Paul Priest of Old Shoe Talks New Album, Shoe Fest, and More

Paul Priest of Old Shoe Talks New Album, Shoe Fest, and More

This weekend, Camp Shaw in Manteno, IL, hosts the annual Shoe Fest; a beautiful celebration of bluegrass, roots rock, funk, jazz-fusion, reggae, and more, it’s a peaceful weekend of lazy rivers, bubbles in the air, good food and beer, and great people. Hosted by Chicago’s own Old Shoe, the festival is entering its 6th iteration, and it’s only gotten better every year. Lead guitarist of Old Shoe Paul Priest took some time out of his busy schedule to share with me some words of wisdom about the music of Old Shoe, fatherhood, their new album, and more.

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Old Shoe has a new album coming out, Country Home, and it is expected to be a doozy. Priest gave me the rundown on how it came together, saying, “Matt Robinson [guitar, vocals] suggested Country Home after combing through the lyrics and song titles. A few other suggestions were made, but I can’t tell you what they were…because then I’d be out some good album titles! Everything in the album is framed by an approach – musically, lyrically, conceptually – which is a reverence for our roots, grassroots, as it were. There’s an organic awakening happening in large numbers. Not only are people becoming nutritionally aware of what we put into our bodies, but also of how we treat the earth…taking bags to the store instead of single-use plastic bags, for instance. Fair wages, fair trade, recycling, minimizing our impact on the planet, embracing kindness and patience in the face of daily frustrations and annoyances. Taking the higher road.”

Anyone who knows Old Shoe knows those boys love their roots, and getting away from it all. Priest went on to elaborate on the album’s themes, explaining, “…the countryside has always served as an emblem for simplicity. For example, there’s a line in the album, ‘living in the country, depending on which way you face’. I think overall it harkens to a state of mind, emboldened by the actuality of the countryside, but also the symbolism of the country. Simplicity, taking time to smell the flowers kind of thing. Plus, we live in such a beautiful land. We love this land, traveling it, playing in different places, gathering experiences, and sharing our experiences. Many have done it before us and hopefully many will after. It never gets old. It’s our country and our home.”

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One of the most exciting aspects about the new record is that it will be their pressing to vinyl! It’s always a new experience getting some music put onto physical wax. Old Shoe has had CDs out before, but vinyl is something different. Priest was excited about the challenge, saying, “Yes, it will be our first vinyl. And I’m personally thrilled. I used to save my allowance for two things: model cars and airplanes and records. And not in that in order! I used to lay out my records like tiles and admire them, study them, and later make careful mix tapes, excruciating over the start-stop points, not to make needle-placement noises, etc. Joe Day also loves vinyl and is currently switching over exclusively, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t know a lot of details about everyone’s history with vinyl, but I get the sense it’s strong. All of our parents used to play records, so we have those formative experiences. In all the resurgence of vinyl suits our tastes just fine, and to be even a small part of it is a dream come true.” Vinyl is coming back in a big way, and for Old Shoe to get one out is a major achievement, a great result of all their hard work.

Old Shoe is always touring somewhere, whether it’s Colorado, Illinois, Missouri, or Arkansas, and their traveling and touring gives them a great perspective on the winding roads throughout America, which in turn informs their songwriting. Priest described the recording of Country Home and the way their surroundings affected the album: “We wrote a handful of songs together in a cabin in northern Wisconsin. It was in the dead of winter and the fact that our van was unable to get out of the steep, icy drive made us stay put. There was no coming and going as getaway situations sometimes develop into. We had the intention to create anyway, but I think the wintertime logistical limits helped. In fact, all of the equipment we brought we had to hike up the hill on our way out. Over ice. In stages. Did I mention uphill? It was quite a group effort and was pretty exhausting, not to mention freezing cold. But of this session was born a core of songs that served as a backbone to the album. They also served to curate other tracks from the catalog of other songs we have. It was either make a double (or triple) album or make some tough editing decisions, which we did. Old Shoe is a good group of like-minded artists that is pretty darn good at collaborating. The last album, Family, is aptly titled.”

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As mentioned above, Old Shoe is always playing somewhere. They never seem to stop, and it’s a testament to their love for what they do that they play so much music for us, the fans. Priest opened up about their upcoming touring schedule and the state of the band, as he says: “We’re planning to tour in support of the album in October and November, and the album itself is keeping us pretty busy. There are some new songs brewing already, though, because the fecundity just can’t be controlled! We’ve had a personnel change too, which is lending to a new process. Jonny Reed is our new drummer, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have him. Jonny’s approach is very lyric-centric. One gets the feeling that he’s focused on the organic unity, if you will, of the piece, which in turn makes the band truly a song-oriented band, but still with a healthy dose of jam band tendencies. I love this blend. So we’re all excited to continue exploring where this will lead.” Old Shoe’s sound has continuously evolved, and it’s exciting to imagine where this new direction will take their music.

Priest went on to describe some of the challenges of getting this album done, especially in today’s musical climate: “All of us love the music from the era of bands that would play take after take of a song in the studio until it was right. Yet we live in the modern era of time restrictions, budgets not footed by record companies, and 10,000 available tracks for overdubbing. As a result, we had to make certain decisions that would create a professional album without leaning heavily on a major-label checkbook and still not have it be a ‘fix-it-in-the-mix’ record. This means we had to have songs well-rehearsed so that we wouldn’t overextend our budget or accumulate infinite overdubs. We didn’t play the songs 69 times each, but we played them a lot, selected the best take, added just enough to keep it natural and also just enough to keep it in the 21st century. It was a fantastic, fun yet careful process. Chris Harden at IV Labs has been terrific to work with. He knew exactly what we were looking for and delivered.”

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When a band has been around for a while like Old Shoe, they inevitably change up their approach to music and the way they produce and shape it. Priest explained some of their experimentation with Country Home, stating: “One of the things we’ve done more of this time around is to hand off lyrics to someone else in the band to sing. We’ve done some of this in the past, but it feels like we’re ramping it up lately. So, I wrote ‘Country Home’ but knew immediately that Joe Day [keyboards, vocals] had to sing it (and I’m thrilled by his performance). Matt Robinson wrote ‘Long Black Hair’, but I sang it, for the same stylistic reasons. This album continues our evolution to serve the song, and in part, making these types of decisions does just that.” That’s always been Old Shoe’s style; being the servants of the song.

The music isn’t the only thing that has changed for Old Shoe over the last few years. Becoming a parent changes everything, of course, and has an unconscious effect on every aspect of one’s life. Priest explained some of what fatherhood meant to the boys in the band with a deep message: “Three fifths of the band are fathers, and for those of us who are, I think it’s safe to say that we’re just trying to make our children proud, make the time spent away from them worth it; to return with gifts, stories, songs, more gifts. And their mothers; we are trying to make a go of this thing, the band, which has no guarantees. No career does, really, but I think being a musician in 2017, trying to be a roots, in-a-band musician is a rarer and rarer occupational choice. And by gum, if we don’t pull it off, what are our grandchildren going to say about us?! So the pressure is on! I joke…..sort of.”

Anyone who has been to Shoe Fest knows it’s one of the few truly kid-friendly festivals around, one that actively encourages a family-friendly atmosphere, and where parents and children alike can avoid the more belligerent aspects of a large musical gathering. Priest continued his thoughts on this whole situation, saying, “This also makes me think about the children of the fans too. We know our music is heard by them. Our festival, Shoe Fest, which Matt Robinson works so hard on, is a family-and-children-friendly festival. We want good energy and content to reach their ears. Kindness, excellent music performed professionally, to excite and enrich them. I think adults forget that there are children among us too. When I see billboards advertising some horror film or displaying something lewd, I cringe. Not that I want censorship; we went through that with Tipper Gore and Frank Zappa, but c’mon, guys. Don’t you remember being a child? They’re not tiny adults. They need to be cared for. Some of the new stuff out there is downright scary. The computer artwork is more realistic than ever, and at the same time, more prominent. Let’s be cool and remember not to mortify the children, eh?”

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Old Shoe is a band’s band; they love the touring, the traveling, the writing, hosting their own festival, and just being some hard-working American musicians. They represent the spirit of the road warriors from days gone by, and with Shoe Fest they manage to capture just a bit of that feeling. If you’ve never been to Shoe Fest and this interview has intrigued you, there’s still time to get in gear and head up to Camp Shaw this weekend. I truly hope to see you there.

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Tickets, volunteer info, and more at the festival website: http://www.shoe-fest.com/

I do not own any of the photos used in the this article, all credit to the original photographers is either in the photos themselves or on the Shoe Fest website.

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