Arcata, California's Dieselhed became underground favorites on the West Coast and throughout the U.S. in the '90 thanks to their warped, eccentric modern country style. After more than a decade of fronting the band, singer/songwriter Virgil Shaw has emerged to pursue a solo career. As with Dieselhed, a sense of the bizarreness of rural life and out-of-the-way places pervades his songs, but instead of rollicking, almost-out-of-control hillbilly rock, Shaw the solo artist opts for delicate folk fragility. His arrangements are spare and thoughtful, punctuated with unexpected, often poignant instrumental flourishes, including muted horns, bells, saw, and vibraphone. Shaw's voice is the best instrument of all though, an slightly scratchy tenor that ranges from a gentle whisper to a strong folksy warble to an anguished falsetto.
Shaw's magnificent debut album, Quad Cities, came out on the terrific San Joaquin Valley indie label Future Farmer Recordings in 2000. It's a remarkably versatile, wistful folk effort long on passion and short on pretension, beautifully articulated by Shaw's lush instrumentation and rich country poetry. A real keeper. "Water Color," "Gypsum," and "Volvo" all come from that record.
Virgil Shaw took awhile to follow-up on Quad Cities but the wait was well worth it. His 2003 record Still Falling is a splendid update on his unique brand of Central Valley alt-country, raising the ante considerably both in terms of production value and songwriting complexity. The instrumentation is unbelievably nuanced, with lush foundations of keyboards, all kinds of percussion, and horns. By no means does Shaw a "great voice" in any conventional sense; rather, he's a great "bad singer" in the tradition of Bob Dylan and here he's in great form, dry and reedy and full of dusty life, capable of redneck passion, rural tenderness, and broken-down heartache, depending on the occasion. His cover of the Merle Haggard classic (and Gram Parsons favorite) "Sing Me Back Home" is emblematic -- Shaw is all over the place, his voice swooping into a weird falsetto at times, but the vocal melody and instrumentation still hit you right where you live. Same can be said for the featured "Clock on the Wall," a robust and convincing country lament. Still Falling stands shoulder to shoulder with the recent work of Jay Farrar, Will Oldham, and any of the other big names of the genre.