Star Who Never Was
How Trailer Star was posthumously recognised and the story of how
his tribute album came together
Since the first stirrings of the genre in the late 1980's - with
the release of cover albums of the songs of Syd Barrett, Captain
Beefheart and The Byrds on Imaginary Records - the tribute album
has become a small, but important, part of the record business.
With most of the more obvious candidates having been honoured, the
compilers/organisers of the more recent tribute albums have had
to widen their remit to include mainstream MOR artists (Tribute
to Garth Brooks anyone?) as well as delving deep into the territory
of cultdom (More Oar - a replication of Skip Spence's poor-selling,
but critically acclaimed 1969 album) or increasingly tortuous hybrids
of styles and artists (You can currently enjoy your Dylan tributes
in reggae, blues, bluegrass or gospel flavours, if you so wish!).
I first stumbled across press for Moon Over Downs, the tribute album
to Trailer Star, my initial thoughts were dismissive: a minor US
talent who probably stayed unknown for very good reasons - not every
new discovery can be a new Nick Drake, or even a new Skip Spence.
On closer reading it soon became apparent, from the tongue in cheek
descriptions and various unsubtle clues, that the Trailer Star depicted
was a mythical figure and had never existed (or at least not in
the form stated) and that the source of the songs was Shaun Belcher
- a freelance writer and published poet from England. A little research
uncovered the facts that he has run a website "Flyin' Shoes
Review" since 1999 (which is dedicated to literate songwriting
and claims to be "independent in mind, body and spirit")
and that he had also had some musical ambitions under the title
of Trailer Star. Some of the artists gathered together on the album
I knew of, others were unknown, but my interest sufficiently piqued,
I decided to buy a copy and give it a listen.
expectations were not exactly high, but even after a first listening,
it was obvious that the album was more than just another vanity
project and that the combination of Belcher's lyrics and the artists'
music and performances worked very well indeed.
whole album stands or falls on the quality of Belcher's lyrics.
Fortunately, they are very good, with several nice twists and turns
in his lyric writing that show him to be a man for whom words and
their order mean a lot. Several of the songs have American subject
matter and, luckily, Belcher is steeped in enough Americana to make
them sound true and honest without having to resort to too much
lyrical ventriloquism. Belcher's lyrics with English subject matter
are also astutely handled, but whereas you feel that he's reaching
back to the country, folk and blues acts of the mid twentieth century
as his inspiration for the "American" songs, when he's
tackling his homeland you feel his touchstone is as likely to be
Hardy or Houseman as any current musician. 'Donati's Comet' and
'The Lynton Flood' explore historical events and prove that an English
sense of place should be no handicap to creating a mythological
landscape for song, and that one shouldn't try and echo American
archetypes when they are inappropriate.
to the constraints of time and budget many of the songs are quite
sparsely arranged - although probably more varied stylistically
than I would have expected. Some of the acts on the record have
opted for the default mode when providing music to accompany Belcher's
dark lyrics with many of the songs ending up covered in the windswept
dust of the American mid-West. Not everybody decided to go down
this route and Deanna Varagonna's jazzy-bluesy reading of "Bled
Dry" evokes the jazzy-blues of pre-War St Louis, while Jim
Roll approaches his song from the powerpop angle adding handclaps
and squeeky organ to make the most upbeat song on the record. More
variety comes from this side of the Atlantic with Steve Roberts
very Mersey-pop take on roots styles, without ever being derivative
and Cicero Buck's "November Rain" is light and breezy
confection that floats along. Other highlights on the record include
Robert Burke Warren's self-harmonising on "Ghost Of What Might
Have Been" and James McSweeney's album opener, "My Little
been delighted by the album I felt that the story behind its creation
was worth deeper investigation. And as I half-expected, the story
behind the genesis of the album was worth telling...
you're down and on your knees, you often find that life's even more
ready to put the boot in than normal. In a particularly bad week
in November 2002 Shaun Belcher first found himself unemployed and
then a couple of days later discovered that his Dad had been diagnosed
with cancer. Feeling powerless in some ways, he resolved to take
control where he could and decided to initiate some kind of a charity
event. A couple of months later and feeling his musical endeavours
were leading nowhere, on a whim, he killed off his songwriting alter-ego,
Trailer Star, by emailing the contacts in his address book of his
decision. An email interchange between Belcher and Terry Clarke,
a long established singer-songwriter from Berkshire, resulted in
a change of direction in Belcher's thinking: Trailer Star would
indeed be killed off, but by getting together a group of musicians
to cover some of the Trailer Star (aka Shaun Belcher) material,
Belcher could probably assemble enough material to make an album
and then use the sales to raise money for charity.
most people with a daydream of making an album, Belcher had a hatful
of songwriting contacts and also a stockpile of hundreds of songs,
acquired over 20 years, to choose from. As he now admits: "I
had the brainstorm of sending out a Tribute to Trailer Star
email to as many people as possible and see what happened - I had
no idea how much a CD would cost or anything - I just went for it.
Ill be honest those were dark days in my fathers illness
and the support was lovely. I simply asked them to select a written
lyric and they could treat them in any way they chose as long as
they kept to the spirit of project."
response from the people he had contacted was excellent, with only
a handful of acts being too busy with prior recording and touring
commitments to submit songs. Kris Wilkinson of Cicero Buck was one
of the first people to come on board and was instrumental in helping
making the plans concrete. Wilkinson and her partner Joe Hughes
had created the Super Tiny Record label to release the first Cicero
Buck album and offered to release the album as well as recruiting
other sympathetic musicians to the project. "I think I could
have struggled on in both time and money and released the CD about
Spring 2004, but she brought a lot of American ooompth to the project
and next thing you know she has brought in Deanna Varagona and Claudia
Scott through her Nashville contacts which was fantastic,"
explains Belcher. "She and Joe Hughes also helped put up the
money to release the project, which I am eternally grateful for,
as I soon found CD releasing and mastering and promotion was not
a cheap pursuit. I put some toward the cost and they covered the
rest." Cicero Buck also helped bring the official Cancer Research
UK status to the album.
was also quite relaxed with his instructions to the artists and
not too protective of his songs: "The only rule was that they
should not change the lyrics, but everything else was left up to
them. i.e. the treatment, the length etc. As this was a project
done entirely by email - in fact even some of the tracks were posted
to studio for mastering by email as MP3s - then this didnt
always work out due to various breakdowns in communication."
Only a couple of the participants added or changed the lyrics and
then not to a substantial degree. "Dan Israel did a fantastic
job of extending the lyrics of One Horse Town and Robert
Burke Warren played with the words of Ghost of What Might
Have Been. Otherwise the lyrics were identical to what I posted
on lyrics website which I find amazing and in most cases they caught
the mood exactly."
all the constraints of time and communication the only major problem
arose when Bob Cheevers wrote and recorded a version of 'Drowning
Moon', a song that that Brian Lillie had already covered. Fortunately,
Bob Cheevers is nothing if not a prolific songwriter and quickly
selected and recorded 'These Wishing Fields'. Rather than let his
version of 'Drowning Moon' go to waste, he used it on his own solo
album (see interview below). Belcher was amazed at the speed with
which the musicians were working. "In double quick time we
had CD ready to release in July 2003," he now says, not forgetting
to add, " Id like to publicly thank all the participants
and especially Kris and Joe for their unselfish efforts".
album certainly holds its head high with any other number of other,
more orthodox, tribute albums and rarely betrays its DIY origins
and the haste with which it was assembled. The quality of the songs
and performances are certainly worth hearing for their own sake,
but spending money on the album also gives the bonus of helping
with cancer research. (Details of how to order the album can be
found at the bottom of this page).
spoke with a few of the artists involved in the project to hear
their side of the story.
ROLL TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
How were you approached to contribute to the project?
Roll: Shaun [Belcher] just gave me the concept, told me it was a
benefit and offered me the opportunity to adapt his lyrics to my
music. I had just finished a record where I put music to lyrics
by novelists Denis Johnson ("Jesus' Son") and Rick Moody
("The Ice Storm"). So this project was right up my alley!
How did you go about choosing "Clown's Car" as a set of
lyrics you felt you could work with? Anything in particular appeal
about it to you?
Roll: Yes. Absolutely. I was drawn to the very strong image of the
clown's car (you could make a poster for the song - just by it's
title. It is very visual) -- but loved the fact that it was a melancholy
love song at heart. The lyrics played out like a Technicolor movie
in my head the first time I read them . . . so I knew it was the
song for me. I don't do desperado-oriented folk songs as well as
some of the other artists on the compilation. "Clown's Car"
was perfect for my musical sensibilities. Shaun wrote an amazing
song in Clown's Car. It's heartbreaking.
What was the process like working with someone's lyrics at a distance?
(ie in time and geographically) I presume it wasn't too unusual
for you as you've worked with writer/lyricists before on other songs?
Roll: Exactly. For me it was a snap. My muscles for this kind of
work were already in shape from the Inhabiting the Ball record I
did with Johnson and Moody. In fact, this was the exact same process
I did with Inhabiting the Ball: Whether it was Belcher, Moody or
Johnson, they basically sent me lyrics via e-mail and I got to work
on it from my home studio. Proximity, location and timing were all
very comfortable to me.
Were you happy with the results? Personally, I really enjoyed the
power-poppy feel which set it apart from the other songs on the
album - plus adding hand-claps always gives that basic R&R excitement.
Also is it true that the song is going on your next album?
Roll: I love the results. I know it shocked Shaun when he heard
it for the first time. I think he needed a minute or two to adjust
to the pop elements (the hand claps in particular knocked him off
his stool). But after two or three listens I know he loved it. I
think it is a great melody and that it matches his lyrics nicely.
I intend to put an alternate mix/version of the song on my next
record. I already asked Shaun for permission and he was into it.
Was it enjoyable working with some-else's baby, rather than your
own, or conversely more stressful?
Roll: Oh I really enjoy being a part of another persons vision.
As a solo artist I am acutely aware of all of the responsibility
that goes into a project like this, and while it is ultimately very
satisfying, it is also quite draining. So anytime I can be the side
man, fiddler, guitarist, banjo player, or simply contribute a single
song to a larger project I am pretty much blissed out. I think Shaun
Belcher and Super Tiny Records did an excellent job with this project!!
VARAGONA TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
How did you get involved in this project?
Varagona: I believe Kris [Wilkinson] first approached me to join
the project: Shaun contacted me shortly afterwards.
How did you go about choosing "Bled Dry" as a set of lyrics
you felt you could work with? Anything in particular appeal about
it to you?
Varagona: I enjoyed his lyrics quite a bit; but I wanted a story
that I could feel coming from my perspective: "Bled Dry"
fit being a woman and American more to me than most of the others.
What was the process like working with someone's lyrics at a distance?
Varagona: Not a problem in general as I often write my own songs
lyrics first; I started writing as a poet first; so this can be
How often do you co-write songs?
Varagona: I have not done a lot of co-writing; but it can be quite
natural to work with/off another persons ideas:
Were you happy with the results?
Varagona: Mostly; it was a fun task. I would have liked a little
more time to live with the feel of the story, but that was my fault;
as it came at a very busy time for me.
Was it enjoyable working with someone else's project, rather than
Varagona: I often work with others, i.e. Lambchop, Bevel and others.
I often like to sit in or play with new musicians to keep things
and ideas fresh.
CHEEVERS TALKS ABOUT "MOON OVER THE DOWNS"
I believe Shaun Belcher asked if you would participate in this?
Cheevers: Yeah...Shaun asked me, along with a bunch of other artists
who he liked, to choose a lyric of his for the purpose of doing
a CD - part of the profits from its sale would then go toward cancer
research in the UK. I've lost friends to cancer. In fact, just two
weeks ago my best friend of 41 years died of liver cancer. I was
with him for the last 5 days of his life till the moment of his
I know you initially recorded "Drowning Moon", but leaving
that story for a while, what attracted you to the lyrics of "These
Cheevers: The lyric to "Wishing Fields" had a longing
to it that reminded me of some of the characters in my Civil War
songs...the toil and the suffering that was overshadowed by the
hope for a better tomorrow.
Normally you write your own lyrics. What was it like writing the
music around pre-existing words?
Cheevers: It was surprisingly easy. Plus you have to remember I'm
a Nashville songwriter and have lots of experience in writing from
every angle of a song.
I think your version of "These Wishing Fields" is very
good - you've certainly put the Bob Cheevers stamp on it. Are you
happy with the results?
Cheevers: Absolutely happy with it. I'm very proud of how it sounds
and the mood it portrays. Its a perfect enmeshment of two people's
Can you tell me the story of how you recorded "Drowning Moon"
by mistake? Is it going to be on your new album?
Cheevers: When Shaun told me to choose a lyric from the ones on
his web site, I did just that. What I failed to do was look to see
if someone else had chosen that lyric already. I was really taken
by the story of "Drowning Moon". I first asked Shaun if
he minded that I change a few words here and there and maybe add
a line or so. He said he didn't mind, so I sorta reshaped the lyric
into what I felt made it stronger from a rhyming, rhythm and story
standpoint. Then I wrote the music and told him how excited I was
about "Drowning Moon". His reply was "But Bob, someone
else has already chosen that one". Ooops! By then, I was so
invested in the song and so pleased with it, I knew I'd have it
to use somewhere along the line. As fate would have it, my upcoming
CD is a guitar/vocal CD of songs that I feel real good about playing
by myself. Its called One Man One Martin, and "Drowning Moon"
is the second track on the CD.
WILCOCK - TRISTE MAGAZINE
Artists Moon Over The Downs
The Trailer Star Tribute
One of the most
beautiful Americana records that have been released over this past
year is without any doubt this captivating album. The "tribute to
a star that never was" is a concept album conceived by Shaun Belcher,
a most creative character who, amongst innumerable other activities,
runs the Flyin Shoes website. The fictitious Trailer Star is the
deceased musician to whom this album has been dedicated. Shaun wrote
the lyrics for 15 songs and had them put to music and recorded by
a fine selection of Americana artists, mostly troubadours from the
folk genre. Sometimes the songs are more rock-related, like the
solid Kinks-ish Clown's Car by Jim Roll and Brian Lillie, with a
heart-warming Augie Meyers-organ. The 15 tracks are 15 beautiful
songs, which, in spite of their diversity, constitute one coherent
whole. They paint a picture of the darkish, Twin Peaks-like world
of Trailer Star. As the album is actually a chain of great songs,
it is nearly out of the question to mention its highlights. Let's
try it anyway: the haunting The Devil's House by Claudia Scott and
the renowned multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplan will deprive anyone
of one's sleep. These Wishing Fields, One Horse Town and My Little
Town by Bob Cheevers, Dan Israel and James McSweeney respectively,
are intimate, personal revelations in the style of Guy Clark and
Willie Nelson. There's the intriguing, almost chilling November
Morning Sun by Cicero Buck, with the highly talented vocalist Kris
Wilkinson, whose harmonica creeps up and down your spine. Lambchop's
Deanna Varagona calls up goose pimples with the dismal Bled Dry,
Ronnie Elliot relives Johnny Cash in the dark Devil's Address, there's
an obsessive violin in Brian Lillie's Drowning Moon, with direct,
unemotional vocals. Need one go on? This has become an album that
will absorb the listener completely, that will embrace him, to never
let him go. The fact that the greater part of the proceeds of the
unique project will be donated to Cancer Research in Great Britain
is yet another incentive to buy this must-have album.
Bert van Kessel