Music

The New Oral History: Chris Shiflett and Steve Dawson's Smart, Listenable Podcasts

Press photo of Steve Dawson from Black Hen Music.com

There are more podcasts than you can shake a flash drive at these days. Though the number of 'casts that embrace Americana music is growing, these two stand out.

With print press outlets all but gone and the long-form interview an increasingly rare commodity, podcasts have been booming. Music-related podcasts range from roundtable discussions about the zeniths and nadirs of the ELO oeuvre to interviews with guys who’ve stood next to KISS’s drum tech. It seems like you can find all the folkloric ephemera you ever wanted in these little talk shows. The programs are largely uninterrupted and allow knowledgeable hosts to take deep dives into the real stories of their favorite music.

Chris Shiflett’s Walking the Floor and Steve Dawson’s Music Makers and Soul Shakers lead the charge for Americana-related ‘casts. Their greatest assets each are a natural curiosity about the music that they and the artists they admire make. Both hosts carry into their interviews a search for knowledge that is common among scholars.

Of course, Shiflett may seem like a bit of an outlier for such an undertaking. His tenures with bands such as No Use for a Name and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes doesn’t exactly scream Nashville or Bakersfield. Still, he’s proven himself a capable Americana artist via Chris Shiflett & The Dead Peasants.

Having worked with monster talents such as Davey Faragher (Elvis Costello, John Hiatt) and Greg Leisz, the Walking the Floor host, has all the gravel road cred he needs. That he comes from what is ostensibly the other side of the musical tracks leads to a fascinating dynamic once the mics are on.

Shiflett may be a rock guitar hero to countless kids around the globe, but it’s evident that he holds the same admiration and appreciation of the artists he interviews. He also holds a gift that marks him as an excellent candidate to host a talk-based program: He's an expert listener. Rather than pushing questions or attempting to make himself the star of the show, he allows his guests to tell their stories on their terms. What happens is frequently magical and always illuminating.

His two-part conversation with Peter Case (Episodes 9 and 10) chronicles the stalwart troubadour’s life from the time he left school in his early teens to the (nearly) present day, when he’s become one of the most rugged and fascinating artists of his kind. Case, we learn, is as much a scholar as he is an artist, someone who has done the homework, read the books and sought out his heroes either in spirit or in the flesh. Although he rarely receives the credit he deserves for being a capable and deeply intelligent musical chameleon, his journey from high-energy punk and pop to wry, knowing songwriting is one more thing about him that people should know. Although the term self-made man has fallen into disrepair in recent times, it’s certainly one that’s applicable in Case’s case. It’s also not the kind of story that one gets when an artist arrives on a mainstream talk show and is expected to plug whatever their latest project happens to be.

Jim Lauderdale’s time with Shiflett (Episode 32) finds the deeply eclectic singer discussing his time in the under-documented New York City country scene of the '80s. It also finds him being characteristically open about his writing process and ability to become a confluence of disparate streams within the country and Americana worlds. Conversations with Robbie Fulks (Episode 22) and Dale Watson (Episode 33) are as smart, complex and far-reaching as either man’s recorded output. A talk with Patterson Hood (Episode 31) shows that the Drive-By Truckers founder is an affable conversationalist, who is as much a music enthusiast as he is an artist, a songwriter who would make a remarkable popular culture historian, if the whole band thing ever fell apart.

Shiflett is aware that not everyone he interviews knows who he is, so he makes no assumptions with artists such as Merle Haggard, whose appearance on Episode 30 and a later tribute episode is everything you might hope it would be. There’s room on the show for some non-dust-kickers, including Wolfmother’s Andrew Stockdale and soul man Eli “Paperboy” Reed, but those sacrifice none of the show’s unmistakable charm.

The only major criticism to be found with Walking the Floor is a lack of female presence. Shiflett welcomed Sara Watkins to Episode 47 late in summer 2016, marking a breaking of the gender barrier. Surely, the lack of gender diversity on the program was not by design but a tale of the complex nature of booking. Now that Watkins has paved the way we’re certain to hear a wider range of voices on upcoming episodes.

Where Shiflett may first appear to be an outsider, there can be no mistaking that Canadian folk/roots artist Dawson is anywhere but inside. He’s either worked as a session musician or live performer with a number of his guests, but his sense of curiosity and appreciation of their gifts is not lessened by the familiarity. A musician as well as producer, his selection of guests seems to be based on an interest of both worlds, and the conversations can be deeply illuminating.

A two-part interview with producer Joe Henry (Episodes 15 and 16) provides us not only with details about how Henry became a producer, but the stories behind some of the most interesting records he’s made. His time working on Solomon Burke’s 2002 album Don’t Give Up on Me was fraught with surprise and frustration and trying to circumnavigate disaster. His desire to have jazz legend Ornette Coleman guest on a tune (“Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”) is heartbreaking in unexpected ways.

A lengthy conversation with Gurf Morlix (Episode 18) provides insight into why the producer/guitarist’s working relationship with Lucinda Williams came to a close, but also how Morlix found a way to survive after leaving a high profile gig. Bruce Cockburn’s appearance on the following installment reveals that the Canadian legend is kinder than one might expect, but that he’s also as deep a thinker as you might suspect after having spent any time at all with his songs.

Bad Livers man Danny Barnes gives one of the best interviews heard in on any podcast in recent memory in Episode 7. Barnes provides the listener with historical and philosophical fodder that conversations about art too rarely bring about. He does so in an entirely unassuming way and hearing the exchanges between him and Dawson throughout inspires gooseflesh.

Former Carolina Chocolate Drops member Dom Flemons turns up for Episode 23 to discuss his own journey. Hearing him speak, with great passion, about music and culture makes you cheer for his very existence, though you also find yourself mourning for the academic community as Flemons has all the makings -- patience, deep knowledge, and a particular kindness -- of an excellent teacher.

The same might be said for Dawson, whose ability to create an environment where the stories flow freely and openly is noteworthy. Budding podcasters would be wise to take note of the techniques both he and Shiflett employ in their work and consider building a landscape of smarter, better ‘casts that deepen our knowledge rather than serve as platforms for our more prurient interests.

Both shows serve a critical role in the chronicling and advancement of Americana and roots music. This is oral history, but it’s not the oral history practiced by the bespectacled grad student or the tweed-loving professor. It’s oral history as practiced by artists who draw on their shared experience to better illuminate these stories for all.

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