Tommy Shaw’s heartfelt solo bluegrass album was released 7 years ago today on March 22, 2011. 

by Mike Mettler

The Great Divide, Tommy Shaw’s fifth solo studio album and his first foray into bluegrass, was released on CD and LP by Pazzo Music/Fontana 7 years ago today on March 22, 2011.

Co-produced by Shaw, Brad Davis, and Will Evankovich and recorded at Sound Emporium in Nashville and The Shop in Los Angeles, The Great Divide showcases Tommy’s downhome roots like never before, as the Montgomery, Alabama native enlisted the likes of Alison Krauss and Dwight Yoakam (background vocals), Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes (dobro), Byron House (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Scott Vestal (banjo), Chris Brown (drums), and the aforementioned Davis and Evankovich (guitar) to help get across his singular vision.

From the opening can’t-go-wrong stomp of “The Next Best Thing” to the press-on fortitude of “Umpteen Miles” to the acoustic-driven historical tale of a certain piano playin’ president in “Give ’Em Hell Harry” (your Styxologist’s personal favorite track on the album), The Great Divide is perhaps the best realization of the indelible DNA that’s essentially been at the core of every song Shaw has ever written.

And, as some of you may recall, Tommy played a pair of tracks from the album — namely, “The Great Divide” and “I’ll Be Coming Home” — during the solo show he performed alongside Will Evankovich, conductor extraordinaire Liza Grossman, and the Contemporary Youth Orchestra at Waetjen Auditorium at Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio on May 27, 2016. That concert, known as Sing for the Day, has since aired multiple times on AXS TV (and it may be headed for a home-video release sometime in the hopefully not-so-distant future).

You may also have also seen footage of Tommy and Will pickin’ and grinnin’ on “I’ll Be Coming Home” at the Grand Old Opry on March 26, 2011 during the week of the album’s release, and/or heard him improvise a few Great Divide-culled lines, lyrics, and/or licks while strumming one of his acoustic guitars before diving into certain signature Styx songs of his onstage every now and again.

In a Styxworld exclusive, Tommy recalls the origins of this most special, personal work in his recorded canon to date. Give ’em hell, Tommy.

Tommy Shaw: As I look back, this album is up there on the short list with of the most fulfilling projects I’ve done — so far.

It is very reminiscent of the way The Mission [Styx’s triumphant 2017 studio album] came to be. It came from out of the blue, and just kept coming. And it was done in secret, because it’s always perilous to subject new ideas to the possibility of rejection before they’re fully thought out and fleshed out.\

I hadn’t played it for anyone until one night when my wife Jeanne had a bunch of her favorite girlfriends — all in either the music or film/television industry — over for a get together in the house while [co-producer] Brad Davis and I were across the patio in the studio.

By that time, we were getting close to having all the songs written and properly demo’d. I decided to ask if they’d like to hear what we had. We were nervous, of course, because it wasn’t the kind of music they were accustomed to hearing from me.

But they kinda flipped out, because it was for real — and the songs were good.

A few minutes later, Jeanne came back over to me and said, “You need a song like John Prine’s ‘Jesus the Missing Years.’” [“Jesus” is the last track on Prine’s quite fine 1991 alt-folk album, The Missing Years.]

I’d just read David McCullough’s Truman [the critically acclaimed 1992 biography of Harry Truman], so when Jeanne went back to the house, I immediately wrote a few verses, and called her back. That was “Give ’Em Hell Harry,” which we then cut a few versions of until I got the one Brad and I liked.

When you get in the zone, things just flow. It’s the getting there part that’s so unpredictable. I never thought of TGD as a something that would become a blockbuster LP — just something I felt compelled to express.

And, as it turns out, The Great Divide ended up being my mother’s all-time favorite record that I ever made. It really was an act of love. It was me paying tribute to the music that I heard when I was little. I used to be able to hear the Grand Old Opry at night on the radio. And we’d see Porter Wagoner and other artists on a local TV show called The Country Boy Eddie Show. They played that kind of music.

Not only that, but a bandmate of mine, Ricky Parsons — who we all called Jabbo — had an uncle, Billy Byrd, who played in one of Hank Williams’ bands, and he knew all of that music. Whenever he would come over, Jabbo would call me up and say, “Uncle Billy’s coming!” So I’d get in the car and run over there, and we’d all sit around and play Hank Williams tunes. I mean, it just goes on and on. It was part of my upbringing.

To finally have a chance to put together those songs that were bouncing around in my head and give voice to them on The Great Divide — I haven’t been the same since, to be honest with you. That voice has been awakened in me, and there are more songs being written. I don’t know when I’ll get around to putting them all on an album again, but they’re out there, and they’re in here! (chuckles heartily) So, yeah, I’m really glad I made that record. I got to work with some of the greatest Americana and bluegrass musicians in town, and it really did just open up a new door that I’m certainly not interested in closing anytime soon