Keeping it simple: Shafer’s latest hearkens back to his roots
September 17, 2009
CARBONDALE – When Danny Shafer says he still keeps an actual record collection, it comes out like a slightly embarrassing secret. But a quick listen to (or look at) his new album, “One Morning,” and it’s no secret where the singer-songwriter’s roots lie, or how attached he remains to those roots.
The album cover mimics brown-paper packaging. “One Morning” has 11 songs, which run to a total of 31 minutes. And the sound throughout is direct and clean, just Shafer’s 42-year-old voice and his acoustic guitar.
“It’s an album that’s very inspired by the stuff I listened to growing up, a lot of the stuff that inspired me to want to write,” Shafer said from his home in Gold Hill, near Boulder. “It feels like an LP, like a piece of vinyl. That’s how I think recordings are supposed to be.”
He then ticks off a handful of the songwriters who had a particular influence on him when he was growing up in Chicago, the son of a Chicago police officer, in what he calls a “100 percent working, middle-class environment”: Richie Havens, the first few Bob Dylan albums, and the Texans Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.
While Shafer retains his attachment to old acoustic music – Muddy Waters’ “Folk Singer” is in frequent rotation in his house these days – “One Morning” served as a reminder of how simple making an album could be. It had been four years since the release of his last record, “The Good The Bad and The Red Glory Ramblers,” and he approached the follow-up tentatively. He scheduled time at the Crucible, a high-quality studio in Eldorado Springs, simply to feel out the space and the equipment with engineer Andy McEwen. One day this past April, Shafer brought in his latest batch of songs for a test run.
“I sat down with a bunch of mikes, the guitar, to see how it felt. Without getting up I recorded 20 songs,” recalled Shafer. “[Andy] said, ‘So what do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, I think I just recorded an album.'”
Recommended Stories For You
“One Morning” is made up of nine first takes of those songs, and just one overdub, or about as unfussed-over as a modern album can be. Shafer said it is an experience that was overdue for him; making “The Good The Bad and The Red Glory Ramblers” had been a year-long marathon.
“I tried to make this exact record a few other times before,” he said. “While I was recording, I thought, ‘OK, this is the album I always wanted to record.”
With just 11 songs, and most of them not lasting three minutes, “One Morning” makes each phrase count. “Americans” is a lament about that what might be one of the oddest species of humans, but Shafer uses a light touch when he sighs, “Americans.” A line like “When I was a kid and baseball was still cool, you could make a living even if you dropped out of school/ … you could get by with three acres and a mule” conveys nostalgia and sadness for what has followed. “Letting Summer Go,” which spotlights his fingerstyle guitar playing, resonates with acceptance of change, even if it means that delights like baseball, John Prine and watermelon are slipping away.
The American character comes up again, in “American in Me,” and Nancy Reagan and AIDS are mentioned in “Ain’t Afraid of Dying.” But Shafer doesn’t get very specific in his political leanings. “There are moments all over the record that slightly touch on political issues,” he said. “But in a social way, how it affects everyday life rather than maybe the way you’d vote.”
Shafer says the only thing that kept him from the studio for four years was the road. He has been in the habit of playing 200-250 shows a year, split equally between solo gigs and dates with his band, the Unknown Americans. “That’s something I know how to stay healthy doing,” he said of his touring.
He adds that the next album could come somewhat quicker, now that he sees how simple it can be.
“I got a little lucky with this one, I hope,” he said. “God knows what the next one will be.”