Second chances: Tony James Shevlin back in Ipswich for Music Day

Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin - Credit: Archant

Martin Chambers talks to the musician about Nashville, a new album, and sounding like Hugh Grant

Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin - Credit: Archant

Tony James Shevlin is a rare breed indeed. The man puts most people in their 50s to shame, me included. While I dreamed of writing great songs, playing the guitar and stepping on to a stage, he was doing it.

Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin - Credit: Archant

Our paths have crossed and re-crossed over the years since 1970 at Hampden Park in Glasgow like scenes from Sliding Doors, only for us to finally meet in the late 1990s in Ipswich. Tony has worked wherever he could to pursue his love of music. From working in music shops to working in newspapers writing about music (where I met him), to finally teaching music at Suffolk New College and all the while gigging and writing new songs.

The rock and roll lifestyle takes its toll (I know, I raided a hotel mini-bar once). For Tony, it was having a hip replaced. Not quite as rock and roll as Keith Moon or Jim Morrison, but the result of a lifetime gigging, standing on one leg like Ian Anderson in Jethro Tull or on the wah-wah pedal like Peter Frampton. But Tony tells me his new hip is made from parts of John Lennon’s old Fender Stratocaster and the piano he recorded Imagine on, and that injection of Beatle juice has invigorated him to release a new album.

The inspiration for that album was a recent trip to Nashville. Asking his adoring public (Fred and Hilda Sheepshanks) what he should play while in the cradle of rock and roll, they gave him a surprising playlist, some so old it was written in the key of S (for Sanskrit) and he had forgotten how the songs went.

I caught up with Tony after he had finished an acoustic set at the May Day Festival in Alexandra Park in Ipswich. How did it go, I asked: “Really well,” he said, “but when I got up on the stage the crowd were still booing the act that was on before me.”

I was talking about Nashville and the album, but he was still on his set.

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His album and Nashville are like Bible characters ? they begat each other.

“It all started when I decided to go to Nashville. I’d always wanted to go, and I wanted to take something with me to play, so I was going to make a little EP. When I started thinking what songs should I do, I put the word out to people that have known my music over the years and I got back all these ideas for songs to do and some I could not remember.

“A guy from Spain contacted me to say he used to watch me in the Cartoon pub in Croydon and said I used to do a song called Paradise South Ealing. I thought, blimey, I haven’t sung that in 20 years. So it made me think, when I was getting together the set I was going to play, were there other songs that I had forgotten about.

“When I put the word out, all these songs kept coming back. The set list was changing on a almost daily basis as I found more songs.Then, when I was over in Ireland this young lad said play this song, and it was Heart And The High Moral Ground, the third track on the album. And I said to him, how does that go, and he played it to me and I said, yeah I remember. My wife was standing there and she said: ‘I’ve always loved that one.’ And I said, you might have told me.

“So it was important to revisit songs, give them a new lease of life, and do them the way I’d always heard them in my head. Cut Me, for instance, I’ve had that song for 20 years. This time I’ve recorded it with voice and piano and that’s how I’ve always heard it.”

The album, Songs from The Last Chance Saloon, was released on CD from Oh Mercy Records on May 31.

The title is from a line in one of the songs, and as Tony says: “A lot of the songs for me are about redemption, about getting a second chance if you like, so The Last Chance Saloon is about getting that second or last chance.”

So, how did Nashville take to you?

“It was really interesting to take my songs over to Nashville and see how they stood up, and they were accepted really well. The whole city seems to be focused on the song writing, it is all about the song.

“The people there, when they talk about a new album, they don’t talk about the album, they talk about the songs on it, and they talk about who wrote that. Because everybody seems to be a writer, whether they are a waiter or a bellhop, when you ask them what do you do, they say I’m a songwriter.

“Most of the people you meet are not from Nashville, they have gravitated there from all over the country, and I was something of a novelty.

“Every time I opened my mouth it was ‘oh my god, you’re English?’ I could hear myself getting posher and posher as the time went on and in the end I was Hugh Grant. I actually said ‘gosh’ at one point.”

Tony played at the Bluebird Café and gigged at open mic sessions with his new album set, played in a recording studio on Music Row, and in a music bar would pass the bourbon round as the guitar and the songs went round a group of songwriters.

He sang at the Ryan Auditorium, the old home of the Grand Ole Opry. “I paid to do the tour and paid an extra $10 to stand on stage and get my picture taken. I was waiting in the line thinking Johnny Cash, Patsy Kline, Hank Williams stood here.

“And then when I got on stage they handed me a prop, a Martin guitar, and I strummed it, and it was in tune, so I started singing Your Cheatin’ Heart, quietly at first.

“The guy taking the photos shouted: ‘Belt it out, sir,’ and so I did. The acoustics in the place were amazing. The people queuing up doing the tour started clapping and when I finished they gave me a big round of applause. That’s going on the CV.”

n Tony James Shevlin plays Ipswich Music Day on July 6, and will appear at Folk East, and the Secret Garden Party in Huntingdon.

n Songs from The Last Chance Saloon is available in independent record shops like Time Out in Ipswich or to download from