Shannon Lawson was raised in Taylorsville, Ky., a tiny town 40 miles southwest of Louisville that has been home to his family for generations. He spent his childhood cutting and hanging tobacco with his father and four uncles. For entertainment, the family played music, performing at cinder block halls and jamborees in the area. While the grown-ups picked bluegrass on his grandmother’s porch, Lawson and his large brood of cousins played underfoot and sometimes sang along.
When he was 4, Lawson picked up his uncle’s Epiphone guitar and joined in until he got blisters on his fingers. At 7, his father — accomplished on the guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass and Dobro — bought his son a half-sized Yamaha classical guitar. Lawson learned chords and began strumming out tunes such as Willie Nelson’s “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” on the nylon strings. Like most kids in the South, Lawson began exploring rock and pop influences during his teen years. He was heavily influenced by his siblings, an older brother who played Eagles’ cover tunes in a rock band, and his sister, a folk singer who was into Joan Baez.
In high school, Lawson formed his own band, which he describes as a quirky combination of “classic rock and country.” Influenced by his father, who by that time had begun exploring the more complex guitar styles of Andres Segovia, Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, Lawson honed his own skills by mimicking the virtuostic rock sounds of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Stevie Ray Vaughan. But country still tugged at his heart.
Upon high school graduation, Lawson left Taylorsville to attend college in Louisville. Shortly into his academic experience, he got an offer that would change his life. A seasoned blues musician called Top Hat hired the young guitarist to play in his club act. Lawson left school to tour full time with the group, playing guitar and eventually singing soulful lead on blues covers such as The Dramatic’s “In the Rain.”
Just as suddenly as he came into Lawson’s life, Top Hat disappeared from the Louisville blues scene. As a result, Lawson wound up booking the band, managing affairs and developing the act’s set list. As a sideline, the young vocalist/guitarist began picking up work with a local folksinger, performing with her in area coffeehouses. Here, he rubbed shoulders with a new set of colleagues that brought him back to his family roots — local bluegrass and acoustic artists. In 1993, Lawson hung up his blues hat for good to turn full-time attention to his new group, The Galoots, a bluegrass-based act that incorporated Lawson’s experience in rock, traditional country and blues.
The Galoots soon became a standing-room-only act on the Louisville club scene. Lawson used his years of experience putting on shows in clubs to whip fans into a bluegrass-meets-blues frenzy, taking the stage by yelling “Big Yee Haw, Y’all!” He became well-known for his unexpected roots covers of pop tunes, from the Allman Brothers’ “Whippin’ Post” to Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
During this time, Lawson also became a prolific songwriter, with The Galoots producing two independent albums of original material. They soon caught the attention of the local music press and radio scene. In 1998, he packed up a U-Haul van and headed to Nashville.
Based on his songwriting ability, Lawson landed a publishing deal with the Extreme Writers Group. As his demos started landing in offices in Nashville, music execs wanted to know who the powerful voice on the tapes belonged to as well. Lawson’s talent soon came to the attention of MCA Nashville A&R Manager Shane Barrett, who brought Lawson’s music to label President Tony Brown. After a showcase in Nashville — one where Lawson jumped off the stage for the an a cappella version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” — Brown and MCA Nashville Chairman Bruce Hinton offered him a contract.
There still remained the questions: With whom should Lawson be paired in the studio, and what direction should his big sound take? Producer Mark Wright (Lee Ann Womack, Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood, Gary Allan) had heard the buzz about the singer-songwriter and was impressed by the powerful voice and diversity of style he had heard on Lawson’s demo tape.
“I love making records on great singers; that’s my whole deal,” Wright recalls. “Shannon just blew me away. We met for lunch, talked it over, and I walked away knowing I wanted to work with this kid.” He was struck by Lawson’s wide range of live musical experience. “This is a kid who played in a bluegrass band in Kentucky and a blues band in Chicago,” he says. “He can sing country and R&B. I wanted to give him the freedom to experiment with all those different styles.”
Consequently, Wright booked a recording studio for an entire month in order to let Lawson play with the material, try different approaches and use experimental instrumentation. “That way, if we got off schedule it didn’t matter so much, and we were able to try things, keep them if they worked and throw them out if they didn’t.”
For example, Wright and Lawson asked Chris Thile of Nickel Creek to play a mandolin on the track “This Old Heart.” As an experiment, they ran the acoustic instrument through an amp “to give it a real crunchy sound, very different,” according to Wright. The team wasn’t reluctant to craft songs that were instrumentally driven, such as “Bad Bad Bad” and “Chase the Sun.” Of course, Wright said his kids love Lawson’s bluegrass cover version of the Marvin Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On.” “They had never even heard it before,” he said.
Lawson released his debut CD, Chase the Sun, in 2002. The CD showcases his diverse musical background.
Shannon Lawson’s big, rangy voice and sharp instrumental picking garners rave reviews and enthusiastic fans wherever he performs. “I want my music to represent what I do live, which is really rock ‘n’ roll bluegrass. People seem to love it because it’s earthy, simple and it rocks.” Lawson became a member of the Muzik Mafia in 2004. Lawson co-wrote former Alabama lead singer Randy Owen‘s 2008 single “Like I Never Broke Her Heart” and James Otto‘s 2008 single “These Are the Good Ole Days”.
As talented a writer as he is a performer, Shannon has penned songs for several country artists, including John Anderson, Randy Owen and Gretchen Wilson. Shannon was a featured songwriter on CMT’s highest rated show of all-time, “Gone Country.”
Lawson has gone back to these roots and is creating music that reflects his love of country and bluegrass, but also incorporates 70s grooves. Supported by his friends in the MuzikMafia, Lawson says, “I’ve got a variety of styles in the MuzikMafia, and it’s created somewhat of a renaissance in country music, we all feed off each other’s music, and it opens new opportunities to express ourselves. I believe there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. I think the fans appreciate that”. Lawson continues to create high-energy, groovy, passionate music and performances.
Shannon Lawson is currently living in Nashville, TN and is focused on writing and recording new music. He plans on releasing an album digitally in Early 2012, and is currently working on a joint venture, El Camino, with another former Muzik Mafia member, Jon Nicholson. They are planning to release their latest project in Spring 2012.