Christopher Shayne on Why Arizona Is a Great Place to Make Music
"We get the luxury of dirty desert rock," Christopher Shayne says. "Dry and gritty..."
If someone tells you that a song has a bluesy vibe, you might think of that Tennessee or Mississippi sound. If you mention country, a fan will go on about how amazingly “weird” Austin’s scene is or how Texas invented the genre. And rock music? Hell, people will name off some of their favorite scenes — Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, New Orleans, Seattle — but “Phoenix” isn’t usually a person’s enthusiastic first response. Why is that?
Phoenix should be able to compete as a major influential music scene. One issue could be touring — on the East Coast, every big city is two to three hours apart. In Arizona, touring calls for a larger investment from the average musician; the major cities on the west side of the country are much farther apart.
But the rock sound here is unlike anywhere else. It’s a mix of the styles that slowly made their way west, ending up in a musical melting pot of classic Southern rock, an edge of blues, and whiskey-steeped outlaw country. It has the dusty rawness of comforting old vinyl grooves, merged with what’s classic, what’s new, and what’s missed.
And an Arizona artist on the forefront of that right now is Christopher Shayne.
“[In Arizona] we don’t have the luxury of relying on Southern music. We get the luxury of dirty desert rock,” Shayne says. “Dry and gritty ... then you take the desert drama from California and combine it with [our] heat. Arizona is a cool melting pot, so I’ve learned from other Arizona bands, too. It’s helped develop our style.
“The Cadillac Three — the electric guitars, swinging, and groove-based element. Another Arizona band that had a big impact on me was What Laura Says; their first record had so many unique pieces on it. Bear Ghost, they’re super-technical in the way that they form their voices over music. It’s fascinating because I’d never thought of those layers before — I grew up with Metallica.”
With additional influences like Blackberry Smoke, Lynyryd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, and ZZ Top, Shayne and his band are changing what desert country rock is. That's thanks to their late 2016 debut solo album, Turning Stones. It’s R.L. Burnside-meets-Soundgarden-meets-Black Label Society, a true “ride on the lightning” between genres.
Originally known through the Southwest as the frontman of Arizona’s beloved country blues-rock band Whiskey Six, Shayne has brought several influences to the table from local and international acts. As a kid, he had an “unhealthy obsession” with Aerosmith (“where we got a lot of our dynamics”); as a teen, he was all about Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer (“If there wasn’t a 180 bpm, I didn’t care”), before getting into the rugged honest intensity of bluesmen like Burnside. Shayne decided to go out on his own a few years back, along with Whiskey Six guitarist Dave Lansing and additional musicians Zachary Hughes (organ, guitar), Mark Blades (bass), and Trevor Hammer (drums).
The Christopher Shayne Band has headlined NASCAR races in Phoenix and performed at Country Thunder and Eagle Rider Music Fest. In 2017, they played two shows at the January 2017 Winter NAMM Show in Anaheim, California, and opened for outlaw country torchbearer Shooter Jennings in Scottsdale in February. Shayne appeals to metal, rock, and country fans alike. His reddish-brown beard would make Billy Gibbons proud, and his whiskey-soaked voice has an impressive live power.
For the upcoming Arizona Bike Week, the band will be performing three separate shows in Scottsdale: April 6 and 8 at the Handlebar Saloon, and April 7 at Dirty Dogg Saloon.
Turning Stones' debut single, “Give A Damn,” is a rebellious rollicking anthem, while “The River Revival” resonates with slide guitar and a solid groove, paying tribute to American gospel influences in modern blues music — and is the track that Shayne admits was the scariest yet most rewarding one to write. And the title track, “Turning Stones,” has a toe-tapping beat and Americana twang, asking “Where is my American dream/ It looks so much better on TV.”
The title Turning Stones has a significance of unearthing a new style that was always your own — something that seems to fit perfectly with the Arizona music scene.
“Dave [Lansing] and I went back and forth, talking about all the sounds we originally wanted to do when we started out [in music],” Shayne says. “We felt like we were turning stones left and right, looking for little pieces of us that we had forgotten or weren’t paying attention to.”
And Shayne and his band are all about putting in the legwork. Produced by legendary producer/engineer Chuck Alkazian (Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger), the pre-production process for Turning Stones took almost seven months, and he’s adamant about going the extra mile and spending the money to create that solid product. Turning Stones was partly recorded at Pearl Studio in Detroit, in the room where Madonna recorded “Like A Virgin.”
“On ‘Black Mariah,’ the piano ballad, we used Journey’s piano. [Lansing] happened to be filming at that time, so we caught that lightning-in-a-bottle moment. That one will always be a little bit special, surrounded by that kind of level of performance and history.”
The band is also always writing, and stick to a daily writing challenge — a riff, a lyric, a line — a member has to pose something, good or bad. Additionally, he’s been involved in just about every major music fest or event. His advice? Most bands don’t just go and ask for what they want.
“It all comes down to the product, your record and music, right? I’ve been guilty in the past of not doing this — but you have to get out there, ask people to check out the album, if we could be on board with festivals that fit us. A lot of bands are afraid of rejection or sucking on stage, but you know, it’s okay to suck for awhile. Once you get through the suck phase, nothing fazes you then.”
Shayne’s notion is that the Phoenix music scene is strong, yet unpredictable.
“It comes in waves, and right now it feels like it’s … pulled back a bit. Which I think means something cool is going to come out next. When Whiskey Six was around, you could go out and see all these amazing rock bands — but it’s slowed a bit, which just means people are creating.
“A big issue is that it feels like we’re a bit of an ‘island,’ six hours from anything that’s decently a big market in any given direction. I think the trick is to break through and expand out into California and Texas and do the loops as much as possible. Arizona is a great place to create, but not so great for getting your music out there.”
Let’s hope that with every new talent that pops up here in the desert, or band realization for quality over quantity and patience over impetuousness, the Arizona music scene will turn another stone.
Christopher Shayne is scheduled to play HandleBar in Scottsdale on Thursday, April 6, and Saturday, April 8.
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