Shane Leonard: Sonic Traditions in Eau Claire, WI

Seth Adam Langreck


Narration: Persuading people to listen to your cause seems to come easily for some people.  Great speech writers, great orators, and great musicians have even come to a cross road where greatness is not measured by skill or merit, but by getting the people around them to listen more than a few seconds and embrace themselves with sound.  The sounds that surround Shane Leonard invite people into a world of travel, wonder, relationships, warmth, and the hills Americana.  By letting listeners into his tonal setting, a soundscape of a young man’s journey envelopes an audience, making them consider or reconsider how American Roots music survives in a new millennium.


Shane: “What made me start writing? Probably well I played; I had been playing music for a while, since the first grade. I was in jazz band in high school and some bands in high school. And I think I first tried to starting writing lyrics while I was in high school. Because I was a drummer,   I wanted to do something that contributed to more of the melody, what was going on in the song, in a melodic sense. So I tried to write lyrics.”


Narration: Many of Shane’s songs are composed between his broom-stick kitchen and the bedroom he shares with fellow musician and partner Jess Macintosh.  After graduating from college, moving to Boston, teaching English, and performing throughout the country, Shane continues to merge his passions: music and literature.  Putting aside his aspirations to teach English, he manages to provoke his audience with narrative style songs, pushing them to study the lyrics and themes he explores with his work.  After taking many trips to the Appalachian Mountains and the surrounding areas, he has adapted his approach to folk music by connecting classical folk melodies with modern literary classics to explore an understanding of personal relationships.  Before he starts to write his songs, he often reflects on his primary skill as a musician; a percussionist; and his early endeavors as a jazz drummer at Arrowhead High School and the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.


Interviewer: “Did you find your position as the drummer, that position in the band, was that too limting for you when you wanted to may be communicate something or was it a natural thing I want to do lyrics. I want to expand as a song writer?


Shane: “Yeah, at that age for some reason I was getting bored with playing drums. I think I just needed to explore some different areas of making music before I came back to that. In like a way that I enjoyed it more. Almost all the music I listened to and almost all the music I played was jazz. In jazz combos. And in the big band at school. And in the big band from Waukesha, Wisconsin that I subbed with. But then like from that jazz influence I was also kind of into jam bands. You know Phish and stuff like that. But at the end of high school, I also got into blue grass somehow. And I started to take an interest in folk musicians that were also improvisational.  So like Chris Steely and Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck . . . the Flecktones I listened to a lot.”


Narration: “Transitioning from jazz to folk has come naturally to Shane.  As a follower of Coltrane to Dylan, some people may be surprised to hear what Shane, an eclectic musician, wants to surround himself with.”


Shane: “I like. . . I like to have a lot of quite actually. I like to have very little sound around me [laughs]. A part of me just really wants to move out into the country, get a house in the country and not have anything around.”

Interviewer: “So like no city sound?

Shane: “Yeah. No city sound.”

Interviewer: “Okay.”

Shane: “I really don’t like city sounds very much.


Over the last few years that I spent the most time learning about which is a lot of traditional southern and Appalachian music and a lot of traditional music from the British Isles. There aren't too many people that are into that and so I think in a way haven’t really had to think about ‘Oh I don’t want to look like so and so’ because I think I have been a little unique by default around here. But at the same time that are a lot of rock bands around here and, and indie rock with electric guitar is bigger around here than folk music. So I think that has definitely had an influence in like wanting to bring a more experimental, avant-garde side to the folk music.”


Narration: “By opening himself to genres outside of traditional folk music, Shane has exposed others to folk.  He expresses a growing popularity among younger generations that have taken American roots music and shared it with others.  This practice has aided him and other musicians in a continuation of classic Folk ballads.”


Shane: “It’s really awesome to connect with American music. At first it seemed like it was pretty obscure, but the more that I learned about it, there is such a wealth of this music going on. Yeah, there are the old timers and there are defiantly fewer and fewer of them every week.  Like you hear about a total, a total master of the music, of singing or of banjo or of fiddle or whatever, passing away. Which is really sad and just kind of too bad because these people are mostly under-recognized. But the more and more I get into it, there are so many people like our age, like younger folks in their 20s and 30s, who are picking up the music and who are like learning all these fiddle tunes and all these banjo tunes and all these songs. Ballad singers and instrumentalists.  And aren't just like, they are just satisfied with the idea of preserving it.  And it’s not like a, it’s not like a science project that you put in, you embalm or something.  They are learning the tunes but also putting their own spins on them and like moving the tradition forward. So it’s totally, a very alive tradition. It’s obviously not mainstream at all, but it is at the total core of U.S. history.”


Narration: “Shane’s attraction to the banjo is similar to his listener’s reaction to his music: warmth.  As he develops his songs, he stays with sounds and instruments that persuade his listeners to keep anticipating what will happen next, what lessons will his song display, and what destinations will be visited during the development of his work.  Even during this interview, he cannot help himself from opening the hearth of personality and teaching listeners the techniques he uses. “


Shane: “Bluegrass banjo is little three finger rolls [musical riff] so you are using all three fingers [musical riff] to pick the banjo. Whereas claw-hammer is like a totally different movement that has a different sound [musical riff]. So it has a totally different sound, but that style of banjo playing comes from Africa and it is very percussive. Like you are moving your right hand in a percussive motion and you’re using your left hand in a percussive way like hammering your fingers onto strings and pulling them off to make sounds between right hand notes. So it is a lot like drumming. And so getting into the banjo got me into like traditional American music.  I am more attracted to warm, round banjo sounds. A more melodic banjo sound. And you tend to find that with more open back banjos, like this one. I would, I guess I would characterize this one as having a warmer sound [banjo riff]. That’s, that’s not your typical bluegrass banjo sound. So that’s what gets me more into it. And then there’s also, you know gourd banjos that have like you know gut or nylon, you know gut impression strings that have an even warmer sound [banjo riff].”


Narration: “Experimenting with sound and genre has opened different avenues for Shane.  Even if he is experimenting with sounds, he often starts with his beloved Appalachian melodies, taught to him by veteran masters of the American Roots music.  His current project, a rendition of “Beautiful Doll”, mixes his respect for his adopted teachers: Frank Lee and John Cheever.  In Cheever’s story “The Enormous Radio” two characters examine the lives of their neighbors by listening to neighborhood conversations through a radio. This dismantles the public images of the neighborhood and dismantles the lives of the protagonists.  Shane’s lyrics tackle this same paradigm of human relationships proposed by Lee and Cheever.”


Shane: “It's a melody called ‘Beautiful Doll’ I learned from Frank Lee who’s a banjo player that lives in Bryson City, NC. And when he taught me it, I thought that it sounded really, very lyrical, like it could be a song more than just a banjo tune. And I don’t know if there are any lyrics to it or not. I haven’t really found any. But I thought I would write some lyrics to it and at the same time I was reading this John Cheever short story called “The Enormous Radio” [laugh]. And it is about this guy and this wife, Irene.”


“I put that in first and then it goes into the melody [banjo riff].  But in the song version of that I lengthened the part that goes up high because there are lyrics that have to fit in there.  Instead of going [banjo riff] I go [banjo riff]. I kind of simplify it and stretch it so instead of going [banjo riff] ‘Laid alone upon the leaves that from them fell will I.’ So that, so there’s a pause there. And then it goes a couple times after that, it goes into the B part. Which is that [banjo riff]. And that stays. That’s pretty much the same between the original and the song. And it always returns back to that like home base.  Which is that [banjo riff].


Narration: “Shane never departs from caring about what messages his music sends.  As he has progressed as a songwriter, he aspires to strip many of his works down to fundamental cores, verses; and forcing listeners to connect the images and ideas he floats through his arrangements.  Keeping his music carefully adored has opened his ability to write clever metaphors that urge listeners to stay in the story that his words illustrate.”


Shane: “In a lot of old songs, the…the verse is the whole form of the song, in itself. It’s the kind of thing where…kind of what was going on in that song where it is like melody and lyrics. It’s with that same melody and just the instrumental melody again and more lyrics to that melody. And kind of that back and forth between that for like… a long time. And…and that’s what a lot of my songs have been lately.  And I am really attracted to that because it doesn’t have that crutch of a bridge and a chorus.  And I like writing songs with a chorus.  It’s nice to have a hook to come back that kind of like drives in that nail, like the point of the song, like reminding the listener: and this is how that last verse related to this one point.”


“With any kind of art form…if you take…if you take away as many of your options as possible. You know, if you were going to make a painting and you had twenty different colors to choose from and mix together there’s a lot you could do. But there is also…there is a lot of distractions in that. Whereas if you just had a canvas and like red paint and some other color [laugh] you’d…that really forces you to like think more carefully. With my writing, I really like writing lyrics. And just as a book nerd, I really…I like to write. So lyrics are really important parts of my songs and this format, where it’s just the verse and the melody, cause the listener to focus in closer on the lyrics.”


Interviewer: “So what are some of your favorite lines in this sing or some that you really feel have captured…you know that original idea that Cheever had and your…your new instantiation of it?”


Shane: “Sure. Like the one line that goes…I think ‘Soft brown hair, her features plan [banjo riff] ‘Soft brown hair, her features plan.’ Because it’s like really normal characteristics that are kind of like unadorned and there’s kind of like a beauty in that. And I think at the beginning of the song that comes off like ‘oh she’s nothing special,’ looks wise. But by the end of the song, if you are listening to the lyrics may be you understand that was, that’s a good thing. [banjo riff] ‘I’ve seen bright days and darken nights/ Planted hearts that grew from seed to spite/ Laid alone upon the leaves that from them fell/ Will I ever be your beautiful doll?’ Just as an English nerd, I really like some tasty, like alteration and consonance and things. So that line ‘Planted hearts that grew from seed to spite/ laid alone upon the leaves that from them fell,’ I just think that’s like…I feel good about that extended metaphor. Of like comparing a relationship to a plant. And like that idea of planting a seed and what does it grow into and then it comes full circle with like… ‘Laid alone upon the leaves that from them fell.’  I like invested in this relationship and by the end of it, I’ve been left alone and it’s dead.”


Narration: “In the end, after Shane preforms his songs, it is the sounds and messages that are left.  Among his final remarks, he reflects on the relationships between musician and work, performer and audience, and music and fan.  The responses and intentions in these relationships is what’s left behind. Through this wake of interactions, he leaves his final thoughts about his music.”


Interviewer: “Do you feel that the songs and the sounds that you have been able to produce are an accurate representation of yourself?”


Shane: “Yes because it came from myself. You know like, it’s just me. It’s a part of me if I like or not, or whether I like the song or not. Whether it’s crap or gold I made it. But then there’s the whole idea of everyone interprets a song differently. So if you heard one of my songs, you bring your own experiences to it. And so maybe your interpretation of the song isn’t a representation of myself as much as it is of yourself.”


Lyrics to “Beautiful Doll” as they appear in the song on January 10, 2013:


In Sutton lived a girl Irene

Soft brown hair, her features plan

To her lover James she often call

And ask to be his beautiful doll


All in envy she compare

Features plan to others fair

She went to James all sad and lonesome

She said to him these words


I’ve seen bright days and darken nights

Partnered thirteen years and married nine

And across those many years I saw

Will I ever be your beautiful doll?


I’ve seen bright days and darken nights

Partnered thirteen years and married nine

And across those many years I saw

You’ll never be my beautiful doll


For a doll’s heart can love but once

Looks upon itself and one else

Selfish hearted you’ll never be

Oh my darling come and go with me






music, folk, sound, banjo