“Southern Gothic American” is how Shawn James describes his music. James will take his unique amalgam of folk, blues, rock, Americana and soul to the stage tonight (Wednesday) at 6 p.m. during the Sunset Concert Series in Sunset Plaza, adjacent to the top of Lift 1 in Mountain Village.
James’ music is deeply soulful and leans more toward the dark and mysterious than toward the light and joyful. He grew up in Chicago and then spent time in Mississippi. Life isn’t easy in these parts. The struggle is real, and that is reflected in James’ often haunting music.
James started his career working in music studios as a sound engineer. In 2012, he and his wife Michelle moved from Nashville to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to pursue a career in music industry. In the beginning, James busked around downtown Fayetteville. From there, he started playing in local venues and recording his own songs in a bedroom studio.
In 2012, James released his first self-published album “Shadows.” He simultaneously formed a band called Shawn James & The Shapeshifters with local musicians. James has released 10 albums over the last seven years.
The music business has changed remarkably in the 21st century. Whereas success used to be measured by the sales of records, today artists shoot for Spotify spins, YouTube views and the ultimate score — placement in a TV show, commercial or video game.
James has navigated this viral landscape remarkably well. Indeed, he can be seen as the epitome of how to build a successful career as a 21st century musician
In 2013, James recorded a video that would lead to his first big break, although it would take two years for it to happen.
The video is a cover of “American Hearts,” by A. A. Bondy, filmed in W.O.L.F. Sanctuary in Bellvue, which rescues captive-born wolves and wolf dogs and provides them a home. In the video, snow is blowing and wolves are pacing in the background as James and his friend Baker McKinney play and sing, “We were raised by wolves, and we are still wild …” In almost perfect timing, the wolves join in howling as James reaches the lyrics: “We howl when the troubled wind blows.”
The video only had a small number of views for several years, until it was posted to Reddit with a catchy headline. Within a day, the video had garnered 1 million views and currently has 4 million views.
Since then, James’ music has been used as a theme for Discovery Channel’s “Yukon Men” and featured in CBS’s “Reckless” and HBO’s “Shameless.” James’ biggest score occurred when Sony PlayStation featured the song “Through the Valley” from his first album “Shadows” in the trailer for the game “The Last of Us Part II.” This exposure generated over 3 million plays on Spotify, topping the Spotify viral chart in the United Kingdom.
The space where the traditional and modern musical models converge is with live performances. Today’s musicians make their living performing live, and James tours rigorously, playing up to 175 shows a year. Tonight’s show kicks off a 30-day tour that will take James to Canada, the Midwest and East coast.
Who knows, perhaps someone will shoot a video of James performing tonight framed in between a perfect rainbow that will become an internet sensation, leaving viewers all over the world wondering, “What does it all mean?”