Abby Lynes for the Missoulian
Michael Shaw likes to talk to horses.
A true-blue horseman and former wilderness ranger for Glacier National Park, the horses talk back on his recently released country album, “He Rode On,” which tells tales of outlaws, partying, getting into trouble, the power of the community, and the wildness that is the American West.
Many of those stories are rooted in Shaw’s days living and working all over western Montana — Stevensville, Polebridge, Ovando, Dillon, Greenough and Moiese, to name a few of the towns he has called home.
His homebase was always Missoula, though, where he played with different musicians around town, including now-broken up Whiskey Rebellion. He remembers regularly playing at the Jack Saloon in Lolo as well as the Union Club downtown, where a bartender would sell the band he played with shots of whiskey at cost that they’d give out to the audience between sets.
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“This album is more innocent,” he said, “I was younger — there’s a lot of bravado, swagger, drinking whiskey.”
When he wasn’t in Missoula, Shaw often lived in places where he wouldn’t see another person for days at a time, like when he worked as a caretaker for horses out on the Blackfoot River or in Glacier National Park as a wilderness ranger with his horses, Pancho and Buffy.
“I might talk to a horse more than a human on any given day,” he said.
The juxtaposition of those experiences — the total solitude of his weekdays and the community he found in Missoula on the weekdays — gave him the stories he needed to write about and the bandwidth to write about them, he said.
He spent a lot of time reading nature-loving authors like Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson in remote corners of Montana, which inspired his writing and life philosophy, he said. It’s easier to clear your mind and write when given the mental and physical space that Montana’s wild landscape provides.
The album was also heavily influenced by his best friend and musical partner, Colin McKnight, who died before they ever got to record anything together for a record label.
Most of the songs on “He Rode On” were written before he passed, Shaw said. It felt wrong recording some of them without him, so he opened a bottle of Maker’s Mark, McKnight’s favorite whiskey, took a swig, poured some of his ashes into it, and resealed the red wax on the bottle. Shaw would keep it in the studio and shake it up a little bit before recording songs.
Shaw was still grappling with a lot of grief while recording “He Rode On,” though most of the songs are upbeat and about his younger partying days with McKnight. Much of that grief will show up on Shaw’s next album, which he’s working on right now.
When it comes down to it, the album is about relationships, which Shaw said is most important in life. There have been some important ones in his: the Missoula community, his friendships with McKnight and his relationship with producer Grant Siemens, who has also worked with artist Corb Lund.
“If you don’t have a good friend or partner, it’s kind of empty,” he said.
Amid the wave of change that has hit Montana, “He Rode On” captures a time and place only a few have been lucky enough to experience.
If there’s anything that could take you back there, though, it’s Shaw.
“I would describe the ‘He Rode On’ album as kind of being a snapshot of a time and place that’s quickly going the way of the buffalo, really.”