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Exclusive: Getting to know country music’s Shawn Byrne

Shawn Byrne isn’t a name you would hear on country radio, however, he has been on the music scene for awhile now. He has played guitar for artists such as Rodney Atkins and Kelleigh Bannen. He has many talents which include playing instruments, writing songs and even singing. So who is Shawn Byrne? Well, let’s find out.

Before you moved to Nashville, I heard you use to work with special needs children? Can you tell me more about that?

Yeah, when I was living up in Boston I spent a few years working with high school age kids at the School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. (It’s the school Helen Keller went to) I did some music therapy but mostly I aided the kids throughout the day in class and in the living quarters. Some of the kids needed 24 hour assistance while others were more independent. I fell into that line of work from a friend who worked as an aid for an amazing woman named Cyndie Breazeale-Davis.

Cydnie is a deaf/blind jazz pianist. She can hear with the aid of a cochlear implant. She graduation with a degree in Jazz piano from the Berklee College of music and is just an amazing soul. Just full of joy and love. I met Cydnie and was just smitten with her. Me and Cyd would meet once a week and have jam sessions. Her on piano. Me on guitar. One day her mother TC asked me if I’d like a job working with Cydnie. So I took it. I worked as an assistant to which lead to my work at the Perkins School. It was really just a nice fit for me. I loved working with those kids and helping them but I now realize those kids were helping me. They taught me so many life lessons about overcoming and persevering hardships and handicaps. I definitely have some handicaps haha! We all do I think. Anyway, one of the most amazing jobs I’ve ever had was working there. I miss it actually.

How was the Nashville experience for you, before you actually made it in music?

Nashville has been quite an experience for me. I moved here in 2003 and worked for a couple years in the Bluebird Cafe’s kitchen. I washed dishes and then worked as a line cook. Every once and a while I got to take off my apron and sing a song or two. As a songwriter it was a great job to have. I pretty much got to meet every songwriter in town during that time. Got drunk with some of ’em too after the doors were locked up and the crowds left. That was a really amazing time for me. Being from Connecticut and Boston the South was just a whole new world. Kind of culture shock. People move a little slower down here. Friendlier. Took some getting used to.

In 2003 Nashville wasn’t like it is now. It felt smaller. Less “cosmopolitan.” I would work my shifts washing dishes at the Bluebird and write songs. That’s all I did for a few years. I did some rounds here and there. Played some band gigs here and there. Eventually I started to get calls to play with bands and songwriters as a guitarist. I started singing on demos too. Basically just doing anything to get experience. With time, I became a better musician and singer which helped me with my own songs as well.

I remember in like 2005 or ’06 getting a call from Nathan Chapman who was working with this young new artist. She needed a guitarist who could sing some [background vocals] so I went and practiced with this young gal named Taylor Swift a couple times. She was very new to Nashville at that time.

Another time I remember being called to sing on some demos for Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, one of my favorite artists. That was pretty cool. There’s was long periods of “what the heck am I doing in this town” with flashes of “holy cow how did I get so lucky to be here” but yeah it took quite a few years before I could quit my “day jobs.”

You’ve played guitar for people like Rodney Atkins, Ashton Shepherd and Kelleigh Bannen. What’s it like to travel all over and do these shows?

Well, what can I say? I love performing and I’ve been really blessed to be able to make my living with my guitar and my voice. I had been playing guitar and singing [background vocals] for countless artists from 2003-2008. Sometimes learning 50 songs a week for gigs for little or no money at all. Many times I would get in a car, or a van and spend weeks on the road sleeping on floors and couches of strangers and flea bag motels playing for artists who could barely pay me. For a time I was happy to do it. I loved seeing new places and meeting new people and playing music. I didn’t care I wasn’t making the big bucks. I wasn’t washing dishes.

Though after a few years of this the lifestyle began to wear on me. There was a time in 2007 where I was reaching my limit. I had had enough jumping from gig to gig and traveling all over the country sitting in an uncomfortable car or van and eating crappy road food. The relationship I had with my long term girlfriend at the time suffered from the strain of my career choice. She left me and I was just shattered, broken and depressed. I considered leaving and going back North to work with the kids because I would have security there. Steady money. A place to live.

But when I was at my lowest, a ray of light shone on me. I got a call to do a closed audition with country star Rodney Atkins. Around this time Rodney was having huge success with “If You’re Going Through Hell” and “Watching You”. I knew if could just get this gig my life would change. Big time. Rodney’s band leader sent me a CD and said learn “any three songs you want and we’ll see you at the audition in one week”. I showed up to that audition having learned every song on that CD note for note. No charts. Just played it like it was my gig. Turned out it was.

I spent the next two years of my life riding a wave with Rodney. I was instantly immersed in the “big time” playing stages like The Grand Ole Opry, the CMA’s, halftime shows for NFL teams, late night shows, Good Morning America, huge festivals opening for stars like Chesney, McGraw, Brooks and Dunn, ZZ Top and even George Jones. I played in every state at least twice! (except Hawaii). I had someone tuning my guitars for me. Man, it was just incredible to go from being a guitar zero to a guitar hero!

I am so thankful for my time with Rodney and his band. I made some incredible friends with those guys. My time with Rodney launched me into a new level of sideman work. I’ve become known as a dependable guy who shows up prepared and is easy to tour with. I try to never complain about anything when I’m on the road. To me it’s a huge blessing to get paid doing something I love! I don’t take it for granted.

I’ve played with a lot of great artists but most recently I’ve been playing for [Universal Music Group] artist Kelleigh Bannen and I couldn’t imagine a better gig for me. She’s incredibly talented and treats me so well. We’re hoping for a big hit with her next single coming out early next year. I’d love to ride a nice big wave with her. She deserves it!

In the meantime when I’m not traveling with Kelleigh, I play with indie artists as well as down on Broadway at bars like Roberts Western World and Layla’s Bluegrass Inn. I like the challenge of playing for four hours at a time for tips. Keeps the chops up. Plus, I get to play some of my favorite traditional country songs by the best country artists that ever lived. Hank [Williams], Waylon [Jennings], [Merle] Haggard, [Johnny] Cash. That style of playing never gets old to me.

I hear you’re also a songwriter? Any cuts that you want to share, or are extremely proud of?

I am a songwriter, yes. I get so busy doing the sideman thing sometimes that I don’t get to write as much as I’d like but I’ve never been the kind of writer that has to write every single day. When I write a song, I try to take my time with it and make sure that it’s tight lyrically and melodically and that it says something worth a damn. A lot of writers will just write as many songs as possible, sometime two a day, with the hopes that it will increase their chances at getting a cut. I guess if you’re writing for the mainstream country market you can hammer out cookie cutter songs with unoriginal ideas since that seems to be the trend right now on commercial radio. I have not one iota of interest in playing that game. To me, every song I write is my baby. I like to hold my songs up to the standard of writers like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen. Those guys are untouchable, but if I can get in the same universe as them then I feel like I’ve done my job.

I’ve released a few solo records and many of my songs have been cut but mostly by artists you’ve probably never heard before. Probably the most famous artists that had covered my songs are Adam Brand and The Duhks. Adam is a big time country star in Australia and he cut my song “Simple Man” back in 2007 or something like that. Never did get paid for that one come to think of it. Ha!

The Duhks cut this weird song I wrote with my buddy Chuck McCarthy called “Ol’ Cook Pot” around the same time. It was the first track on their Sugar Hill Records release “Migrations.” The song became kind of a hit for them and topped the Americana charts when it was released. It was up there with Bob Dylan which kind of blew my mind. I received a SESAC award that year which was really cool. Since then the song has become sort of a folk standard and is being covered by dozens of bands all over the world. I only know this because one day I searched YouTube and saw a ton of videos of bands performing my song. It’s an honor.

Not breaking the bank by any means, but I’d rather have a timeless song that will live on when I’m dead and gone that a song that makes a million bucks that everyone hates next year. Actually, I’d like just one of those songs. Haha! Come to think of it, I’d like to make enough to live on just writing great timeless songs. Now THAT would be a dream come true.

A lot of co-writes I get are because I’ll be producing a record and the artists songs just aren’t quite there yet. I have a knack for taking someone’s idea and honing it into something we can use. I work with an artist named Iodine (Susanne Mumpower Johnson) and we made a really great record together. It got picked up by an indie label and is going to be re-released very soon. I helped her find her sound and I co-wrote about every song on the record. Just some real groovy East Tennessee mountain music. I loved making that record.

I’m working on an Americana rock record right now with Tad Overbaugh from Boston and I’m mentoring a young country artist who has so much talent and passion for making authentic country music. On top of that, I’m starting to get busy with my side project/band The Doke Ohms. It’s all original instrumental surf rock songs. That project is just a fun outlet for me. I can just write songs on my guitar and not have to worry about lyrics. It’s quite refreshing actually.

My latest solo record, Pine Trees, Cheap Wine and the Moon. is selling in the tens of copies. Haha! And not because I’m not proud of it and not because the songs suck. There’s some of the best stuff I’ve written on that record. I’m just a horrible self-promoter. If anyone would like to hear the record it’s up on iTunes. I’m quite proud of it and I think it’s worthy of attention. I get frustrated when I turn on the radio and I hear garbage music becoming hits. I hope the market changes but I doubt it will for some time. In the meantime I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and hope some more stars align for me.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years? Jeez, I don’t know. I don’t really think that way. Anything could happen in five years. Most anything could happen in a week. But in five years….. well, I just hope that I’m still making music and doing it better than I had before. I’d like to be able to make enough money to live. With all I have going on you’d think I was living high on the hog. Far from it. Every month is a struggle to make enough money to survive so I guess in five years I’d like to see myself making more money. I know that sounds shallow but it’s the truth.

I’ve been working hard in this business for over 20 years and I’ve had glimpses of monetary success and notoriety but it’s never been consistent. The music biz is hard. Real hard, especially this day and age when music is free for the taking on the internet and budgets for production is bare bones.

So in five years, career wise, I’d like to see something really just take off for me. A song becoming a hit. An artist I’m producing or playing with taking off in some way. My surf band the Doke Ohms getting songs placed in commercials and movies. I want all this but it may or may not happen. I’m smart enough to know that in this business the work you put in doesn’t always add up to monetary success but I’d like some of that yes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I’m already a pretty content guy and I’m proud of what I have achieved so far.

This year, I am getting married for the first time to the love of my life who believes in me, and we have a townhouse overlooking an ever evolving downtown Nashville. With or without the big success I just hope in five years I’m as happy and productive as I am right now.

You can follow Shawn via twitter @shawnbyrnecountry or friend him on Facebook.

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