The New Music Weekly Country Internet Main Chart top 85 issued Nov. 7 included songs from such well known country artists as Billy Ray Cyrus, Garth Brooks, Lee Brice, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, Luke Bryan, Tim McGraw, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Chase Bryant, Montgomery Gentry and Eric Church.
Above every one of those artists — in fact, at number one — was “Livin’ on Borrowed Time,” a song by Stephen Shepherd, a senior lecturer in English Composition at UW–Platteville.
“I would think I am a teacher who performs, but they both feed on each other … a synergistic kind of thing going on,” said Shepherd. “I teach writing, and I discuss writing every day, and I do it. Someone who teaches composition in the basement of the library is putting out music that is so competitive that it’s pushing major artists off the chart.”
For having a number one single, less than two years removed from having a number one album, “Escape Is Not a Place,” on top of the U.S. Roots Music Internet Radio Airplay Chart, Shepherd is not a household name on the UW–Platteville campus.
“They get used to this around here,” he said. “The irony is I never got used to it. Someone says if you reach number one, there’s only one way to go.”
An additional irony is that Shepherd’s work doesn’t necessarily fit today’s definition of country music; it is somewhere between country, folk and bluegrass.
“It is not a homogenized version of anything; it’s a pretty original take on the world,” said Shepherd, who describes country songs as literal, while folk uses metaphor. “I talk the way I write; I talk in metaphors and analogies.”
Shepherd’s music appears to have a fan base in California, the Carolinas and the Southwest — as well as the Netherlands, where the CD is at number 14 — and not in the Midwest. His first CD, “Einstein’s Hair,” included two European top-five songs, the title track and “Gentle Guitar Pickin,’” while “Big Truck” was number three in Australia and number six in Austria.
Five years after the CD’s European release, “Six Pack Syndrome” reached number three on one chart, number five on another, and number seven on another. The album eventually hit 11th on the U.S. Roots Music Report.
His fourth CD, “Daylight on the Rise,” included a single, “Uzis in the Barn,” that hit number two in France.
“I always thought I was writing Midwestern music,” he said. “I know California likes my work. I hear my music all the time. My dental hygienist called me on my cellphone — she had inherited a small farm in Tennessee — and she said, ‘You won’t believe what I’m listening to right now.’”
In addition to its spot atop the NMW, “Livin’ on Borrowed Time” was number three on the U.S. Roots Americana chart, and number four on the Country Road Top 50 Indie Country chart. The CD was number three in Wisconsin and number 31 in the U.S. on the U.S. Roots Top 50 Americana country album chart.
Another irony is that, while Shepherd records music, “I seldom perform” live. “The last time I performed was outside Omaha three or four years ago,” along with playing in China while he was teaching for UWP there, and doing a 2½-hour performance at the Dubuque Arboretum.
“Living on Borrowed Time,” the title track of Shepherd’s newest CD, started at number 62 in July. Four months later, it hit number one.
“If you get too much formula, it never moves; if it gets too creative, it never moves,” said Shepherd.
He describes the CD as “kind of honky-tonk; it’s got that kind of guitar going on.”
Shepherd’s previous album, “Escape Is Not a Place,” was on the Roots Music Country chart for 20 weeks. In 2010, he said, “I was between Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley.”
The NMW chart is one of the few charts that puts major artists and independents such as Shepherd on the same chart. The chart is based on sales, radio airplay and downloads.
“It’s really about music,” said Shepherd. “If you’re an independent artist, you’re inclined to write what you want to write, and not necessarily a formula. I don’t set out to imitate anybody; I set out to write the music I like.”
In contrast, the better known Billboard charts list music from only the major labels.
Shepherd is far from an overnight success. “Living on Borrowed Time” is his sixth album since his wife suggested he record the songs he had been writing in 2004. He said he started writing at 8 years old. His mother, a music teacher, listened to classical music and show tunes. His father, a factory worker, played guitar and was a fan of Johnny Cash and Cash’s contemporaries. His uncle played the fiddle.
Shepherd counts as his writing inspirations Jim Croce and Gordon Lightfoot, and “sometimes I like the bizarre nature of people like Warren Zevon — ‘Werewolves of London’ — people who just kind of push the boundaries of things.”
Shepherd usually begins writing a song with the melody. “My mind is tuned for music,” he said. “They’re like one painting at a time, one song at a time. All of this is all my own music — this is music that I’ve created. That’s why I like to do it — it’s just a creative outlet.”
Shepherd’s first five albums were recorded at the former M Studio in Galena with a group of local musicians that “kind of scattered” after the studio closed, he said.
“My biggest fear is that when I get an album done it’ll be my last,” he said. “I used to chase songs; now I just wait for something to connect.”
“Living on Borrowed Time” was recorded at Catamount Recording in Cedar Falls, Iowa, over seven months starting in January.
“Because it was a new project — new musicians, new studio — it took a lot more time than the previous CDs,” said Shepherd.
That was considerably shorter than the time it took him to write one of his songs, “Wake Me from This Nightmare” — 27 years.
“I had the first verse and I had the second verse,” he said. “A guy’s girl left him, and he keeps having nightmares about their relationship at night. The third verse was always elusive; I don’t know why.”
“Living on Borrowed Time” began with the recording of the drums and bass guitar parts, with Shepherd singing what he described as a “rough track.” Shepherd then played rhythm guitar, then sang the vocals with a guitar track. The lead guitarist then played his parts, and the background vocalist sang her parts, followed by the fiddle player. The electric piano player came in during the process to record his parts.
Shepherd recorded six videos through UW–Platteville’s Pioneer TV-5, including “Lady Friend,” “War Is Never Over,” “Six Pack Syndrome,” “Wake Me from This Nightmare,” and “Radio and Moonlight.”
Shepherd is considering performing on the road this summer, but he has no plans to become a full-time musician.
“I think I’d get tired of travel,” he said. “I like my family; I like my house; I like comforts.
“I think for what I do, I don’t think it can be done any better.”