The question of authenticity in contemporary music has always seemed specious. Does it really matter if Bruce Springsteen never worked a factory job or Johnny Cash never spent time in prison? Their music expressed the transcendent actuality of what those experiences felt like. There was something tangible in their songs, even if they were wholly imagined.
Michael Shaw’s credentials as a cowboy are genuine. For over a decade, he’s worked as a horseman and wilderness ranger in Western Montana. He’s traversed the desolate regions of Glacier National Park with just his two horses, Pancho and Snuff, and spent seven years isolated as the lone caretaker of a remote horse ranch on the Blackfoot River. His songs are autobiographical, but like any respectable cowboy, he’s prone to exaggeration to make a good story better. After all, if being a cowman was all it took to be a country/western artist, we’d just hook up recorders at every ranch and play back the music. It’s not that simple.
Musically, Shaw is more like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, a hero of his and the Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys. Shaw may be home on the range, but his artistry makes his music special. He sings of being alone, the characters one encounters in isolated places, drinking too much whisky, and other such foibles with a light touch. Even when he’s serious, Shaw sounds like he’s having fun. Being by oneself can make one aware of the absurdity of life and the beauty of one’s surroundings. So, take another pull from that bottle and yodel to the moon.
The ten songs offer details about the desolate West where “the coyotes sing in lonesome harmony” and reveal its magnetic pull on its few inhabitants. The city is the place where greed and avarice thrive. Still, he’s no hermit. Shaw also sings about women and people’s need for a lover, a friend, and a mate. His values may be old-fashioned, but he understands that giving in to temptation is just part of living. Various songs portray him drinking too much, whoring around, and having a propensity for violence. It’s all a part of what it means to be a man.
Shaw’s life lessons are galvanized by an awareness of death. As the album title suggests, he sings about the loss of his father, his friend “Billy”, and others. Those who have ridden on have not been forgotten. That’s more reason to have a good time while we are here. Shaw may be a “Bad Honky Tonker” with a switchblade in his boot, but he’d rather party than fight. Life can be sweet with a bottle or two of “Huckleberry Wine”. However, the protagonist of that song kills himself when he feels living with his memories is no longer enough.
He Rode On is dedicated to Shaw’s friend and former musical collaborator Colin McKnight, who died in a tragic accident. The record was produced by guitarist Grant Siemens (Corb Lund) at his Winnipeg, Manitoba, home and features drummer John McTigue III (Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell) and steel guitarist Robbie Turner (Waylon Jennings, Chris Stapleton). It was recorded live to tape to capture the intimate and friendly feel of just getting together and jamming. Shaw said he wanted McKnight to be at the recording session. When he died, Shaw put some of McKnight’s ashes in a bottle of Maker’s Mark (their favorite bourbon), recapped and resealed it. He brought the bottle to Siemens’ house, and whenever Shaw needed inspiration, he’d shake up that bottle and then take a shot from another bottle he had nearby in tribute to his friend. Cheers!