When you spend as much time on the road as blues artist Shawn Pittman, you come to savor places like the Czech Stop on I-35 in West Texas.
"It's this little gas station and has all these great Czech pastries and sandwiches and stuff," he says during a phone interview. "It's where all the blues musicians stop."
Pittman may have his favorite sandwich shop down cold, but it's taken nearly a dozen years to nail down exactly what he wants to do musically. Blues has always been the basis of his work, but narrowing his focus took time. The difficulty began with his first couple of albums, recorded in the late 1990s at the height of the young blues gunslinger craze generated by Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Pittman signed the first record deal he was offered, and the label attempted to make him something he wasn't.
"The first couple records? I hate listening to those," he says wistfully. "I was a little too naive to know what people were trying to do with me. They wanted me to compete with [Lang and Shepherd], so my material early on was more toward that guitar hero/Stevie Ray Vaughan void everyone wanted to fill. In a way, I sort of allowed that to happen."
In time, Pittman became disillusioned with the blues and made a completely different album just to show he could do something else. "You really don't want to do that," he says. He quit performing altogether for three years.
Maybe it was the lure of Czech Stop sandwiches, but Pittman began anew in 2008, dabbling in various blues forms, touching on Junior Kimbrough-style, Mississippi hill country riffs, vintage jump blues, and classic-era material akin to something Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf might have made. He considers the resulting album, Meridian, his turning point.
"I called it Meridian because that sort of delineated where I was," he says. "There was a new level of maturity after that album."
Pittman decided to focus on a signature sound, but one that allowed him to be who he wanted to be musically. His blues would carry a deep and wide tone that could move from burning hot to icy cold in an instant but would do so in the context of more classically styled material while also merging bluesy soul and R&B into the equation — a sound he's always loved.
"I think people didn't know what to do [with me] because I was sort of in between the seats all the time," he says. "What I'm trying to do is establish myself as a traditional blues artist while throwing in other things I'm capable of without alienating or discriminating. . . . I always thought it was good to be versatile, to get down and dirty on a blues tune, and then do a soul tune, like Bobby Bland or Jimmy Reed."
His latest album, Edge of the World, finds Pittman (who plays all the instruments expect horns) channeling a period of early electric blues — when the form still incorporated elements of jump blues, swing, and send-up R&B. The album pops with high-octane songs that tear at the heart but also lead to the dance floor.
"If I was to make a record like that [15 years ago], it wouldn't have sounded good," he says. "I'm just now getting to the place where I can do what I want to do vocally and guitar-wise."
Pittman enjoys his recordings these days.
"Yeah," he concludes with laugh. "I'm just [at] the point I can even listen to some of the stuff I do now."