Shannon Lawson Ready For His Place In The 'Sun'

Rarely, if ever, does a new artist emerge on a country label with a more diverse musical resume than Shannon Lawson. Like nearly all Kentucky-born musicians, Lawson cut his teeth on bluegrass music, p

Rarely, if ever, does a new artist emerge on a country label with a more diverse musical resume than Shannon Lawson. Like nearly all Kentucky-born musicians, Lawson cut his teeth on bluegrass music, performing with his family's band during his youth. Raised in Taylorsville, 40 miles southwest of Louisville, Lawson grew up dividing his time between harvesting tobacco with his father and uncles and playing music.

He formed his own band in high school, performing a blend of country and rock. After graduation, he headed to Louisville for college but ended up getting more of an education than he bargained for when a veteran blues musician named Top Hat hired him to play guitar in his band. The 18-year-old became the only white musician in an otherwise all-black band, where he played guitar and sometimes sang lead on blues classics.

"These people were really good to me," Lawson recalls of the band. "They taught me how to make a set list, how to be a professional musician. Top Hat taught me about black music. He told me Aretha Franklin was queen and James Brown was king."

In 1993, Lawson stepped out on his own to form the Galoots. The cutting-edge band became one of Kentucky's hottest acts, particularly among the college crowd. They recorded three independent albums and earned a devoted following. By 1998, Lawson and his wife, Mandy, decided to give Nashville a shot. But instead of rushing in and trying to conquer the country music world, Lawson approached this phase of his career cautiously.

"We planned on coming to Nashville and finding out what was going on," he says. "We wanted to be very careful about how we launched me as an artist."

After a while, Lawson decided to have the Galoots perform at the Station Inn, a Nashville venue well-known for great bluegrass and acoustic music. "Every time we played, the crowds got bigger and bigger," he recalls. "By the time we played three shows, I had several publishing and production offers. I didn't take a production deal, but I did sign with a publishing company."

That company was Extreme Writers Group, where Lawson began further honing his songwriting talents. His wife played a demo for Shane Barrett in MCA Nashville's A&R department, and Barrett immediately wanted to take it to Tony Brown, MCA's then-president, now a senior partner in the new Universal South label.

"I met with Tony Brown, and he asked me to do a showcase," says Lawson, who is booked by the William Morris Agency and managed by Nashville-based Turner and Nichols. "I was offered a deal the next day."

MCA Nashville chairman Bruce Hinton recalls being immediately impressed with Lawson's talent. "We had heard his voice on a couple of demos, but then I went to a showcase, and he was so compelling," Hinton says. "He is a fabulous performer. By the time he finished the set, we knew he had the total package. He's been performing since before he was 18, and it's really paid off. There's nothing like that experience."

That experience also served Lawson well when he went into the studio to record his debut album, "Chase the Sun," due June 4. Produced by Mark Wright, with Jason Hauser and Greg Droman as associate producers, the project showcases Lawson's impressive songwriting and his powerful, no-holds-barred voice (which has drawn comparisons to former New Grass Revival vocalist John Cowan).

"I wrote 60 songs," he says of getting ready for his debut album, "and I found that the less I tried to filter myself, the better off I was. I was writing two or three times a day. So I just picked the 11 best songs I'd written, and [I'd] drive around and listen to them. I'm a gut person. I went with the songs that felt best. You've got to keep it real, or it won't touch anybody."

The collection reflects Lawson's diverse musical background. Some songs have a very distinct bluegrass flavor; others tip a hat to his R&B days with Top Hat. Perhaps the song that best exemplifies Lawson's unique musical approach is a ramped-up bluegrass version of Marvin Gaye's classic "Let's Get It On." First single "Goodbye on a Bad Day" is No. 29 on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart this week.

"To me, the bluegrass aspect is flavoring, and he comes by it legitimately," Hinton says, "but he's more than bluegrass. His influences are very broad."

Consumers will get a chance to see Lawson during the week of the album's release, as he does in-store performances at Wal-Mart stores in 15 cities, among them Louisville; Greenville, S.C.; and Madison, Wis. He's also going to be part of AOL's developing-artist program, which will include audio and video streaming, and he will be featured on AOL Sessions in July.

Excerpted from the June 1, 2002, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the members section.

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