“Traditional” might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of a crew of twenty-somethings touring the country playing Americana music. But as you sit listening to Poor Old Shine rip through their set list of folk classics and homespun originals, you can’t help but think, damn, these guys are a throwback. From their well-worn flannel shirts to their wild, scraggly beards, and most importantly, their handcrafted musical style, these five young men out of Mansfield Connecticut harken back to folk’s glory days.
Formed at the University of Connecticut by singer and banjo player Chris Freeman along with Antonio Alcorn on the mandolin, this band has expanded into a complete folk ensemble, adding Max Shakun on guitar, pump organ and vocals, Harrison Goodale on the bass, and most recently, drummer Erik Hischmann. This band has an innate ability to inject new life into old folk classics, adding an exuberance rarely seen mixed with tunes by Dylan or Woody Guthrie. They have extended this infusion of old and new school into an expansive repertoire of original songs, including lighthearted tunes like “Weeds or Wildflowers”, reflective folk ballads like “Empty Rocking Chair”, and powerful, Band-like anthems such as “Tear Down The Stage”.
My introduction to Poor Old Shine came through guitarist Max Shakun’s younger brother, a friend of mine at Hamilton College. As he showed me a sampling of their Youtube videos, filmed in a UConn dorm room, I was immediately taken by their beautifully synchronized harmonies and driving rhythms. In the year and a half since, the band has seen a surge of success, playing for increasingly large audiences across the United States, and “living [the] dream” as Freeman says in their bio. They have played in venues from Tennessee to their home state Connecticut, recently released a self-titled studio album, and are now busy providing the music for David Farr’s “The Heart of Robin Hood,” playing at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston.
But for me, Poor Old Shine’s success is measured in much more than the venues they play or the albums they sell. Whether they realize it or not, they are a part of the music counterrevolution: they are the anti-Kanye, the anti-electronica, showing that contemporary music does not necessarily imply mechanization or convolution. They go against the grain of modern music: rather than adding barriers between musician and listener through computer generations, they have worked to eliminate these barriers. Though certainly refined by months of practice and tinkering, Poor Old Shine’s sound is the same as appeared on their dorm room videos: raw, untouched and full of human vigor.
Now I’m not here to criticize modern electronic music. In fact, anyone who knows me would attest that I greatly appreciate the energy and passion that comes through when electronic music is done with musicianship and meaningful content in mind.
However, there is a sincerity that Poor Old Shine captures with its unadulterated style that electronic bands fail to attain. Guitarist Max Shakun explains “…on our records you never hear auto tune or timing corrections. We want our music to sound just like we’re playing it in front of you.” There is no pretense or deception in the Poor Old Shine’s music. The band allows for musical imperfections, creating a decidedly human feeling, packed with emotion and passion. Like a shrewd old man, Poor Old Shine recounts their musical story with an emphasis on emotional, rather than technical truth. Their account may be imperfect, like the old man’s memory, lacking the perfect pitch ensured by the now ubiquitous synthesizers and auto-tune. Yet, just as the wise man can capture the emotional essence of a moment better than any historian, Poor Old Shine captures a sense of pure passion and human spirit better than any mechanization.
Their simple, honest lyrics add another layer of sincerity. Shakun explains that the band draws its inspiration from the “songs of the people…with honest lyrics about what was happening around the writers.” Poor Old Shine does not attempt to be anything it is not: they tell simple stories of the ups and downs of life on the road, reminisce of days gone by, and, of course, muse over their relationships with women. The band avoids the two most dangerous sins of songwriting: their lyrics neither lack substance nor disingenuously attempt to create it. Rather, they write about the things in life that truly matter to them, sharing a part of their personal life with the listener.
To be clear, the unfiltered nature of Poor Old Shine’s music certainly does not imply that it is unfinished or produced without hard work. In fact, the opposite is true; to share a product as personal as Poor Old Shine’s music requires a high level of self-assurance and a thus a strong work ethic. Because each song displays a part of the band members’ personalities, the members would not be willing to reveal their music to the public unless they truly believed it was their best work.
Yet the personal character of their music is also the source of self-assurance. The band members know that because they are putting themselves fully into the music, it is a product they can believe in. This is part of what makes Poor Old Shine so special: they play music that both necessitates and creates confidence. As a result, the band works tirelessly on its music (ask any of them about their time in the studio) and produces a refined, but still emotionally charged result.
However, even with belief in oneself, it takes great courage to reveal a product as personal as Poor Old Shine’s music. To reveal for public assessment and scrutiny something that you truly believe in is a frightening task, but even more so when that product is raw and unadulterated. With the band’s unfiltered style there is nothing to hide behind: no computerized corrections or superficial lyrics; it is all Poor Old Shine on the track, up-close and personal. They have the guts to put aside worries of how other people might judge their music and simply produce music that they are proud of and that reflects who they are.
There seems to be some wisdom, some special intangible quality in Poor Old Shine’s throwback style. The rich bellowing of their hundred-year-old organ displays an age-cultivated sound and a purity that the perfect pitch of a synthesizer simply cannot capture. Their labor-intensive harmonies endow the lyrics with more passion than a pitch shifter ever could. The band gives a knowing nod to history, as if to say that they’ve rediscovered its secret: music is an emotional endeavor, and is only as good as the people that create it. It cannot be deceived, nor sweet-talked. In the end, you only get out of it what you put in, and for Poor Old Shine, that is a whole lot of energy and passion.
Granted, Poor Old Shine is not the only modern day band following this handcrafted model. The Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and many other acoustic bands have a similar unadulterated style. So what makes Poor Old Shine different? Why should we listen to them when there is a whole world of other similar bands? For one, they are more versatile than most of their contemporaries. In listening to their album, one song may sound like The Band, the next like Pete Seeger, and another like Woody Guthrie. But more importantly, you can distinctly hear Poor Old Shine on every track. In other words, though they respect the rich musical tradition that precedes them, they do not try to sound like anyone else. As Shakun says, “We are just writing what we feel and seeing where it takes us.” Because the feeling behind each song is so personal, Poor Old Shine, like any good band, plays in a style that is completely their own.
In writing songs in a meaningful, personal way, Poor Old Shine has already achieved true musical success through free emotional expression. However, emotional expression doesn’t exactly pay for rent, and thus as the band pursues and attains more and more material success (as I hope and believe they will), they must avoid the temptations that accomplishment can bring. For one, they must avoid getting too caught up in past successes. They should let their style evolve, rather than trying to recreate certain songs or sounds that were particularly popular. From what I’ve seen, Poor Old Shine already embraces this evolutionary approach, continuously developing and tinkering with their songs. For example, the studio version of their song “Footsteps in My Ear” is a far cry from the dorm-room tune I first heard. That being said, Poor Old Shine shouldn’t change their music or style just for the sake of changing. Over-complication and convolution can be destructive, especially when starting with a product as pure as Poor Old Shine’s music.
With the increasing pressure of these temptations, the next few years may be the greatest test of Poor Old Shine’s fortitude and dedication to musical purity. However, they must keep in mind that music has a way of rewarding its truest disciples with longevity and success; it has given the likes of Guthrie, Cash and Dylan a musical influence that has transcended generations. If Poor Old Shine sticks to its current approach and its members keep playing what they feel, the band will be working towards something far more significant and rare than material success: a musical legacy.