Q&A — Ron and Rick, The Shaw Brothers

Originally from North Conway, they are now based in the Seacoast area, and at age 63 they still play all over the country and around the world. Before their current incarnation, they played as the Brandywine Singers, The Hillside Singers (with whom in 1971 they recorded the famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coca-Cola song) and the Pozo Seco Brothers. They’ve recorded more than 12 albums on labels such as RC and Columbia, as well as a number of independent labels.

They will play at Veterans Park on Thursday, August 19, at 7 p.m.; on August 28 in Newburyport, Mass.; and on August 29 at Prescott Park in Portsmouth.

What were your musical influences? How did you get started?

Rick: Our early influence was our Dad. He was very interested in the folk type of music; he actually played in a band. He instilled an interest in me. I remember sitting at dinner and harmonizing at the table. Then when we went away to college, folk music was getting big.

Do you think that folk music has lost its importance in mainstream America?

Rick: No, I don’t. I think that like any musical form it ebbs and flows. I think it’s still influential in society. Ron: It’s not as mainstream as it was at one time, but no matter where you travel in the country, there are folk secondary markets, folk music stations. And around the world: Rick and I perform not only in this country but we travel internationally and there’s still a very strong, allbeit secondary following.

Why do you think it’s important to carry on the folk tradition?

Ron: It’s the whole oral history thing. Most folk music tells a story, and most of those stories, at least the traditional ones, are at the heart of the human spirit. And even music today which is not traditional, but falls into the category of folk, really asks questions of human feelings, human experience.

You’ve been on major record labels and smaller independents. What’s the difference being on a big label as apposed to the smaller independent labels?

Rick: Well, obviously the big difference is the cash, the majors having a lot more than the smaller ones. The majors have the muscles if they want to use it. Plus they get you into the stores, where the smaller independent labels have a harder time distributing you. So, I would say promotional ability would be the biggest difference.

Ron: I think creative control is a problem with some of the bigger labels too. They exert their pressure much more on the artist than these smaller independent labels. So it’s a compromise—you can do more of what you want to do on an independent label…and less of it on the bigger labels.

And you’re on an independent now?

Ron: Yes.

That being said, which do you prefer?

Ron: Personally, I prefer, all things considered, the independent. We’ve been on huge ones, and there’s a certain ego trip that goes with that, and I think I prefer that smaller independent.

Rick: I think I would agree. I found that as far as profit thing, we’ve done better with the independents. Because the big ones protect their creative property. You have to pay them off the money for putting you in the studio. One of the great things about having a record label is having them really push you. Most people don’t make much money on their records, though, especially folk singers. Record companies have interesting bookkeeping techniques, but they give you great exposure.

You’ve done plenty of traveling and played all over the world; what, if any, influence does the state of New Hampshire have on your music?

Rick: It has a lot of influence, actually. As a matter of fact we’ve written a number of songs about New Hampshire, one of which, “New Hampshire Naturally,” was selected to be the New Hampshire state song. And also a few of our songs are now being used in the public school system to teach kids history.

What is it about the state that inspired you?

Ron: Look out the window. Of course, it all depends on where you are.

I’m in Manchester.

Ron: Even Manchester is beautiful.

Rick: It’s also the pace of life valued and held by the general public. Whenever we come back to New Hampshire we feel like we’re home. It’s our place.

But hasn’t that changed much over the years with all the growth?

Rick: Not...well, obviously some of that is slipping away, but I think essentially still here. You just have to look in the right places.

Would you say that you’re still learning your instrument?

Rick: Oh yes, you bet [laughs]. It never ends—you’re always learning.

Ron: One thing about folk music, it seems to me—you mentioned instruments—often it is…equally important to learn what not to play as it is what to play. Make it simple. Music itself is simple. Don’t get in the way of the message.

Is that something you learn on a show-to-show basis or something you learn on principle?

Ron: I think on principle what you have to realize is that flash doesn’t work in this kind of music. What it is important—ultimately important—is the message, and the technique should never get in the way.

Do you still get nervous before shows?

Ron: Oh yes. I think whenever you don’t have a few butterflies in your stomach when you walk out on stage, there’s something wrong.

Rick: I think the most nervous I’ve ever been was in 1987 [when] we played as part of the celebration of the bicentennial of the constitution in Washington, D.C. We were playing on the steps of the capital, with 250,000 people watching, and both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and the President of the United States, and of course all the media.

It doesn’t get much more intense than that

Ron: That’s right, that’s exactly right. But we took care of them.

Rick: That was fun. It’s all in the anticipation just before you’re on—if [you’re] in the small towns, once you’re on you’re fine, but if it’s a situation where you haven’t played for them before…. But a lot of times for a band like us the audience is already familiar with us.

Have there been any new folk singers that have come on to the scene that you like?

Rick: Yes, though I think the definition of folk singing has changed: it’s more singer-songwriters, which is really pop music sung acoustically.

Ron: I’ll tell you a group: there’s a group called the Makem Brothers, they’re the sons of Tommy Makem, who was a great artist, he was one of the Clancy Brothers; they are making waves out there, playing all over the country.

Rick: There’s also the Spain Brothers.

Rick, you said singer-songwriters are now sometimes considered folk and they shouldn’t be. What separates folk from pop acoustic rock?

Rick: Singer-songwriters’ stuff is usually more personally oriented: I did this, this happened to me, I fell in love with you. Whereas the folk music, I think, is not as self-centered. It is more universal.

You’ve been performing now for what, more than 40 years?

Ron: We just celebrated this our 45th year in the biz.

Do you ever get on each other’s nerves?

Ron: Oh God. What a question.

Rick: What do you think?

Well, you’re brothers

Rick: And we’re twins, too. That can be even more intense. Do you have a brother or sister?

Yes, both.

Then you know what we’re talking about.

How do swallow it for the greater good?

Ron: Exactly that way, as you described it.

Rick: We try to get some space between us, and not be around each other all the time. We have our own interests.

—Bernard Vaughan

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