Once upon a time, there was a girl from Louisiana who showed amazing promise as a performer. When she was barely in her teens, she already had an impressive résumé " working with Disney, and then coming out as a solo recording artist to popular acclaim. Soon, she was signed to a respected national label and dropped a debut that was well-received across the board. And then Anyone who's ever had to wait in a grocery store check-out line knows from the squeals of the tabloid headlines how this story might progress. But as it's turning out, 17-year-old Amanda Shaw's budding musical career, which is already nearing the decade mark, is more balanced, healthy and considered than most artists' twice her age. Is it possible to make the transition from child prodigy to adult rocker with no embarrassing mistakes to show for it? For Amanda Shaw, the astounding answer is: looks like it.
At 13, Shaw, a native New Orleanian who had asserted herself as a classical violinist and then Cajun-fiddle talent, already had two albums and a Jazz Fest performing slot under her belt. When Disney came calling, she dipped her toes into the possibility, appearing in two television movies for the empire of the Mouse before pulling back. At the brink of sure teen-pop stardom, Shaw chose instead to buckle down and listen to her own voice. She signed last year with the roots-focused Rounder label and began working hard with her backing band of seasoned musicians to explore what together their emerging style might be. It was an extraordinarily mature decision by a 16-year-old " though maybe not, considering that we all know what has happened to Britney.
'I'm growing through my music right now, as well as having to define who I'm going to be," Shaw says.
Even the album itself is preternaturally mature. Gone is the teenage whimsy of the Clash and Ramones covers that popped up on her last album, I'm Not a Bubblegum Pop Princess, like so many slammed bedroom doors. Pretty Runs Out is a smooth, beautifully even collection of traditional Cajun jigs and reels blended with roots-rock covers and originals that Shaw wrote in collaboration with artists like Shannon McNally and the Nashville songwriter and former New Orleanian Jim McCormick. Shaw's poignant, energetic fiddle weaves through the album, tying the tracks together seamlessly.
'We were a little closer to doing what we wanted to do," Shaw says of the record, which she and the band worked on carefully for years. 'We kept to the Cajun roots by doing the reels and the medleys, but then there's a song on there, "Easy On Your Way Out' (an Eleni Mandell cover), that's a Pretenders-ish thing. But it's a little more rootsy than the last one."
One of the most fun tracks on the album is the saucy, playful 'Brick Wall," on which Troy Andrews guests on trombone and trumpet. Andrews is the artist on the album closest to Shaw's age, and probably one of the only musicians around who shares her experience of growing up in the spotlight, trying to think about a career's future before even starting high school. Whether or not they bonded overtly as teenage New Orleans musicians, their playing on that track is so relaxed and simpatico that the musical connection is not only clear but a joy.
'We both enjoy what we do," Shaw says. 'He crosses over between rock and funk, and I'm doing something similar, though it's with roots rock. We both like to bring something new."
It's a thoroughly grown-up record, even " maybe especially " down to some of the content. Tracks like the fierce rebuke 'Woulda Coulda Shoulda" and the searing Cyndi Lauper-recorded 'I Don't Want to Be Your Friend" express emotion surely beyond Shaw's years. But without a backstory, it's to her credit that nobody would ever know. It's not her talent but the bio we already have on hand that makes the listener second-guess the veracity of the emotion she pours into the songs. The title track, which was written by McCormick from the perspective of an older woman ruminating on lost youth and a lost lover, expresses a kind of prescient consciousness of a road Shaw doesn't want to take.
'I don't ever want to depend on the picture on the front of the album to sell it," she says.
- Amanda Shaw has dodged pop stardom and pursued roots rock and Cajun music on her latest CD, Pretty Runs Out (Rounder).