Nola Rose & The Thorns quickly forge ahead

Jeffrey B. Remz, September 1995

Nola Rose Shepherd likes her traditional country music just fine.

And while Nola Rose & The Thorns will perform covers of other artists in the clubs, they do set limits.

People will approach the Boston-based band with requests. Not all of them get met. "It can be unsettling," Shepherd said. "People come up, 'Do you know 'Trashy Women?' No. I don't know all the words."

And that may typify the battle that Rose & The Thorns, a band getting acclaim, has to face.While those attending the clubs may want to hear the tried and true familiar hits they hear on the radio, that's not what a lot of the bands out there are all about.

The band does about one-third apiece of original, older music, such as Buck Owens and Hank, and covers of recent music, a la Dwight Yoakam and Pam Tillis.

The band - Kit Dennis on bass and Nola's husband of almost a year, Tom Yates on lead guitar, Phil Lipman on guitar and lap steel and Scott Sherman on drums - plays in the Boston area about half a dozen times a month.

"We play enough just to keep our name out there," Shepherd. "We are trying to refrain from booking ourselves up too much became that (cuts into time) for recording. We have day jobs.""It is limited somewhat especially right in Boston," said Shepherd, citing the dearth of clubs. "We tend to play in the suburbs."

"Our goal is not to play all the clubs," she said. "There are enough to keep you busy all the time if you go into Rhode Island, western Massachusetts."

But the band needs to play the clubs to make a buck. And that may mean playing line dancing oriented clubs where the clientele is most interested with what they hear on the radio, not originals."Our goal is to work out the original material," Shepherd said.

About a year ago, the band released a five-song tape. The music has vocal echoes of Patsy Cline and musically of other traditiona artists, not the hot new country heard on the radio.

Shepherd, who showcased a strong, but sensitive sounding voice, wants to move beyond the tape. "We are doing new songs," she said. "The band sounds a lot better right now."

This fall, the band will commence work on a compact disc. The hope is to have the compact disc out by January. "I don't know how realistic that is," Shepherd said.

The aim is to get bites from independent labels, such as Rounder and Hightone. If no one does, the band is prepared to release the disc itself. Chances of being picked up by a major label are slim, Shepherd acknowledged.

"We realize we are not as commercial as you would hear on the radio, but that's okay with us," Shepherd said.

"It seems that the country music market has been inundated with artists," she said. "It has exploded so quickly. It just seems to me that the commercial stuff is so formulaic, that I don't think we would ever want to be in that position. Sure, the fame would be great, but the freedom is limited."

"It seems like the independent just allow you more freedom," said Shepherd, who works for a management consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. "I think that's our goal. Every musician wants to make it famous, but the reality is that's likelihood is that's not the reality."

"It's the old battle - you sell out or not," Shepherd. "We don't have the option right now."Most of the songs on the CD will be originals save perhaps a Merle Haggard or bluegrass cover tune. Lipman, a New Jersey native with stints in Boston bands including Robin Lane, does most of the writing.

Everyone in the band writes except for Sherman, who like Shepherd and Lipman attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. Lipman and Shepherd attended the school at the same time, but did not know each other.

But Shepherd said she and Dennis had done little writing over the past year. Marriage, fixing up a van and a host of other responsibilities put a dent in the plans. "Stuff gets in the way," Dennis said. "You got so much time."

Dennis apparently had the time to track down Shepherd though when it came to a relationship. Shepherd, 30, a Cedar Falls, Ia. native, moved to Boston about 10 years ago to attend Berklee. During her first week in the area, she walked down Massachusetts Avenue and wandered into Cheapo Records, a store renowned for its huge collection. Dennis, who has worked there for about 10 years, noticed Shepherd.

He eventually tracked her down at a cafe across from Berklee where she worked. The relationship apparently took off when Shepherd later went back to Cheapo, asking for a Patsy Cline record.

Shepherd's love of music stemmed from her father, who had a big band in Iowa. Her first gig was playing with him. Shepherd received a degree in 1987 in music production and engineering from Berklee. "I was hoping to go on and be an engineer, but that didn't pan out," she said. "I lost interest in it I guess."

Shepherd and Dennis played in a soul band, Blue Heaven with Dennis still a member. She left last year to commit to Nola Rose & The Thorns. "I never saw myself as a soul singer, "she said. "I did it anyway. It was great experience...I never felt completely convinced when I sang the music."

"I've sung every style of music, but when I met Kit, he is a huge country music buff." Shepherd said. "Together, we decided we would start a band...I didn't grow up listening to country music. It just cuts in a way other way other music doesn't. I love it. It's great for me. I've been searching for a way to express my singing for along time."

Shepherd's influences include Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam, Jim Lauderdale, Junior Brown and Heather Myles, a California artist whom Shepherd may most closely resemble.

"Of course, you listen to Patsy Cline," she said. "I love her voice. I love her music. Nobody is ever going to sound like her. You can maybe pick up some of the feeling, the lonesome quality, but there's never going to be a sound like that again."

Dennis played a short stint with The Lyres, local punk legends from the 1970's, Robin Right, a well-known New England country performer, and Wheelers & Dealers, for whom he still plays occasionally.

Shepherd and Dennis had started writing together about two or three years, laying the groundwork for what would eventually become their current band. They hooked up with Lipman about two years ago. Sherman, who remains a member of Wheelers & Dealers, was drafted into Nola et al via connections.

Yates may have the most experience, playing with a variety of acts from the area including the late Dick Curless, John Lincoln Wright, The Estes Boys and Tina Welch. Dennis knew him from playing together in Blue Heaven. "We weren't quite sure if he'd if he'd be interested," Dennis said.Nola Rose & The Thorns' first gig was in May 1994, a benefit for Michael Barrett, who ran for the Democratic nomination for governor. The band takes no blame for Barrett's failure.

More dates followed, and acclaim was quick. Lipman and Dennis won the songwriters award last year at the Massachusetts Country Music Awards Association for "Carolina," a song on the tape. The pair along with Shepherd took first place runner up for the songwriters award for "Thought I Heard an Angel." The band received nominations for most promising group of the year and Shepherd for most promising female vocalist.

While doubtlessly happy to get the award, Dennis said it was a bit of a double-edged sword since he questioned how many people even heard the song. "Country music in Boston seems a tougher sell," he said. "I don't know if it's because Boston is more trend conscious." He said the scene was geared towards rock.

"It's just not freewheeling enough,"he said of country.

In this fall's version of the association's awards, nominations were received for most promising new group and three-part harmony group. Shepherd is up for promising new female artist, and Yates for most promising new male artist.

Now the emphasis is on the CD at hand. "I can't wait to get the CD done, " Shepherd said. "That's our biggest goal."

Her husband has his hopes pinned on the disc. "I guess I'm still chasing the dream," Dennis said.

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •