Nick Shattuck

La Crosse, Wisconsin isn’t known for its vibrant music scene, marching bands at OctoberFest maybe; no one will ever confuse the city with Austin or Minneapolis. There are plenty of live bands and places to hear them play, but the scene is dominated by cover bands and party bands—decent musicians who are not especially memorable. Maybe things are about to change.

The folks at The Root Note, an arts-friendly coffee shop downtown, are providing a venue for emerging artists to perform and hone their skills in a place where they don’t have to perform over the clank of billiard balls and co-eds screaming for another Jager bomb. It was at the Root Note that I listened to 27-year old Nick Shattuck, one of those emerging voices in town and one who identifies the Mississippi River as a source of inspiration.

Shattuck mixes blues with a pop sensibility, creating a sound that might remind you of John Mayer. During a show, he may play guitar, harmonica, or ukulele. He has an earnestness and enthusiasm to win over an audience, especially the ladies.

I talked with Nick at The Root Note in La Crosse in October, 2010.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in West Salem, just ten miles out of the La Crosse area…and always had, like a lot of Midwest kids, a love for the lakes and rivers around here, because we don’t have the ocean but we have a lot of lakes and river, so you grew up around that and it’s just part of you your entire life.

Did you spend a lot of time on or around the Mississippi River?
My father was a duck hunter, so we spent a lot of time, even before I had hunter safety, we‘d be on the lakes and on the river duck hunting and fishing. My uncle lives in Winona. When we’d go to visit him, we’d go fishing on the Mississippi.

I think my real appreciation for the Mississippi is when I came home

[after college] and moved to La Crosse and then I spent a countless amount of hours down in Riverside Park or down at different offshoots, fishing on the Mississippi or just hanging out. I can’t tell you how many times I just sat down by the river, just watching and observing. That’s when I started having this…deep passion for it. In my music, I don’t know if you can tell, I’ve been influenced by that river quite a bit and what I like about it is that it makes it…you can identify yourself.

If you tell someone from California or someone from New York City and say I’m from Wisconsin, they’re like, oh, well what is Wisconsin: it’s cheese, it’s beer, it’s all flat; they think it’s like Kansas. But if I say to them, I live in a small city that is squished in between beautiful bluffs and is right on the Mississippi River, since they were five years old they were learning about the Mississippi, so everybody knows, like worldwide, pretty much where the Mississippi River is.

What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
You know, the funny part is, I have a few memories of music growing up, but, my parents, we really didn’t have a TV. I don’t remember being real musically influenced, but there’s specific memories of, like when I bought my first cassette tape, and it was Michael Jackson. In high school it was all the pop music that was on the local radio stations… Lately, I’ve been looking for music that’s been undiscovered, something like that. Right now it ranges from hip hop to folk, you know, all over the board.

When did you start playing?
I played trumpet from 5th grade to 12th grade. I had piano lessons before that. So music has always been a part of my life. When I was 18, I spent half my graduation money on buying my first guitar. Guitar was something I’ve always been interested in but I just didn’t have the means for it…So I’ve been teaching myself and, uh, like a bedroom player, just learning. I had a real frustration with tabs at first, so I wrote all original music, including those crappy first starting out songs, you know. But that’s how I developed myself as an original artist. I’m really glad I had trouble reading tabs and reading music because I started forcing myself to write my own music. I developed myself in this area as an original artist. Someone when they’re coming to my shows now…they don’t have to make a request for a stereotypical cover song. They’re not going to get that from me.

How would you describe your musical style?
My musical style. I’ve been using the word organic a lot like when I’m approaching these venues or booking agents. I like to explain it as honest, organic acoustic blues soul folk. I’ve also been told, if Johnny Lang had a baby with John Mayer, you would get Nick Shattuck. I like that…It says I have the bluesiness of Johnny Lang and the pop and songwriting of John Mayer.

So those genres have, I guess, been the biggest influences. Tell me about when you started listening to that kind of music and any particular artists you like listening to.
I found a guy named Ray Lamontagne. Many years ago his first album, Trouble, ever since then; I mean I love, he’s got four albums, he’s just really like blues folk, like soulful folk music. Like when you can feel the passion in their performance, when you can see it in their face, you see it’s real music. I’m not gonna deny it, I obviously have a Jack Johnson side to me, John Mayer, Jason Mraz; I ‘ve heard all those, you know, acoustic pop people.

Do you think there’s a musical style or styles that are identified strongly with the Mississippi Valley?
I have friends that play reggae and rock. I have friends that are like real folky. I have friends that are hip hop artists. I don’t know if you can find a common theme for them. I definitely feel like I like knowing that this river goes all the way to New Orleans and having that blues and having that connection to the south…I think amongst the folk artists there probably is a common theme.

I’d like to believe there is [a style of river music], as kind of a romantic. I feel it. I’m very inspired by the river. It’s an amazing place. When I came back [after a year in California], and I was coming back from Rochester, at the sight of the Mississippi River, my heart sunk, my stomach dropped. I was like, whoa, here we are. I’m home again. I saw the river and I felt at home again…The river was one of the first places I went to when I got back…I’m just drawn to it. Like I’ll probably go down there today and just sit down there.

The song “Autumn Sunset” was written last spring, maybe two springs ago. It was just the most amazing sunset, and I could tell from UW-La Crosse just how amazing the sunset was going to be. So I went down there [to Riverside Park] and wrote this song right down there. Couples are down there holding hands; it’s a place where everybody goes to. It’s amazing to think that people have been doing that for hundreds of years, doing this exact same thing…Just a few more iPods these days…You can go down there and pretend no one else exists and dig into your own thoughts.

Signature River Song: Autumn Sunset
Other Song You Shouldn’t Miss: Best That I Can

Visit his website here.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2011