Chris Shiflett is no stranger to big stages. As guitarist for the Foo Fighters, Shiflett has played the world’s largest venues and shared bills with some of rock & roll’s finest acts. On a Friday evening in Nashville in mid-May, though, he’s preparing to step out onto a stage that intimidates even him: that of the Grand Ole Opry.
“It’s not something I ever expected to even get asked to do, you know,” Shiflett says, hanging out in his dressing room with his band and road team a couple hours before show time. “Which makes it even more special to me. I’ve honestly been trying to not think about it these last couple of weeks because it makes me really nervous.”
Alongside Shiflett on the night’s bill are four Opry members: Kelsea Ballerini, Ricky Skaggs, Dailey & Vincent and Diamond Rio. Printed on the wall above his dressing room door is a 2006 quote from Taylor Swift, which reads, “Oh my God, I’m on the Opry.” Shiflett and company get a kick out of the quote, though it’s clear he can relate to the young Swift’s sentiment. And on top of feeling nerves, he’s exhausted, too, coming off a two-night run with the Foo Fighters in New Orleans and having barely made it to the Opry thanks to a four-and-a-half hour flight delay.
“It’s been a long day,” he says, sighing. “I woke up at four in the morning today and had to get up at five to make my flight, then my mind just started racing, thinking about goofy stuff. ‘What if there’s no power for my pedal board?’ Then we get to the airport and our flight’s delayed four-and-a-half hours. It’s just one of those days.”
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On June 14th, Shiflett will release Hard Lessons, his second official solo release and the follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed West Coast Town. One of the early previews of the album came in the buoyant single “Welcome to Your First Heartbreak,” which he chooses to run through for his sound check. A sage slice of heartland rock inspired by Shiflett’s own son’s first experience with heartache, the song sounds right at home reverberating in the Opry House rafters.
“It’s such a different dynamic than playing with a loud rock & roll band,” Shiflett says of performing at the venue. “Even my version of Americana — or alt-country, whatever you wanna call it — still winds up being pretty loud and a little dirty. I didn’t think I was going to get a sound check with the guys, and the fact that we were able to do that just now… I think I needed that to just let the pressure valve off. Now I can just enjoy it.”
Hard Lessons itself sounds like Shiflett blowing off steam. “This Ol’ World” finds him not so much lamenting the current political climate as confronting it head-on, opening with the lyric, “Has this ol’ world lost its goddamn mind?” “Liar’s Word,” with its cheeky refrain, “Oh mama, have you heard? I’m about as good as a liar’s word,” approaches romantic regret but, before it gets too close, swerves toward gleeful independence. Shiflett has a knack for making the personal feel universal, which lends even the more somber moments on Hard Lessons a feeling of hopeful catharsis.
“Even the songs that aren’t like a diary entry are still grounded in your own experiences,” he says. “Most of my songs are just stories from things I’ve experienced. I was thinking about it the other day, because normally I write about stuff in the past. I always had a hard time writing in the here and now. But I realized on this record I wrote a lot more about now. Maybe I got all that looking back out of my system.”
Sonically, the album is built on guitar-forward, arena-ready Americana — big, sing-along anthems with nary a ballad in sight. Shiflett retained the ever-in-demand Dave Cobb (who also produced West Coast Town) to oversee Hard Lessons, coming up with an album that is bigger and bolder than its predecessor. It places Shiflett right in the sweet spot of all his musical interests.
Though he’s been with Foo Fighters since 1999, Shiflett has consistently been active with a number of side projects. He’s played on 11 albums with Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, an all-star line-up of rock players who come together to cover and reinterpret classic punk and rock songs. He’s released two albums as Chris Shiflett and the Dead Peasants, a country project that hinted at where he’d go with his solo releases. And through his podcast Walking the Floor, he’s interviewed everyone from Amanda Shires to Manny Pacquiao about music, art and culture.
If there’s anything that’s clear about Shiflett from this eclectic résumé, it’s that he’s an artist who constantly seeks new opportunities to push himself musically. This night at the Opry is no different; though he’ll walk out onstage feeling a more serious case of pre-show jitters than usual, he’ll tear through his set with the skill and spirit of a seasoned musician who somehow still has fun more than two decades into his career.
“It’s a real treat to get to do this,” he says, leaning back and taking a moment to reflect. “To go walk out on those boards and get out of my comfort zone… I like it.”