I saw Bruce Shaw months before I actually met him. He was onstage at a club (a Bellingham institution called the 3B Tavern), playing mandolin with a band I can’t remember the name of. I had just turned 21, and that night was the second time I’d ever been to a bar.
Up till then, I could count the number of times I’d seen live music on one hand, and I’d never seen anyone play mandolin before. Bruce was up there tearing it up, making a whirlwind of music while the rest of the band tried to keep up. I watched from a booth and drank Rolling Rock, transfixed. The feeling was simple. I have to play music with that guy. I said it out loud.
I was too shy to approach him that night, but we ran into each other at a party a few months later. The place was called Randy’s Roadhouse. Inside there were Dead posters and church pews and girls that spun in circles when they danced. I was full of determination and little actual talent, but I brought my guitar anyway. I remember being really into Doc Watson at the time. I knew Deep River Blues and would play it over and over like it was the only blues song in the world.
Bruce was up there on the little stage in the Roadhouse, older and wiser and more at ease with himself. He was jamming with another band, so I waited for an hour and watched. When things quieted down, I took the last swallow from the flask I brought and stood up. He was putting his mandolin away. I was intimidated as hell, because he could already do what I was only trying. But I walked up to the stage and asked him did he know any Doc Watson. And he said, “I know all of em!” and laughed his trademark giggle laugh, and took his mandolin back out, and we sat on the stage facing each other and played all the songs I knew, one after the other. He played slow so I could keep up.
A few weeks later, he came over to my house with a Norman and Nancy Blake album called Blind Dog. He left it on my kitchen table. Maybe check this out, he said.
The next week it was old time fiddler James Bryan, and then Dirk Powell. He never talked much about what I should listen to, they were just gestures, unspoken suggestions. It turned out that he had great taste in music, and at 21, I had a few things going for me, but taste was not one of them.
Bruce and I went on to form a band called the Barbed Wire Cutters, with Adam Carp, Josh Brahinsky, and Chris Glass. That was a pretty great time in my life. Not only was the band my day job for a lot of my twenties, but it had kind of a cultural impact on the Bellingham music scene in the early 2000’s. It seems sentimental to say it now, but it was important to me and to Bruce and to our friends too. Those years in Bellingham were pretty magical. Playing at the Boundary Bay, or rehearsing at the park or just jamming on a Washington State Ferry headed out to Orcas Island. I still run into people who met their now-spouse at a Barbed Wire Cutters show.
Bruce plays a lot of instruments, but my favorite is the clawhammer banjo. I called him up a few weeks ago to set up a date, and the day after I recorded Reischman in the hotel room, I drove up to Bellingham for a quick visit. We met at Randy’s Roadhouse. I texted him before I got there.
You want anything? I asked.
Cookies and soda
is what he texted back.
So I stopped at the grocery store and picked up a box of Oreo Thins and two bottles of Dad’s Rootbeer.
We hung out for a couple hours and drank root beer and ate the Oreos. He played clawhammer banjo on Nothing Really Matters and Stormy Seas and I listened along with my big white headphones. Then we just hung out for awhile. I played with a sweet dog named Ace and he told me about his latest girlfriends. And then I got back in my car and drove south.
I love this man and I owe him a lot. I'm excited to share his music with you. And if you ever get to hear him play live, lucky you.