leads the critically acclaimed alt-country group San Saba County. Frontage Road debuted at the famed Luckenbach dancehall and on their next show opened for Bruce Robison, convincing Nelson he was on the right path.
His next band, Crazy Chester, earned two weekly residencies at the Austin clubs Momo’s and Steamboat, played Dallas and Houston, toured outside Texas, and cut an album before they disbanded. It was time for Nelson to step out front and lead his own group. He cut three albums — SHAWN NELSON & THE RAMBLERS, LIVE FROM ANTONE’S and AIN’T NO EASY WAY — before recording his fullest artistic expression to date on SAN JUAN STREET.
Nelson originally met Guzman while working at Arista Austin, for which Guzman did engineering and production projects. After being reintroduced, Guzman asked Nelson to mix sound for his live shows and then start opening for him. Ultimately he offered to produce Nelson’s next album.
San Juan Street reconnects Nelson with his earliest musical inspiration, represented by the jazz trumpet of Owens on “San Juan Street.” As a kid growing up in Houston, his family would frequently visit New Orleans. On their first visit when Shawn was seven years old, he heard a second line brass band playing on the street and went to the legendary Preservation Hall to hear its classic house jazz group.
What Nelson heard captured his imagination. “It was this feeling, something that’s not even really tangible, something that’s really alluring to me, both then and now,” he explains. “I love the energy of the brass bands.” He took up trombone and by junior high was playing gigs around Houston with his school jazz band. New Orleans also evokes lyrical strains in Nelson on the songs “Hit The Road” and “Anna Lee,” both tales prompted by Hurricane Katrina.
As a kid Nelson was at the same time introduced to the music and ambience of the honky-tonk when his family would head back to his father’s hometown on the Texas coast on weekends. “We’d hang out at a honky-tonk on Friday nights. My brother and I would play pool and eat shrimp po’ boys,” he recalls. Those nights still resonate in such songs as the Texan declaration “Down Here” and “In The Afternoon,” which was inspired by an afternoon at Austin’s Continental Club listening to famed twang guitarist Redd Volkeart.
His mother’s side of the family also provides creative strains that emerge in Nelson’s songs. She hails from a clan of Lebanese immigrants, the Jamails, which rose to prominence in Houston. Shawn’s determination is fired by his grandfather, a decorated war hero known as “The One Man Cannon” who was among the first soldiers to land on Utah Beach on D-Day, and after the war started a popular exotic Houston nightclub called The Congo Jungle. “He was instrumental in inspiring me to go after what you want in life,” Nelson explains.
His Middle Eastern roots — including a cousin who was president of Lebanon and assassinated by opponents — emerge in the songs “Babylon” and “Nobody Gotta Hold On Me” in which events past and present in the Mideast cradle of civilization inform Nelson’s lyrical ruminations on the larger issues of mankind.
“I try to write songs that tell the human story, whether it’s war, economics, social struggles, bad weather, the alien question, ancient mysteries or love. And I try to stick with characters that have a choice to make, a hill to climb or a obstacle to overcome. I feel like I’m a character in this human story as well,” he says. “I just write songs all the time, I never stop, I can’t, they just come to me when I am picking on my guitar. And I feel like I have to write them down and play them for people to possibly brighten their day or let them know that they are not alone in this world of good and evil.
“It’s all about people and how things affect them,” he concludes. “I’ve never known anything in my life that gives me as much joy as playing music. I feel at this point that I am so deep into it that I can’t turn back now. Perseverance is a big theme for me, and my musical career is focused on building a body of work. I can’t do anything else but keep on doing my thing and staying true to myself, and writing songs and making records that I think are good.”