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Tommy Shaw of Styx Talks About His Rock Career, Bluegrass Album, Upcoming Tour With Yes

Tommy Shaw of Styx
Doug Benc, Getty Images

For over three decades, Tommy Shaw has been a singer-guitarist for classic rock titans Styx. For all he’s accomplished over those years, in our exclusive interview below, he showed absolutely zero interest in resting on his laurels. Over the years, he’s constantly looked forward, both within his main band’s work and with solo albums and side projects such as Damn Yankees and Shaw-Blades.

Now, Shaw is exploring the music he grew up on with his first-ever bluegrass record, ‘The Great Divide.’ In the rock-oriented second half of our interview with Shaw –  you can read the country half here — we talk about Styx and their upcoming tour with fellow progressive rock heroes Yes. Tommy’s newly rediscovered love of vinyl records and his respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers also turned up during our conversation:

So, when did you know you wanted to play rock music?

It was gradual, when I was a teenager I started becoming a professional musician. I would take jobs, anything I could get where they would hire a 13-year-old kid to play in a band. There was a guy that lived around the corner from me. He ran the Troy State University dance band, and they would go out and play shows for bands of anywhere from 3 pieces to 16 pieces.

Wow, so you took to this pretty early, huh?

I was pretty good at faking my way through stuff. I had a good ear; they’d just start playing and I’d join in. He would hire me if there was nobody else the right age. I learned all these jazz and standards stuff back then. While most of my friends were listening to rock records, I was listening to funk music and that sort of thing. I didn’t really commit to being a rock musician till I joined Styx in late 1975. I was in a horn band before that.  We played some Uriah Heep, we did Tower of Power, that sort of stuff.

Are you excited for this summer’s tour with Yes?

Yup! We’re playing 22 shows with them. We ran into [Yes bassist] Chris Squire years ago, and he was saying we should play together, but we never did. For whatever reason, the planets never aligned, but now they did and we’re all very excited about it. They’re not necessarily the same audiences, but Styx’s music was influenced heavily by those early Yes albums. Then again, who wasn’t? If you weren’t moved and changed by those early Yes albums, you weren’t listening very well.
(Update: See our announcement about the 2011 Styx / Yes tour.)

Let’s talk about some of your non-Styx projects: Is Shaw-Blades on hold?

Actually, we have a record in progress – ‘Influence, Volume 2.’ We’ve got some Crosby, Stills & Nash on it, some Elton John. Once again, it’s the music that influenced us. We did a Zeppelin song — ‘Going to California.’ I got to play mandolin on that one.

Do you enjoy doing cover songs?

We decided to do music that influenced us as young artists on that first record. Covers have been an easy way to make a record, have something fun to do, if you don’t have time to spend a year creating a new body of music. It’s a nice way to do some different things.

Even though you grew up in Alabama, you somehow listened to Nashville radio as a child?

You could go outside, or if you had a powerful radio in your house with an antenna, you could listen to WSM in Nashville, the Grand Ole Opry station, because they were a 50,000 watt station. At nighttime, radio waves went further, and there was nothing really competing in the area, so it was a clear shot to Alabama. It was one of the first things I remember as being a big deal. Here was this live music show coming in; you could only hear it certain times.

Have you listened to country music all your life?

I grew up where Hank Williams was born. It was just something that everybody knew. There were many nights as a teenager where we’d go sit by his grave, and say, you know. “Hank Williams is right there.” It’s a really impressive little shrine to him. I lived right up the street. I’d play on the porch to the passing traffic. Then, there were a lot of times when the only music I listened to was Styx, you know, cause I was working all the time. I’d buy just the odd record here and there. But I didn’t get back into the country thing until the music from [Shaw's early '90s rock supergroup with Ted Nugent] Damn Yankees and that sort of thing just died, when grunge took over. Country music really picked up a lot of the fans from that era and just changed the style, adapted to be more like classic rock.

Have you heard Robert Plant’s album with Alison Krauss?

Unbelievable – it’s otherworldly – if you listen to that on vinyl, it will change you. It’s so subtle and deep and there’s just so many good things about it.

So, is it safe to say you’re part of the vinyl resurgence?

My friend Mike Mettler at Sound & Vision, he’s the editor; he’s the one that started bugging me about two years ago — “You gotta get a turntable; you gotta put this out on vinyl,” stuff like that. Eventually, he helped hook me up. So now I just go up there, turn that one big knob and let it rip my face off. You have to commit, you can’t stop, you can’t shuffle it. You have to listen in the order they want you to; you have to put your smartphone down and just stop multitasking, you know — for just a minute. Very few things give you the payoff when you do that.  I just got the Crosby, Stills & Nash album with ‘Marrakesh Express’ on it — holy s–t does that sound good!

Alison Krauss is on your record, too, right?

Yes. It’s awesome, she sang on my ’7 Deadly Zens’ album back in 1998. It turns out she was a fan of mine. I heard she was on the guest list at a Damn Yankees show years ago, but I just thought it was BS. Why would Alison Krauss be at a Damn Yankees show? Turns out, she was a fan and she was there. I just didn’t see her. Now I know better, whenever I hear something like that now, I know it’s serious. She and my wife are good friends. I always tell people Alison sang on my record just so they could hang out.

So if she’s a rock fan, you think there will ever be a Ted Nugent / Alison Krauss album?

That might be a stretch, but you never know with either one of them.

Speaking of Ted, any chance of another Damn Yankees record?

That one’s a little more difficult. When we first put that together, we were at this odd point in our careers where there was time in front of us. None of us had committed to anything, and we were looking for something different to do. We did that for four years, and then grunge music came along. The other bands that we were being thrown in with, these new bands, it had just become so watered down. It was time to scrap it and start over anyway, to hit the reset button. Fortunately, we all had things to go back to. And now we’ve all been successful, so it’s hard for us to find that opening again.

Is it true Damn Yankees recorded a third album that wasn’t released?

Well, it was one of those things where there was a lot of encouragement to get things done even though the times weren’t right. And because the times weren’t right, it was forced. Even though it was a good idea — Damn Yankees just happens easily — when you try to force it to happen, well, we realized it was a mistake. Nobody even knows where those masters are.

Are you a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers?

It’s pretty hard not to be a Steelers fan. They’re an awesome team, and they’ve been using ‘Renegade’ as their defensive rally song for 12 years now. It’s a very welcoming environment for me. I’m not a crazy avid sports fan. I like it when I’m around other people who are more into it. But, I have stood there in one of the boxes and looked out and seen 80,000 people waving the “Terrible Towels” while ‘Renegade’ is playing on the big screen.

One of the teams they were playing in the playoffs — I think it was the Jets — they practiced with that song playing so it wouldn’t psych them out, and it still psyched them out. It’s hard to ignore something like that. They’re playing clips from the last couple of weeks of guys getting hammered by the Steelers on the JumboTron, and that music’s playing, it’s tough.

Looking back, how do you feel about the split with [original co-lead singer] Dennis DeYoung?

You know, you’re with each other more than you are with your families for a lot of time. We had this great chemistry for years, and we just went our separate ways. We tried putting it back together in ’96 and ’97, and realized, this is just who we are.

That sounds pretty healthy and friendly…

It really is healthy. He gets to do whatever he wants to do, and we get to carry on the tradition of Styx, and we look forward to every gig. He went his way, we went ours. We came to an agreement, everyone signed off on it, and we’ve coexisted peacefully ever since.

Are there any peers you still hope to work with someday?

If I could just keep working with everybody that I’ve worked with so far, that would be great. I’m still such in awe of some of the people I’ve worked with over the last couple of years. I’d like to work with [country singer] Marty Stuart, and we almost did — it was just a matter of scheduling. Have you seen his show? It’s 30 minutes of live music. He’s a huge music fan and a killer musician. It’s just pure live, this beautiful, enthusiastically played music. I ran into him the last day we were in Nashville and he gave me some pointers.

In a good-mannered way, did you ever wish any of your songs were a bigger hit?

Well, yeah, you want all of them to go all the way. It’s kind of a fluke. I’ve never been the kind of songwriter to write hits. I write what I feel and what I know, so honestly I’m surprised whenever anything has done well, because it just means that people are agreeing with me every once in a while.

Watch Styx Perform ‘Renegade’ Live With the Contemporary Youth Orchestra of Cleveland

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