A case could easily be made that Chris Shiflett is the busiest (and most hyphenated) man in rock & roll. However, last summer the singer-songwriter-guitarist-bandleader-podcaster was able to find a small hole in his packed schedule to travel to Nashville's RCA Studio A to work with celebrated producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell). The result is West Coast Town, Shiflett'ss third solo album of punk pedigree meets California country, hitting stories April 14th via SideOneDummy Records. (Listen to the full album below.)
When asked about his rowdy brand of left coast country, Shiflett – lead guitarist for Foo Fighters and host of the country-Americana podcast Walking the Floor – offers an answer as much about geography as about genre. "I've heard it described by various people that country music in the South came out of the church, and country music on the West Coast came out of the honky-tonks," Shiflett tells Rolling Stone Country. "It's a louder, twangier, more aggressive version of country that came out of the environment of playing shows for rowdy fans looking to cut loose after a hard day of working in the oil fields and out on the farms. I think it was Buck Owens who said they were as loud as they were because they had to get the music over the constant din of the barrooms."
Loudness has never been much of a problem for Shiflett, who first cut his musical teeth in the mid-Nineties with punk bands No Use for a Name, and Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, eventually going on to join Dave Grohl in alt-rock arena-fillers Foo Fighters in 1999. The country and Americana aspects of his musical repertoire came along a bit later. "I'm a rock guitarist at heart, so when I first started getting into country and honky-tonk music, I knew that I liked what I heard, but I just didn't know who I was hearing or any of the history of it all," he says. "Luckily, I had a friend who did know and he told me to get a Buck Owens box set, a Merle Haggard box set, and any Wynn Stewart I could find."
Shiflett's punk leanings can be felt throughout West Coast Town, both in the energetic musical swagger of songs like "I'm Still Drunk," "Cherry" and the title track, as well as in the album's lyrics. He nods to legendary punk band NOFX in the song "Tonight's Not Over" and says that an early draft of the autobiographical "West Coast Town" briefly mentioned Santa Barbara's own Rich Kids on LSD, Shiflett's self-described "hometown pride punk band."
For Shiflett, linking a punk foundation with his country inclinations isn't a new concept: "There's always been a connection between punk rock and country music, especially the honky-tonk side of country. I think it all comes down to attitude. You can draw a straight line from Hank Williams to [Social Distortion's] Mike Ness. There's a certain defiant streak and rebelliousness in both genres."
The decision to record West Coast Town with Dave Cobb came to Shiflett after he chatted with the Grammy-winning producer for an episode of Walking the Floor. "After I interviewed him, I just had it in my mind that I had to make a record with him," Shiflett says. "He really elevated the songs to a better place than they would have been. Working with him was such an education."
The fact that Shiflett's initial podcast chat with Cobb actually took place at RCA Studio A turned out to be a nice bit of foreshadowing as well, as the pair returned to the renowned room to record West Coast Town. But Shiflett admits that it was a struggle to not let the famous space get inside his head. "There's such a list of legendary ghosts that haunt that room," he says, "but I just had to tune all of that out and focus on making as good of a record as I could."
To help achieve that goal, Shiflett deferred to Cobb to assemble the standout cast of backing musicians, which included pedal-steel player Robby Turner (Waylon Jennings, Chris Stapleton), drummer Chris Powell (Jamey Johnson), bassist Adam Gardner and keyboardist Michael Webb. Cobb handled the album's acoustic guitar work himself, with Shiflett leading the band on electric guitar and vocals. Although, according to Shiflett, his style of bandleading is less verbal and more by example. "I gave them absolutely no direction whatsoever," he says. "I had never worked with those cats and I was nervous going in because I just wanted to make sure I was holding down my end of the room. I felt somewhat out of my depth and out of my comfort zone, which is great because that's exactly what I wanted for this record."
He especially challenged himself with the LP's title track, an homage to the area in which he grew up that took on new life after Cobb fiddled with the vibe. "He turned that one upside down and made it what it is," says Shiflett. "I think we may have referenced an old Buck Owens song to get that final groove, which suits me just fine.”
But it's the album's closer "Still Better Days" that was the most difficult to complete. Not because of its sound, however. Rather, Shiflett just couldn't wrap his head around writing a happy love song. "For whatever reason, I tend to go to darker places in my lyrics," he says. The pieces came together when he committed to writing the song about his wife. "That one's our life, right there."
In the end, though, the album most evokes Shiflett's punk life. The grab the guitars and get in the van approach to music is hard to shake for the 45-year-old. He channels it in the West Coast Town standout "Goodnight Little Rock," a rollicking tale of life on the highway.
"We've got a six-hour drive ahead of us today, which actually seems light compared to the 13-hour drive we just did from Idaho a couple days ago," he says with a hint of pride. "That's van touring, baby!"