I can’t say that I’ve been a huge fan of Styx at any point in my life. I don’t know much about this legendary band, but I know enough that I was surprised to hear Tommy Shaw, the guitarist, released a bluegrass album on March 22. As a Tennessee native, I’ve been around bluegrass my whole life, and I wasn’t convinced that Shaw could pull it off. Fast forward to me sitting with the album, bopping my head to “Back in Your Kitchen,” and blushing with pure chagrin when I read that Tommy Shaw is Montgomery, Alabama native. Of course he knows bluegrass, and that shows with The Great Divide.
There are some things I might have to take exception to, being the bluegrass lover that I am. After years in a studio, the man certainly strives for perfection. On a bluegrass album, that can come across as over-produced, and there are occasions when that happens here, most notably in “Shadows in the Moonlight.” At times when he could have just let the vocals fly, I felt he held back the best of what he has. There is a lot of room for mistakes in bluegrass, because that’s actually where the heart and soul of the music lies. Shaw might have done better to step on those cracks rather than leaping over.
None of this really takes away from the smooth simplicity of the album, which actually hearkens back to some of the early bluegrass years. Some might feel the lyrics are stereotypical, while others feel that it’s bluegrass coming home. With assistance from some music greats, these tunes get some guts they might have otherwise lacked. You’ll recognize Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam, among others. With these harmonies added to his masterful mandolin skills, particularly in the title track, the music is easy, fun, and calls to mind country nights with sweet tea and stars bright above. It’s not earth shattering, but it does have moments of excellence. A particular favorite was “Get on the One,” where I felt he let go of some of that rock star control and just played. As a bluegrass album, it’s real and true, and it should be recognized as such, but it might not be your favorite.