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Off the Charts : Rick Shea Plays Country That's a Cut Above the Top 40 to a Small Audience

April 15, 1993|MIKE BOEHM

The rising tide of country music does not lift all boots.

Rick Shea's lizard-skin pair remains planted on the sawdust-covered bottom rung of the Southern California bar circuit, where he has scraped for a living for almost 15 years.

From where Shea stands (and tonight through Saturday he and his band, the Losin' End, will be standing at the Briar Patch Saloon in Garden Grove), the commercial breakthroughs of Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus and other heroes of "new country" radio are not only far, far away, but musically irrelevant.

If anything, the Covina resident says, the soaring popularity of country's recently minted, hot-selling heroes has made things harder for him as he plies the Southland's circuit of country nightclubs: Country's newest fans want to hear the radio hits they know.

Shea's idea of a country hit is something Ray Price or Bob Wills recorded in the days before color TV, let alone the Nashville Network.

For him, a really great bar gig is one that allows him to dispense with playing achy-breaky beats fit for line dancing ("it looks like you're playing for an aerobics class" he says of the country dance fad that's kin to the hokeypokey), and concentrate on a 50-50 combination of time-tested classics and his own originals.

If Shea doesn't fit the current musical fashions that have found mass appeal, he is a talent that country fans who appreciate less chart-minded styles might well enjoy.

He is an assured singer whose voice holds firm and sturdy while registering the hurt that comes with hard-won experience. His guitar playing is nimble and satisfyingly twangy--making him an in-demand sideman for other bands when he isn't fronting his own group of accomplished, seasoned players.

As a songwriter, Shea tries to avoid cliches, striving to populate his lyrics with interesting characters and ground them in settings drawn with an observant eye. He has a penchant for spinning action-packed, darkly dramatic yarns that sometimes make his songs only slightly less bloody than your average Clint Eastwood Western.

Shea also has a look and manner that hold up well under the spotlight (not that the clubs he plays in always have spotlights). He's a low-key sort, with a lanky build draped in blue denim. At 39, strands of gray show in the shoulder-length hair that rides out from under a white cowboy hat and frames a face bearing some resemblance to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead.

Nevertheless, the commercial country wave flowing out of Nashville and packing such dance clubs as the Cowboy Boogie Co. in Anaheim hasn't washed up any new treasure for Shea.

"What I'm sellin' they're not buyin,' " he said in a recent interview. "I've played (the Cowboy Boogie) in other people's bands, because when the bank balance is low, I'll take what comes up if I don't have anything else. It's just packed full of people, but it's not a fun job. (The dance crowds) are just as happy, or more happy, having recorded music. So it ain't that gratifying."

On his own band's circuit, which includes monthly stops at the Briar Patch and the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano, Shea will sometimes accommodate newer fans who insist on hearing newer music.

"I feel I'm there to entertain as much of the crowd as I can. I'm not being hired to do the Rick Shea Show yet. I've even sung 'Achy Breaky Heart,' in a couple of places where people were going crazy to hear it.

"But if you're trying to establish an identity for yourself," he added, "there's no way to do it if you're playing Top 40 songs. I feel I've bent over, integrity-wise, as far as I can. These days, I'm trying to straighten up, if anything. I'm in this to make some dough, but I have to get something more out of it."

Playing to a bar audience at the Swallows last week, Shea stuck to his identity and his roots, with a couple of dignified concessions to patrons' demands for line-dance music.

Listening to him, you could get a pretty good education in country music--a far better one than country radio allows. Shea played a small trove of classics, including numbers by Jimmie Rodgers, Buck Owens, Bob Wills, Ray Price and Lefty Frizzell.

He played some of his own more danceable, romantic stuff, including a wistful Spanish ballad composed by his mother-in-law. An attentive bandleader, he made sure that his players--fiddler Dennis Fetchet, drummer Rhys Clark and bassist Calvin Davidson--got to shine instrumentally or, in Davidson's case, to sing two good originals of his own.

When the audience wanted to do a line dance called "The Electric Slide," Shea obliged with a cranking rendition of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac."

But it wasn't the kind of Rick Shea Show he has in mind, one in which people would know him by his records and come to hear him play his own music.


Other than a few years as a community-college English major and a few years spent working construction, Shea has devoted most of his adolescent and adult life moving slowly toward that goal.

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