Shain! Come Back!
International Blues Challenge winner Jon Shain returns to the Piedmont
Jon Shain is a fighter.
For his latest bout in January, he knocked out more than 260 opponents to take the title for the International Blues Challenge’s Best Solo/Duo challenge in Memphis, Tennessee. Shain has been in training for decades, a fixture on the Triangle blues/folk circuit since he was a history major at Duke. He honed his Piedmont Blues guitar skills playing with Big Boy Henry and John Dee Holeman after joining Music Maker Relief Foundation’s Slewfoot Blues Band. Following graduation in 1989, Shain and John Whitehead formed Flyin’ Mice, ostensibly a blues/rock duo that specialized in line-blurring.
“We always had kind of a fingerstyle blues approach in Flyin’ Mice even after we got a drummer,” the musician says. “Then we mixed in bluegrass and country elements, and my own material has always kinda bordered on blues.” The blurred lines sometimes confound people, as Shain quips: “In folk circles they all think of me as a blues player.” How is he regarded by fans of the blues? “In blues circles I’m definitely kinda folksy.”
The Mice were an eclectic bunch that Shain says “didn’t let any genre keep us from trying something.” Started as a blues duo in ’89, the band expanded in membership and genre, covering Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley when the guitarist got a banjo. WAKE, a four-piece active from’96–’98, had a country-rock flavor, a folkier version of the Flyin’ Mice.
Incidentally, Shain initially entered the IBC 10 years ago as a duo with F.J. Ventre, getting to the finals before getting knocked out. “Maybe the difference in 10 years was my ability to connect with the audience more,” Shain says of his win, which got him a slot at this month’s Carolina Blues Festival, as well as a booking in the Las Vegas Big Blues Bender in September and a spot on the West Coast/Mexican Riviera Rhythm & Blues Cruise, with artists including Los Lobos onboard.
“We just go where we want,” Shain says of his output, including his latest, Tomorrow Will Be Yesterday Soon, partnering with Ventre. “The album I did before that was a solo fingerstyle blues album tribute to W.C. Handy, ragtime and blues picking with nothing but guitar and vocal,” adding that it was a chance to get his guitar ya-yas out. “Now that we have this blues challenge winner on my mantle too, the next album we do is gonna try to return to blues a little bit more.” — Grant Britt OH
John Shain will appear at Carolina Blues Festival, held May 18 & 19 at LeBauer Park, and Grove Winery on May 26. Info: carolinabluesfestival.com; grovewinery.com.