by James M. Manheim
Shannon Lawson has a blazing tenor voice, a truly compelling instrument that climbs with startling ease into its upper register. In country music, that makes him an anomaly. The country tradition prizes the idea of Everyman and Everywoman. Many of the tradition's greatest singers carry a wide cross-section of their audiences' experiences in their voices, and although some are fine stylists, standout virtuosity, whether vocal or instrumental, is rare outside the bluegrass subgenre. Even Patsy Cline, with her obvious charisma, bounced around on the fringes of the business for years before anyone figured out what to do with her.
Lawson grew up in Taylorsville, Kentucky, in the heart of the Bluegrass region, and sang for a while with a Louisville bluegrass band called the Galoots. Although he specializes in a pleasantly hell-raising type of country song that's alien to bluegrass, he pays homage to that music in a couple of very funny songs ("Smokin' Grass" is one) and plainly grew up hearing Bill Monroe and his ilk. Lawson's voice has some of Monroe's effortless power, and because of his vocal facility, he was also picked to front an otherwise all-black blues band something not terribly common among country singers.
Signed to the MCA label a couple of years ago, Lawson recorded a rowdy album that went nowhere in Nashville's current hearth-and-home atmosphere. He now supposedly has another major-label deal in the works, but in the meantime he has recorded an album, The Acoustic Livingroom Session, on his own Galoot Music label. As the name implies, it features Lawson and his guitar, together with another string player and a bassist. They perform original songs and a great, raving, mandolin-and-slap-bass-driven cover of Leadbelly's wryly violent "Western Cowboy" (here retitled "When I Was a Cowboy"). The originals, a few of which (like "Redneck Love Gone Bad") tend toward the alternative country side, are mostly upbeat and sometimes, thanks to Lawson's voice, explosive.
Lawson's appearance at the Ark on Monday, April 5, doesn't necessarily signal an effort to develop a presence in the folk and acoustic music scene; most of the other stops on his current tour are at the likes of Bullfrogs Live in Topeka and Rabb's Steak and Spirits in Ruston, Louisiana. Instead, the Ark is offering something we almost never get to see in these parts: a hot new country talent, on the way up, in a small room.
[Originally published in April, 2004.]