Jon Shain '89

Putting down musical roots
Writer: 
January 31, 2008
Jon Shain '89

Courtesy of Jon Shain

Technically, Jon Shain hasn't used the history major he pursued at Duke to make a living. But history turned
out to be perfect training for his trade as a professional musician and songwriter, sometimes more directly than you'd think. "Poetry and Sin," the lead-off track from Shain's 2005 album Home Before Long, paraphrases an old Mark Twain aphorism in the chorus: "History don't repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme."

Jon Shain-Home Before Long
 
 

"There's a lot of writing in history, and you learn to present an argument and be persuasive," says Shain, a native of Haverhill, Massachusetts. "You also learn to look at a set of accounts to see trends, so it makes you analytical. That helped lead me to the path I'm on. I learned a lot about the South and the African-American experience and the Piedmont blues tradition I never would have encountered had I stayed in Massachusetts. You can hear the records wherever you are, but that's not the same as meeting a seventy-five-year-old bluesman and sitting down to talk after the show."

In Durham, Shain's first mentor was Mark "Slewfoot" McLaughlin, whose   "Blues Train With Slewfoot" radio show aired on Duke's WXDU. Slewfoot hired Shain's collegiate blues-rock band to back him up, and also gave invaluable advice. Shain remembers Slewfoot playing Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf records for him and advising, "Listen to how little they play. You play too much."

Through Slewfoot, Shain met other area blues elders, including Big Boy Henry, John Dee Holeman, and Lightnin'  Wells. By the time Shain graduated, he was playing fingerstyle guitar in Flyin' Mice—an improvisational acoustic band that had the misfortune of being a decade ahead of its time, in that they predated Americana, jamgrass, and other niches that have blossomed since then.

"We had fans who would travel to multiple shows, and we were playing 100 dates a year from New England to Florida, as far west as Wisconsin, without a booking agency or publicist," Shain says. "In retrospect, we did pretty well. But none of us were able to put any money into our pockets, and if that goes on long enough, you start snipping at each other until it finally implodes."

Flyin' Mice called it quits in 1996. After a short-lived spinoff group, Shain released the first of his five solo albums in 1999. Since then, he has also worked with Dave Mattacks, drummer for English folk-rock legends Fairport Convention. Between performing and teaching, Shain has been able to stay on a self-imposed schedule of accomplishments.

"My goal was to be making a living playing music by the time I was thirty," he says. "The goal for forty was tougher—to be making a living on my own music, just writing and performing. On the other hand, that goal has become less important as I've embraced teaching more. I do workshops, it's adults-only, and it's great, very satisfying. As for fifty, I'd just like to get there. The main difference is I have a daughter now, and everybody being happy and healthy is more important.

"So the goals are maybe not as concrete as before," he adds. "It would be nice to keep playing. But the industry is in such flux, it's not clear anybody will even be buying music in ten years. Maybe I won't make CDs anymore. I hope to get better at writing, picking, and singing, because that's about all I can control."