Photo by Anne Fishbein

WEST COAST COUNTRY, FORMERLY A GLORIOUS and deeply influential movement with a sound as distinct as Memphis soul, is indisputably in its sorriest-ever shape. Once a thriving, nationally renowned community of California-based million-sellers (Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Tex Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ferlin Husky and Jean Shepard, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard) and less successful but equally high-impact performers (Merle Travis, Maddox Brothers & Rose, Wynn Stewart), California country singers today are an increasingly endangered species. Nationally, there are only two Coast representatives — Haggard and Dwight Yoakam; locally, there's an army of them, but the vast majority are either chained to the Hot Country Top 40, crippled by the New Depression's hillbilly-cliché mentality or falling into the self-indulgent Americana singer-songwriter bag. For fans reared on a previously intoxicating variety of talent (and who take all this country music stuff deadly serious), it is a terrible, depressing mess.

When one of us gets lucky enough to stray into a spot where Rick Shea is performing, it's like entering a dream state. Shea's mix of almost reverent dignity and sensitive interpretation, put over with one of the finest, most natural-born country baritones in the business, is stunning. The 45-year-old, San Gabriel Valley­based singer-guitarist's mix of Coast country standards, original songs and Tin Pan Alley numbers plays out like a pilgrimage to honky-tonk Holy Land. His guitar style is tasteful, skilled and vivid, gently recalling the intricacy of Bakersfield's Roy Nichols, and his low-key vocals, all warmth and simplicity, create an ideal showcase for any lyric.

Considering all the country mediocrity that surrounds him, it's notable that Shea owes little to the Golden State's torchbearers Haggard and Yoakam. Shea may worship the former, but not to the point of becoming another cut-and-paste sound-alike; he's the complete opposite of the latter, whose West Hollywood wardrobe, highbrow vocabulary and messages of deep personal pain appeal as much to rock fans as they do to contemporary-country listeners. Shea's understated approach is a talent earned in the late-night, Benzedrine-driven realm of San Bernardino roadhouses during the '70s and '80s, a time and place where he worked from 9 till closing, six nights a week, and could at any given time find himself sharing the bandstand with everyone from Fred Maddox to Johnny Rodriguez to the Palomino's cross-dressing C&W renegade Troy Walker.

“I used to work at Clyde's, Loretta's, the Fontana Inn — most of those places are gone now,” the Maryland-born, San Berdoo­raised Shea says. “And none of them were as rough as you might think. They were an older crowd, and they'd been goin' to these places since the days when they could go see Wynn Stewart. Basically, it was just hardcore working-class, a bunch of truck drivers and whores, there to do what they were doin', and they all seemed to like us a lot. The truck stops were different in that you could play more slow songs than I ever thought possible. Every other song was a slow one, because these guys were there to dance — and none of 'em were good dancers. They were there to hang out with these girls — well, a little more than hang out.”

The need to appeal to such a crowd and his own sense of craft forced Shea to develop a sincere country style: “The vocals were just a matter of trying to sing the songs, to try to enunciate, get the lyrics across clearly and just sing the notes. That's what singing is — you're basically working around your limitations. I pretty much sang the way I sing before I was really too familiar with any of this stuff. I was familiar with Merle Haggard from a pretty early age, but I was more connected to Buffalo Springfield and the Band when I was in high school. But that was also when I started listening to country radio, getting to know the songs. I'm such a huge fan of these older songs that even with my own writing I just try to structure them along those lines. After a certain point, they set their own mood, in a certain time, so I just try to stay in that, with the language and images I use.”

APART FROM THE BRILLIANT FIDDLER-MANDOLINIST Brantley Kearns, honky-tonk gal Kathy Robertson, not to forget Los Angeles stalwarts Cody Bryant, Heather Myles and Patti Booker, there are precious few other L.A. country artists focused more on expression than formula. Shea has an ongoing collaborative relationship with most all of these performers, but it's Kearns, who first came to national attention as a key member of Dwight Yoakam's band in the late 1980s, who provides the most fertile and ongoing partnership.

“I met Brantley in '90 or '91, through Heather Myles,” he says. “We played some places out in Riverside, did that for a while, then she did her first HighTone album. We went on the road a little, then Brantley and I just kept it goin'. A lot of us are so into that old country, but to me, Brantley seems to be of that era, like Eck Robertson or some '30s guy — a man out of time. He's amazing — has a solid background in jazz and R&B, knows the music and the performers. Brantley's got great control, great range as a singer, and he sings like nobody but himself. He's a direct connection — he's from High Point, North Carolina, grew up singing in church, he knows all those songs.”

One of the most remarkable aspects of Shea's career is the fact that he's not only survived but managed to earn a living and raise a family with neither a day job nor the traditional country artists' other economic booster, the annual European tour. Country music is about as far from being a viable meal ticket as one can get in the music business, and for a frontline honky-tonk man like Shea, survival translates into ceaseless toil at a sometimes marginal pay scale. Not that he's without cachet; Shea frequently tours as a sideman with Americana flag-bearer Dave Alvin, a job that's taken him to the stage of Madison Square Garden (where Alvin opened on a recent Bob Dylan­Joni Mitchell tour). Back home, opportunities remain slim. Shea and Kearns' mainstay booking is at a Burbank Mexican restaurant, Viva Fresh, where they set up on the cantina floor and wow the tequila-happy patrons several times monthly.

“Viva's is like home base now,” he says. “They treat us good, nobody has anything to say about what we do. It reminds me of some little place in Texas . . . There's nothing else like that around here anymore. I wish some other places would loosen up a little. There's a lot of talented people who'd come out to play just for fun. It is fun.”

Shea represents one of a very few tenuous links to an almost lost art form, yet his blend of industrious commitment and pure enjoyment in his work keeps him not only focused but constantly improving himself: “That's what you have to do — play these songs to stay familiar with them. I feel like I keep some sort of connection. Because if you get away from playing the songs for a while, then you're lost . . .”


Rick Shea appears at Viva Fresh, 900 Riverside Drive, Burbank, on Saturday, June 19. (818) 845-2425.

LA Weekly