It’s often been said “you can’t go home again.” With his debut solo release, Chesaning, Michigan native Shawn Butzin proves you can not only do so, but you can also document the whole story in song.
After more than a decade in Colorado, Butzin made a very personal decision to leave “corporate life” and return to his roots in mid-Michigan in 2016. He settled on the Bay City area and relocated with his fiancé, leaving behind many fond memories of the scenery, the people he had met and the experiences he had enjoyed since leaving his home state as a younger man.
While he was at peace with the basic decision to return to Michigan, the transition did not come without some soul searching. As Butzin describes it he embarked on a “lost summer” of hiking, camping and trying to find the sort of simplicity he sought in making this move.
Another interesting thing happened during these sojourns – he realized he needed a hobby to wile the time away, so he started writing song lyrics documenting his feelings; telling his story to date. It was on these trips that Northern Trails first began to take shape.
This was not Butzin’s first foray into music. While in the Denver area he worked with a “psycho surf” band, doing some recording and touring with this unit.
What unfolded with the Northern Trails tunes was somewhat different. Consistent with his desire to get back to root level, Butzin started listening to alt-country artists, such as Wilco and Son Volt. He also delved into some of the “classics” of Americana tinged pop music, such as Tom Petty and REM. These sounds are clearly reflected on the album.
Before delving into any details of the recording, it is worth stating that Northern Trails is a phenomenal freshman effort by Butzin. Where much of the Americana movement currently in vogue consists of rock guys soothing their country music jones, Butzin’s work benefits from his keen pop sensibilities.
Singing, playing guitars and drums, the bulk of the work on this album was done by Butzin, with the help of engineer, producer, multi-instrumentalist Andy Reed of Reed Recording Company in Bay City. A few guest soloists are also featured, like James Blum playing mandolin on “Homemade Jesus” and Ron “Rosco” Selley taking the harmonica lead on a cover of “Blue Bayou.”
Butzin is quick to credit Reed for his work on this disc, as the songs that were recorded had various stages of polish when he entered the studio. Some were fairly advanced and simply need to be documented and embellished a bit with support parts; others where literally still being tweaked the morning of (or during) the session.
The album open with the energetic country rocker “Carefree in Carolina” which really sets the tone for the whole recording. Part travel log, part love song – these are themes revisited throughout the recording.
There is no doubt that Butzin is a top-class story teller, as his lost summer lyrics cover the gamut. Songs like “Hometown Blues” and “Homemade Jesus” are classic observational sketches, where others like “You and I,” “I’m Your Loving Man” and “What Did I Mean To You” discuss loves lost, gained and long gone.
Whether it is in these songs or on the signature piece in this set, “Leaving Colorado,” Butzin displays one thing that separates the greats when it comes to delivering their material: ache.
As good as the songcraft and the production is on this album is, what really stands out is the yearning. Butzin as a vocalist is able to draw you into the songs and make you understand just what it is he is feeling. It’s a rare talent and one that is employed with skill on Northern Trails.
The early reactions to the album, released on August 15, have been outstanding. Both the disc and individual songs have been garnering many positive reviews and they have been added independent radio playlists and featured on independent podcasts across the nation.
Butzin is also playing this material live in a variety of venues. Included in these appearances are some very classy gigs, including scheduled solo sets at the legendary Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, NY and City Winery in Manhattan. Butzin hopes to tour the Western US in the Spring of 2018, possibly with a full band.
Shawn Butzin’s next area appearance will be at the Empire Room in Bay City, opening for Kim Ware of the Good Graces on 9/2. He will also be a featured performer at this year’s Hell’s Half Mile festival, with a 5:00 PM performance on 9/29 at Jake’s Corner Lounge in Bay City.