Featured Music: Wednesday, May 16, 2002
360? Turn

Shawn Pittman’s back on track with ‘Full Circle.’

By Paula Felps

At 28, Shawn Pittman is already working on his comeback.

Three years after dropping completely off the musical radar screen, the blues singer/guitarist has a new band, a new album, and — most importantly — a whole new way of living. The new disc, aptly titled Full Circle, shows Pittman blossoming into not only a quality singing ax-man but a heckuva producer and songwriter, too.

“I didn’t know how to handle anything,” he says of his previous attempt at a full-time music career. “I couldn’t keep any consistency, so it was hard to be part of a group. I was disorganized and kind of unmanageable.”

Not the first artist to fall victim to the excesses that are readily available to folk who make their livings in bars, Pittman was living a self-destructive stereotype that could have been scripted for VH-1’s Behind the Music. Although his talent allowed him to land plum gigs — such as sideman for blueswomen like Susan Tedeschi and Cricket Taylor — Pittman had trouble maintaining momentum and was often sidetracked by the bottle. By 25, he had begun to feel like a has-been and left Dallas, the city he had called home for seven years.

Pittman had moved from his small hometown of Noble, Okla, at 17, hoping that Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for Performing and Visual Arts was the perfect place to earn a diploma and hone his musical talents, which had been lying relatively dormant in the red dirt of his roots. He had begun playing the piano at 8, and tried his hand at the drums and sax before discovering his passion for the guitar. Growing up with a mother who played boogie-woogie on the family piano and hearing the sounds of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly on his parents’ record player had pulled the young Pittman deeper into his musical fascination. But it wasn’t until he later stumbled upon the blues of Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkins that he knew what he wanted to do.

In theory, moving to Dallas and attending the arts magnet school was the best way to begin working toward his music career. But dividing his time between classes at Booker T. and Hillcrest High School — plus taking night classes at Skyline — proved to be too much for him.

Soon, school went out the window, and Pittman’s classroom became the bars of Deep Ellum, where he studied the live shows of teachers like Mike Morgan, Anson Funderburke, Holland K. Smith, and Hash Brown. He befriended the artists he aspired to emulate and soon was a working musician.

“Hash Brown hooked me up with Cricket Taylor, and so I started playing in her band,” he says. “After that it was Cold Blue Steel, then I met Paul Size and Jason Moeller, and played with them for about a year in The Icemen.”

The Icemen became the Holy Moellers and moved to Austin. Pittman stayed behind and played with other bands, including the Bramhall Brothers, before putting out a solo album in 1997. The self-produced debut, Burnin’ Up, was picked up by the Minnesota-based Cannonball Records and was followed with Something’s Gotta Give one year later. Shortly after that, something did give — namely, Pittman’s ability to maintain his balance. He had opened for Susan Tedeschi at the Bayfront Blues Festival, and she was impressed enough with his abilities to bring him into the band as a sideman. But once again, his bad habits consumed his talents, and the stint was short-lived.

“Then things got really bad,” he says. “So I disappeared. I moved to Austin, got in trouble here and there, and played very sparingly. Then I got really depressed. I didn’t think I’d ever play again, and I just wouldn’t leave the house.”

It took a couple of well-known bluesmen to pull Pittman out of his house and out of his haze. Tommy Shannon, former bassist for Double Trouble, and ex-Fabulous Thunderbirds bassist Preston Hubbard were instrumental in salvaging Pittman from his downward spiral. Hubbard, no stranger to substance abuse or the inside of a jail cell, made Pittman believe there was a chance for a fresh start. Perhaps more importantly, he made the young artist believe in himself.

Pittman founded a band, with Hubbard on bass, and began gigging. Shawn Pittman & Killer Instinct, his current band, conjures up that blues sound that exploded in Austin in the late ’70s, a rock-injected, bulked-up take on the genre. Almost immediately after it began playing out, the group landed an opening spot for Robert Cray. When Mike Crowley of Crowley Artist Management in Austin caught the live show, he directly signed Pittman and took over managing the band.

“That’s been the best thing for us,” Pittman says. “He makes a big difference. I don’t have to worry about [the business side], and it’s enabled my music to progress. It feels great.”

Full Circle gives you a glimpse into a promising, maturing guitarist with a hefty set of blues chops and keen songwriting skills under his belt. His voice, which sounds deeper in person than on the album, isn’t yet as powerful as his playing but manages to keep up with the heavily muscled sound. And, with a relentless touring schedule in front of him, Pittman is undoubtedly polishing his pipes as well as his playing.

“With every gig, we’re getting stronger,” he says. “When I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t getting any better, and I was afraid I’d stay at that level forever. Now I know that’s not going to happen.”

Where it goes, of course, is anybody’s guess, and that’s not something Pittman cares to contemplate for too long.

“I can’t really say who I want to be or where I want to be,” he says. “I’m just letting the music take me where we’re going.”

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