Jon Shain and Joe Newberry have been a part of the same mutual admiration society for some time now—admiring each other’s work from some shared music circles. So when Shain recently saw Newberry’s name on a list of performers for a special fundraising performance of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” he signed up.
The pair decided to do a few shows together, and will tour together more in the fall and spring. You can catch him with Joe Newberry Sunday night at the Rooster’s Wife. Joe’s an “intuitive” player, Jon says. He writes for the audience, and as a player, and that makes it easy for him to go where ever Joe is taking the crowd on a song.
“He’s always thinking about making it go down nice as a listener,” Jon says. “And as a player, I can understand where the music is going to go that much easier.”
As for Jon, songwriter and improviser better describes his stage style. The phrase “never play a song the same way once” does, too. It goes back to Shain’s early exposure to jazz in High School up in Massachusetts. But when Shain moved south to Durham in the 1980s to attend school at Duke University and study history, the jazz freak became a blues player.
“The first time I heard picking like that was in high school when a friend played me a Jorma Kaukenen album: Quah. It was the first time i heard anybody pick a guitar that wasn’t kind of James Taylory.
“There was an aggressive thumb, and a lot of melodic movement in a ragtime style. I didn’t know what it was called, but he was doing his own stuff and he also covered (Piedmont Blues legends) like Blind Boy Blake.
“Massachusetts has no acoustic blues scene, so when i got to Duke I got to hear some of these older players, like Big Boy Henry, John Dee Holman. I saw it up close and figured it out (the Piedmont Blues picking style) from there. I never really had a guitar teacher to show me how to do all that, I just sort of picked it up by osmosis.”
“I didn’t know that Durham was such a blues center until I took a class in African American History. Did a paper on blues in Durham in the 1930s. And the guys that I hung out with - we devoured live music.
“There was a guy named Slewfoot (a DJ at Duke at the time) and I think he figured it was good business to hire a young group of guys to be his backup band because all of a sudden he could get gigs on campus. He was probably 36, at the time, and had no teeth.
“I had a rock band (at age 19), and he saw us, and went ahead and fired his band and hired us. He acted on a lot of whims, and he never kept a band very long. Eventually, he left town and performed on the streets of New Orleans for many years (Slewfoot passed away a few years ago).
“He told me about Big Boy Henry, Lightnin’ Wells, Brother Yousef; he was kind of a gateway drug himself, to the blues. He started schooling us about different blues players. He played Chicago blues. As far as me choosing Piedmont Blues, it more chose me, because I still listen to everything.
“I got here in 1986 in Duke to study history. Always in the back of my head had it that I wanted to play music, but I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to make a living as a musician. Funny thing: I graduated right into the recession of 1990 and I couldn’t find a regular job anyway. And right at the time, my band, Flying Mice, got signed to a record label. And by that time we were playing so much I couldn’t hold a job.
“I wasn’t really employable by then,” Shain says.
But he tried.