Alt-country songwriter. Rock & roll guitarist. Pop-punk pioneer. Chris Shiflett has played multiple roles during his 20+ year career, fronting his own band one minute and serving as the Foo Fighters’ longtime guitarist the next. He turns a new corner with West Coast Town, an autobiographical solo album that finds Shiflett pulling triple-duty as singer, songwriter and bandleader.
Heavily inspired by both the unique twang of California’s country tradition — particularly Bakersfield icons like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard — and the rootsy stomp of the Rolling Stones, West Coast Town is an extension of the acclaimed alt-country career Shiflett kickstarted back in 2010. It’s a bright, bold album, with Shiflett revising the supposed “rules” of country music to suit his own background. There are no songs about Georgia back roads here. No southern belles in denim cut-offs. Instead, Shiflett — a California native who grew up in Santa Barbara — writes about an adolescence spent onstage, on the beach, and on the prowl. During the nostalgic title track, “West Coast Town,” a teenage Shiflett chases girls along the Pacific Ocean shoreline, returning home at night to his childhood home on Salinas Street. Later, he drinks away an ex’s memory in “Room 102,” battles hangovers and heartbreak in “I’m Still Drunk,” and triumphantly wraps up a rock & roll show with “Goodnight Little Rock.”
“‘Goodnight Little Rock’ is a truck driving country song,” he says of the rowdy, guitar-driven track, “but written from the viewpoint of a van tour. That’s as close as I’ve come to ever being a truck driver.”
Truck driver or not, Shiflett has spent the past two decades crisscrossing the globe, playing thousands of shows along the way. In 2016, those travels took him to Nashville, where he interviewed Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb as part of his weekly podcast, Walking the Floor with Chris Shiflett. The meeting took place at RCA Studio A, shortly after Cobb moved his recording operations into the historic room. There, surrounded by vintage gear and the ghosts of country music’s greatest singers, Cobb and Shiflett formed a genuine friendship. “When I left the studio,” Shiflett remembers, “I thought, ‘I have to make a record with that dude.’ I was already a big fan of the records Cobb produces, and his setup was just so amazing.”
Later that summer, Shiflett came back to Nashville, this time with a catalog of new songs in tow. West Coast Town, his first solo album since 2013’s collection of honky-tonk covers, All Hat and No Cattle, was recorded at RCA Studio A over a three-week period, with help from Grammy-winning engineer/mixer Matt Ross-Spang. Cobb doubled as the album’s producer and acoustic guitar player, with a group of A-list studio musicians — pedal steel guitarist Robby Turner (Waylon Jennings, Chris Stapleton), drummer Chris Powell (Brent Cobb, Jamey Johnson), bassist Adam Gardner (Southern Family), and keyboardist Michael Webb (Southern Family) — adding their own contributions. On an album filled with all-star names, though, Shiflett plays the biggest role, singing and picking his way through 10 original songs that mix together the bounce of Bakersfield country, the anthemic punch of blue-collar roots-rock, the rule-breaking rebelliousness of SoCal punk, and plenty of guitar heroics.
With every song captured in two or three takes, West Coast Town often sounds more like the work of a live band than a studio creation. That approach suits the songs well. After all, this is an album about growing up — about making peace with your roots — and growing up is always a bit messy. Asked about his influences, Shiflett rattles off names like the Stray Cats, Social Distortion, Dwight Yoakam, and Uncle Tupelo, all of whom challenged the rules of the genres they occupied. West Coast Town follows a similar path. Although set in coastal California, it’s an album that creates its own geography — a place where dark lyrics rub shoulders with bright bursts of melody; where country music doesn’t just belong to American South, where the soft swoon of pedal steel makes way for sharply-worded lyrics; and where one of modern music’s biggest multi-taskers can combine his songwriting, singing and guitar-playing talents into one track list.