RF Shannon : The Aquarium Drunkard Interview : Aquarium Drunkard


RF Shannon’s songs abound with references to the geography from which the music emerges, with the names of places, roads, flora and fauna adding both specificity and symbolic significance. Songwriter Shane Renfro began gestating 2019’s Rain On Dust in the far west Texas town of Marfa, and it showed. That album, RF Shannon’s third and strongest full-length up to that point, sounds as wide open as the Trans-Pecos region looks, desert-tinged folk-psych grandeur counterposing Renfro’s soft, often whisper-sung vocals. Renfro and his band, based in the central Texas town of Lockhart, have just released a very different and considerably steamier album with Red Swan in Palmetto, out digitally on Keeled Scales on May 26 with a physical release coming in the future. The LP takes its name and some of its inspiration from the tropical micro-region of nearby Palmetto State Park, said to be the western-most naturally occurring palmetto swamp in the United States.

Renfro’s vision is as sweeping as it was on previous albums, but a lot more gets in the way of the vistas in this part of the state. Opener “Palmetto” is a dark incantation: part Gris Gris-era Dr. John, part Brightblack Morning Light, and all humidity.  The characters inhabiting these songs are ephemeral, whether spectral as a “a disembodied spirit in the night” or fleeting and “light as a feather with an alibi,” but the album is thick with evocation of the earth, and the earthy pleasures, around them. This is sultry music, conjuring sensual glimmers in the smell of “Cedar Perfume,” the sound of rattlesnakes lurking in the bluebonnets, and that particular skin-feel of summer night air when a distant rain never arrives.

RF Shannon can still go big – the chorus on “Midnight Jewelry” alone is worth the price of admission – but there is something knottier and more enigmatic at work on Red Swan in Palmetto.  When we talked about the wild patch of land outside Lockhart that he’s been working on over the past decade-plus, Renfro mentioned that he doesn’t want to end up as “a lone man in the woods,” but it seems that these muggy, shadowy places suit him just fine. | w furgeson

Aquarium Drunkard: Do you think of albums or particular songs as being tied to the place that you conceived them or wrote them or recorded them?

Shane Renfro: Absolutely. Usually we’ll start cooking up an album based on a trip or being somewhere that’s new to me or that I’m exploring. Like this last one, when we went to Palmetto State Park, I was so enamored with it that I was just like, alright, this is the next album. And there are some songs on the album are kind of old that I resuscitated and revised a bit. But the main framework of it was definitely informed by being there and in a more swampy locale in general.

AD: Rain On Dust always sounded like West Texas to me, with “Wild Rose Pass” and the buzzards and the snakes and the cactus and everything.

Shane Renfro: Yeah, totally.

AD: And then on this one it’s instantly apparent that there’s a different palette.

Shane Renfro: We were doing demos for Trickster Blues, which is the album before Rain On Dust. Me and Jesse Woods. And we rented a house in Marfa for a month and we ended up staying three months. But that was when I started really connecting with the west and started kind of incubating ideas for Rain On Dust. And all the photos, even the back cover, the weird collage stuff, they’re all 35 mm photos from out there. So on the new one, all the photos are from Palmetto State Park or my place in Lockhart. I usually try to do a visual component that goes along with the place.

AD: So is it fair to call this your Lockhart album?

Shane Renfro: Well, in a way Trickster Blues is a Lockhart album too because we recorded it in Lockhart, but I’d kind of written that all over the place.  But there was definitely an intention with this one that was driven by moving back from L.A. and settling back down in Lockhart and taking trips to places around there, just further out east as opposed to west.  Kind of settling in to finding beauty in this area. Because sometimes it’s not as striking, obviously, as being out west or being in the Hill Country, but there’s something about the feeling that I get in this part of Texas in particular that feels very homey and comforting. So yeah, maybe this is the Palmetto album.  I’d seen dwarf palmettos growing native in understories, but had never seen them all grouped together like that.  And you have the Spanish moss, and the springs bubbling up.  It’s pretty primordial feeling.

AD: You live on some land outside Lockhart, right?

Shane Renfro: I’m trying to. We actually just paid it off yesterday.

AD: Congratulations.

Shane Renfro: Yeah, thank you. I’ve been trying to live out there for fifteen years. It’s a raw piece of land, no power, no water, you know, all that stuff. Basically everything I’ve done in my adult life has been trying to navigate towards getting out there because I didn’t want to wait.  A lot of people will work their asses off and then they’ll retire when they’re like sixty five or seventy, and then they’re on that piece of land.  I was like, I can’t do that.  There’s not any particular career that I’m gonna get promoted in or work my ass off in so I’ve just been trying to find little short cuts and ways to get out there. So I do spend a lot of time out there working on it, and I’ve tried to live there at various times when I was down and out, and I was like, well, fuck it, I guess I’ll just stay at the cabin, because there’s this little hunting cabin kind of thing out there.  But it’s tough, man.  It’s kicked my ass every time.  So now I want to do it right.  Get power and build it up.  I don’t want to be a lone man in the woods, but I want to live in the rhythm of nature.  So I think the songs are kind of grieving that I’m not yet in that rhythm.

AD: Are you always writing, or do you get into that mode when you know it’s time to make an album?

Shane Renfro: I’m always writing, but I’ll kick it into high gear whenever it’s time. I’m actually trying to move a little quicker. I think for a while I was moving pretty quick but this last album just kicked my ass so much that I just now started to think, OK, I’ve cleared the pipes, it’s time to start writing again. But typically I’ll write and it’s just little bits at a time. I don’t push it. I don’t ever sit down and write and think, alright, I’ve got the lyrics, I’ve got the chords, everything’s all worked out. It’s done.

I’ll have an arrangement or a groove and I’ll just keep working with that and then I’ll usually bring in the lyrics later.  It might take me months to do the lyrics.  I get afraid to make decisions because I don’t really like to write songs about any one thing, you know, it’s not like this song is about this. It’s just kind of impressions of whatever’s going on inside of me at the time.  So it can make writing kind of random and weird, you know.

AD: I think you and I first met at Sam’s Town Point a few South Bys ago, and at that point, you’d been working on the album but said you were kind of worn out with it.  Was it just getting to a point that the production aspect was beyond what you could handle?  What made you want to pull back and get other folks involved?

Shane Renfro: It was a little bit of everything.  I started demoing the album and I was just learning how to record and the pandemic hit and it was like well, shit, I guess I gotta do this all myself. So I started with Dublin (“Dublin, Texas”) first. I recorded that one and I was like, I can do this, but that one just came really easy for some reason. And then as soon as I started doing “Heathen Nights,” I was like, well, I can play the drums, but they’re very boring. I wanted to have more input so I just kept writing songs and then trying to play them and realizing I couldn’t do exactly what I was hearing.

So I used them all as demos and I just had to wait and wait until people started hanging out again and by then I’d tracked maybe three different versions of the songs just because I wanted to be active. But I was spinning my wheels. I think I got too familiar with the songs and tried to do too much on my own and I got jaded with myself and my ideas and the whole process. So when I met Rob Barbato, he mentioned that he was a fan and was down to work on stuff and he definitely revitalized the process.  Getting good musicians with good taste in a room, it starts going pretty quick.  Having some help and some fresh ears on it.

AD: I love how detailed you get about people’s specific contributions to the songs in the liner notes. And as you’ve rolled out these singles, you’ve posted explanations on Instagram going through exactly what every person brought to the table.  As a liner note obsessive, I love that stuff.  When you’re recording, are you thinking, I know that someone, say Jesse Woods, can do this one thing and I want Jesse to do that thing, or is it all coming together as you gather the group and sort of see what people show up with? 

Shane Renfro: Usually I do have some ideas. But Rob ended up remixing and tracking and adding new things to a lot of songs. He would just jump on an instrument and start doing something and I was like, that sounds fucking good. I had no idea that would be in there, but I love it. So I never anticipated those. But, like, Jesse Woods has a penchant for guitar bends and background vocals and certain things. So I’ll hear a song and I’m like, alright, Jesse will do that here. Or Luke [Dawson] the pedal still player, I want him to do this lick. And so sometimes I think I do hear it, but I’m also always open if somebody starts doing something really cool.  And moving forward I would like to do it that way. I’ve been struggling to get a solid band together because the pandemic hit right after I moved back. So we’re just now starting to get in the groove.  And it really is a full band effort, especially live. These aren’t the kind of songs where I can just sit down with an acoustic.

AD: Who is in the band right now?

Shane Renfro: Jeff (Shane’s brother, Jeff Renfro) has always been the drummer and Luke has always been the pedal still player. And on bass now is Chazz Bessette, who lives in Lockhart and owns a really cool music shop called Sunflower and Friends. And coincidentally the space where we recorded Trickster Blues is now that shop. And that’s where we practice. So it’s cool, we’re in the same room that we recorded in years ago. But that’s the band and then Rebecca Patek on fiddle. She’s such a bad ass. I kind of painted myself into a corner though because “Dublin, Texas” and “Abalone,” I really can’t play those songs live unless I have a fiddle player. So if I take this on the road, I have to have a fiddle.

AD: That fiddle sound is such a distinct part of this album.

Shane Renfro: I really like fiddle music of all kinds, but I was also interested in seeing if I could create a sound that is Texas music but in a way that’s not really been done before, you know?  Not as some sort of masturbatory exercise, trying to be ground-breaking just to do it, but certain fiddle styles do sound very derivative of certain traditions. Whether it’s old timey bluegrass or Texas swing.  And I also didn’t want it to sound like violin.  So the idea was to play these lead lines but still play it like a fiddle, you know? It ended up sounding interesting to me – sounds like a fiddle, but it also doesn’t sound like your expectation of a fiddle song.

AD: It’s not Bob Wills, and it’s not the first five seconds of every Ray Price song.

Shane Renfro: Exactly. So I want to give a nod to that because I love that kind of music.  But I’m like, well, I don’t have a Ray Price voice, so I’ve got to try to adapt the fiddle to my own style.

AD: What are some elements of Texas music that you think of as non-negotiable, stuff that has to be in there?  And what are some elements that were in older Texas music that you’re willing to cast aside as you seek out new sounds?

Shane Renfro: I want to use textures found in Texas music together in a way that isn’t derivative of what we think of as “Texas Music.” So fiddle and pedal steel are the main ingredients, with the fiddle being the Texas touch. A sense of place is common to most folk music traditions, but Texas has a long history of talking about itself in music, and I try to capture that, not so much in the lyrics themselves, as much as how they work with the instruments and space to create a feeling of place.

I’ve always been willing to cast aside anything that is overtly country, songwriter-y, or Americana-ish because it’s very easy to end up sounding derivative. So, I’m painting broad strokes and digesting a lot of different genres into a vague notion of Texas music. At the end of the day, I love it all – George Strait, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ramsay Midwood. I think Cactus Lee has actually done the best job lately making a more true-to-form Texas sound that is original. I’m just experimenting with some possibilities. 

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