Right on the heels of his third and best CD for Rebel Records, "Worries On My Mind," the nucleus of his crackerjack acoustic country band - including banjo-picking chief songwriter Jake Jenkins - have departed.
Speaking from his booking agent's home in Columbia, Tenn., Shiflett says the parting was not bitter. "No, no. Not at all. (Jenkins) got married a couple of years ago, and then he had a child. Just this last year, he had another child."
"We've been out there 10 years, but still it's a struggle. In order to make enough money to support a family, you have to be gone all the time. We tried balancing it out where we could be out two or three days a week and be home two or three days. That didn't work. We tried everything that we could imagine, but it was inevitable that it would all catch up with us. (Mandolinist) Randy Lindley was the same way. He has three young children, so he had to leave too. So Randy left, Jake left, and (fiddle player) Chuck Westerman left."
Ironically, they jumped ship just as the band began to find favor with some Americana radio programmers.
"We've picked up 10 new Americana stations in the last couple of weeks," reports a hopeful Shiflett. "That was one of our goals with this new CD. We had our special guest Jim Lauderdale - of course he's hot in the Americana market. I consulted with a friend of mine up in New Jersey named Fred Boenig. He has Americana Media Productions, and that's what he does is push records onto the Americana stations. I don't know what the difference would be (with the new album) other than we have a special guest that's big in that market already."
It has taken the band 10 years to even glimpse the opportunity for that type of niche market success. As Shiflett talks of the band's origins, one senses that he'd like the founding members along for the ride.
"Randy Lindley, who is on this CD, he and I were sidemen working with the Sullivan Family - an all bluegrass gospel group out of Alabama. We'd been with them for a couple of years and decided to come back home to Texas and put something together. It was actually Randy's idea, he said, 'We ought to do that. It's time you stepped out on your own.' I said, 'Well, I don't know. But I guess we could do just as well with that as we are now as sidemen. So, let's try it.'"
"So, we were looking for a banjo picker, and I called Jake. So it was me, Randy and Jake originally. We went through a couple of bass players and finally found another guy who was a cousin of Jake's - his name was Macy Graham, and he lived over in the same part of the country that Jake was from. So, that was the original group. Just the four of us with guitar, banjo, mandolin and bass. It was all Texas-based people originally, and we worked two or three years like that. Randy left (he later returned), and then Macy went from bass to the mandolin. Then my son Kris came in on the bass.
"Up until we did our first Rebel project (a self-titled 1999 album), we were still all from Texas, and we had recorded for Atteiram Records. That was a small label out of Georgia. It was Marietta spelled backwards."
Boasting crowd-pleasing showmanship, a '40s sartorial workingman's flair and impressive acoustic technique, Shiflett and Big Country earned a loyal fan base in and around Texas. In the process, fiery banjo-plucker Jenkins transformed into a first-rate songsmith.
"Well, when we first started, we were just doing the standard tunes that everybody does and searching for material. So, I wrote a few songs early in our career, and Jake just started writing songs one day, and we started bringing them into the band. The more he wrote, the more he liked writing so it just evolved into a passion for him. He wrote a lot of songs that we didn't use. He wrote really well in the country and honky tonk vein."
Jenkins' songs provide the bulk of original material included on Big Country Show's discs , and he's a major contributor to "Worries On My Mind." Even more important, the group's instrumental attack is at its ferocious peak, thanks in no small part to Jenkins' rapid-fire Earl Scruggs-type instrumental rides.
When told the band plays their acoustic lead breaks with rock 'n' roll intensity, Shiflett laughed appreciatively before adding, "Well, that just evolved naturally from working together on one microphone. Being limited on microphones means you have to work harder. Yeah, that's something we done on purpose. We pride ourselves on being aggressive with it. There's so many elements of different types of music in what we're doing. The banjo break on 'Bobo's Boogie,' if you listen to it, it sounds like Chuck Berry playing something on the guitar. Some of the stuff that Andy Ruf was doing on the Dobro, a lot of that string-bending work, that's all steel guitar sounding work."