NSV

Tommy & Shanna

A Risk and the Road to Music City

Zigzag Black

With all sincerity, I will say that I’ve never been to a city quite like Nashville, TN. The city never sleeps; music and neon signs navigate the streets inviting urbanites into bars and venues for every variety of sounds. There’s a certain electric buzz, both literally and metaphorically, that flows around this metropolis. Many talented musicians see Nashville as the musical mecca of the south and have migrated here in hopes of making their dreams a reality. Tommy and Shanna are two such musicians who have made it their life’s ambition to pursue music. They migrated to Nashville, considering it the quintessential stepping stone to a full time gig.

I met up with these two at Barista Parlor, one of Nashville’s premier coffee shops. The interior boasts of antique lights, exotic coffee apparatuses, and bohemian decorations, deer antlers to be exact. A fleet of vintage motorcycles line aligned at the front, and an American flag draped triumphantly in the background. It is there that I begin to learn of their individual journeys to Nashville, their musical beginnings, and current inspirations.

Although Shanna came to be a singer, and Tommy a guitar player, they are both here for the same reason: seeing their music reach the world. Shanna has a voice that soars, and yet respectfully compliments the dynamics of the song. Her voice carries the maturity of Adele, but with a country twang. However, it’s an authentic twang, not one steeped in the commercialism of production and glamour. Tommy plays the guitar with the same efficacy that an Olympian would perform; he trains similarly, too. Like many dreams though, they started small – and, for Shanna, in the country.

Shanna’s vocal career began at the age of three in the small rural town of Reeltown, AL. Her first performance? Amazing Grace in her grandparent’s country church. Her grandparents raised her and she attributes her talent to her Granddad. “With him being my father figure, I naturally looked up to him. He played piano like Jerry Lee Louis and sang like Johnny Cash.” I instantly imagine Shanna’s home being filled with deep vocal bass tones and rowdy, swinging piano parts – effectively, bootstompin’ music. Shanna’s performance soon earned her a part as the youngest member in her churches’ choir. While other kids were playing with their pets, Shanna set up stage in the backyard singing her heart out to her attentive, stuffed animal audience.

Despite the lack of applause, these performances were the start of a passionate vocal career.

While Shanna spent her childhood in church choir, Tommy found the start of his guitar obsession in Big Air guitar competitions on his bed. He took an interest in music when he started taking guitar lessons from his best friend’s step-dad. Like many people who go on to refine their craft, Tommy had a “coming of age,” moment, and it started with none other than Grunge Rock. Tommy recalls, “the raw aggression of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam was the first time that I began to experience the emotional power of music.”

Tommy_Instrument

This discovery of musicians would be an on going process for Tommy. Artist obsessions turned from Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd. Speaking of Gilmour, Tommy remarks “He isn’t overly extravagant, but he says so much with each phrase. [..] there’s an emotive force that [his] music has, and a place it can touch that words can’t.”

High school would be a time for both Tommy and Shanna where their identity and future hopes directly tied into their musicianship. However, college would prove to be a season of wrestling and ambiguity as to whether the music industry had space for them. College often initiates a collision of our deepest convictions and the world’s realities. It’s a place of contradictions: life long friends are made, and life long beliefs are questioned; we form new dreams, while the naivety of old ones are exposed. One day the prophecy of old ambitions seems fulfilled, and the next we have no life direction. Tommy and Shanna’s experience was no exception. Both attended Auburn University. With Shanna playing softball for Auburn, she had little time to devote to music. But after her third shoulder injury, she looked back at the possibility of music with a revived excitement.

She soon found herself out in Los Angeles auditioning for Glee, working long hours, and getting a first-hand look at the performance industry. Although Glee didn’t work out for her, she marks it as a profound experience in realizing the true potential of being a full time musician. She also realized that she needed to be in country music, not Broadway or performance television. That’s when she made the decision to go to Nashville. “As much as I am a Type A person and not spontaneous, I made the decision to come to Nashville with a lot of naivety. I thought I would come here, and everything would fall in to place. It has; but it’s been a huge process.” Shanna recounts her first memories of Nashville: “When I first moved to Nashville, the first three months were miserable. I had no friends. There were weeks where I didn’t talk to a human. I told my aunt that my six month lease was up, and I’m coming home.” In a moment of wise encouragement, her aunt urged her to stay – reminding her this was her time to pursue music. The next week, she met Jenny, her new manager, a woman who has helped manage some of country’s biggest stars, including Reba McEntire.

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Tommy describes a similar fear of pursuing music: “For me, I had to get over my financial fear, and not having the status of whatever ‘Said Job.’” The music industry is one of the most veiled careers out there. The public greatly attributes the success of musicians to – if we’re honest – magic. Well, magic and a lot of talent. Very rarely is there a realization of what actually goes into making a record, getting air time, and subsequently making a living as a musician. Magic is hard to believe and so most “responsible, non risk-taking,” individuals view the path of a musician with a thick lens of skepticism. But Tommy and Shanna elaborate on their insight into the industry. Shanna emphasizes that “it’s not just talent, or a pretty face, or getting in front of a lot of people and being able to perform. It’s all of those things, while still maintaining the integrity of my artistry.” Tommy further proposes, “You don’t see the progress that the musician makes from the outside. People only see: you’re not making it; now you are. But there are a lot of steps that it takes to get there. In terms of work ethic, Shanna and I are cut from the same cloth. Coming to Nashville was unfamiliar territory. I knew I wouldn’t be the best, but I could work hard. I have a hard time believing success results from raw talent; it’s about work ethic.”

There lives emit a certain exhilaration, but it’s also intimidating. They compete daily with thousands of other musicians for a place in musical history. They can do all of the right things and still they run the risk of not making it. However, I often remind myself that the effort – the attempt to make something of your dreams and talents – is the memorable thing; the journey becomes the story worth telling. Making it is a huge pay off, but it’s not everything. Shanna confidently remarks, “We both have jobs and we are able to chase our dream, too. My grandmother reminded me that ‘we are one of the lucky few.’ Our dream happens to be in a different universe, but we’re going to get on a rocket and go there.”

As our time together closes, Shanna shares the inspiration behind her songwriting. She writes songs that are an extension of her own personal experience – hence, the raw honesty in her songs. She admits and accepts that most of her songs have heavier content. “My mother had a substance addiction for most of my life, though she’s clean now, and my father was an alcoholic. So, my aunt and grandparents raised me.” Shanna’s songs breathe in the brokeness of family, but they also exhale it’s saving graces. She continues, “[My songs tell] the untold stories of small towns. They have a meth lab down the road that looks like a house, and you don’t expect it. You expect fishing, four-wheeling, etc. I talk about it because my mom had my older sister, Summer, when she was 16. She rocked as a mom from what I’ve been told until she started using substances, but she also had wits to leave us with grandparents. A lot of perspectives in this situation and I choose to see the positives. ‘Dietress Faughter,’ is song about my mom. It’s about her making a positive choice in her life after living young, and wild, and free. My mom, before she had my sister, was president and captain of everything. For all intents and purposes, her and I are very similar. Feel like I was born to make her wrongs my right; I feel like that’s my purpose. The song is about a woman making mistakes and making them right. Choosing to save me and my sister rather than saving herself, which is an ultimate sacrifice of love.” There’s a level of vulnerability in Shanna’s songwriting that one doesn’t often hear, and yet, it’s one of the key ingredients that makes it so attractive.

Since my time with these two musicians, both have made significant strides in their profession. Shanna continues to clock studio time and performances, and Tommy recently ended a momentous tour. They seek a career without the comfortable cushion so readily available for other jobs. It is indeed risky business stepping out your front door, but for these two, the real peril is to stay inside.

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