Gary James' Interview With Ed Leavitt Of
The Shana Stack Band
In 2013, The Shana Stack Band was named Country Band Of The Year and Fan's Choice Award Winners by the Independent Music Association of Nashville, Tennessee. They've opened for some of the biggest names in Country music, including Reba McEntire, Sugarland, Travis Tritt and Rascal Flatts. Ed Leavitt is a member of The Shana Stack Band. As a singer / songwriter he's worked with George Jones, Tracy Byrd, Mark Wills and The Don Campbell Band to name just a few. Besides having such an impressive resume, Ed Leavitt is a down to earth, sincere and all around nice guy. Now that's a winning combination! Ed talked with us about The Shana Stack Band.
Q - Ed, I see The Shana Stack Band will be performing at The Turning Stone Casino.
A - Yes. We have a double night there actually. We're going to be there the 24th and 25th of January (2014). Our first time playing there, so we're very excited about it.
Q - Usually a group will get one night. To get two nights is rare. In the old days, a group would get five nights.
A - Right. We're very, very fortunate and we're very grateful for the opportunity.
Q - You're excited about performing at The Turning Stone Casino and that's good. But besides the money, what are you hoping to get out of playing The Turning Stone Casino? Are you looking to expand your fan base maybe? Is that what it's all about?
A - (Laughs) Yeah, absolutely. That's part of it. We're always on the lookout to expand the fan base. That's always a key priority for us, in any way we can. You know very well the music business is all about connecting with people. So we spend a great deal of our time marketing ourselves and trying to get interviews, just like we're doing here. It's very important to us to get word out about the band, but also to promote our music so other people can hear the music and expand our territory, because when we first started, we were basically playing locally in the southern New Hampshire area and the over the years we began expanding our territory throughout all of New England and now we're basically billed as a regional band. So, it's nice. We've been expanding out to New York State, Maine, New Hampshire. Vermont, Rhode Island. So it's exciting to gain ground throughout New England. We're just very happy for the opportunities and we're very thankful for them.
Q - Everybody in The Shana Stack Band has such outstanding credits!
A - Thank you.
Q - Should this band be based in Keene, New Hampshire, or would you be better off being based in Nashville?
A - Here's the funny thing that you brought that up, 'cause we've come to a crossroads where we need to start making a decision like that. When we started this group, we all came from musical backgrounds. We've all done things with other bands and done solo projects. I've been writing music for many years, but when we brought this group together, it just seemed like it was very special because we immediately clicked. When you have a group like that, that immediately clicks and gels, then you are going to click with the audience and we've just been building that ever since. Our hope was always to build something like this. We didn't know it would grow the way it has. It just has continued to. We won the two awards from the Independent Country Music Association, which is located in Nashville, Tennessee. So, this year (2014) we have some hard thinking to do about what we want to do as far as what direction we want to continue to push this in. Do we want to stay in New England? Do we want to take it to more of a national level? I think there's a lot of thought that goes into that. So many details you have to think about, not only the band and the music, but think in terms of family and jobs. All that kind of stuff. We all own homes in this area. So many factors involved and in the music business today it's so up and down that you want to make sure you are always making the right choices, and thus far we have in everything we've done. We've made very calculated choices and we very carefully followed those choices. Now we are at that point where, okay, what do we do now? (Laughs). Frankly, we never envisioned that this would happen as quickly as it has. We've been a group since 2010. So, it's grown very rapidly in four years. We just, I guess, didn't expect that it would grow as fast as it did really. And that's kind of where we are at. We're trying to figure out which way do we go.
Q - I interviewed someone who quit their day job, a very good job, to go to Nashville to try and make it. After a year he threw in the towel and returned home.
A - It's a very, very tough business. I've been working with folks in Nashville for many years because I'm a member of the NSAI, which is the National Songwriters Association International. I've been a member since, I don't know, about ten years now. So I talk with folks in Nashville almost daily. You hear the stories of total chaos, upheaval and heartbreak of some of these poor people. They give up their jobs and their lives and move there in hopes of making it big and a year later they are coming back, saying, "Oh, my God! There's millions of people with that same dream." So, that's why we're all very careful about it.
Q - In Nashville, you couldn't get paid to play. You'd have to work a day job.
A - That's right.
Q - Maybe you're better off in New Hampshire.
A - We've sat down as a group and talked about these things many, many times. We have friends that are living in Nashville right now, trying to make it. It's a tough business. It really is. Quite often you are playing just for tips when you are in Nashville and you are one of thousands of people there. But then there's those few that have the hunger and perseverance to just hang with it. Maybe 1 per cent of those people are going to be lucky enough to get it. What we've sort of done is, we've kept the thought process that we want to be very strong. Our goal is to be very strong here in New England, throughout the entire New England region and maybe even push up into Canada at some point and see how that goes. Then, if we have opportunities to expand our territory down into the South or into the Nashville area, sure we'll do that. But none of us are going to put our homes up for sale anytime soon because we've seen over the years what happens to people that have. A few of them have been lucky, but it's a very small fraction of people. The Country music business is very competitive right now. It's become very popular as Country has become more Crossover and Pop-based, even Hip-Hop based lately. It's grown in popularity. Artists like Taylor Swift, Jason Aldean, young artists like that have brought the young crowds back to Country music because for many years they lost the young crowds. So, it's really a popular genre at the moment. But the problem is, everyone wants to be a Country star now. It's like the big thing to do. One percent of those people are going to make it. You have to be very lucky. They say talent, talent, talent and talent is very important, absolutely, but luck is probably 90 per cent of it.
Q - I hear that again and again.
A - Yeah.
Q - I have a problem with Taylor Swift. I can't understand what she's singing. I'll catch maybe one word out of a sentence. I don't know if it's an enunciation problem or it's meant to be recorded that way, but what is that girl singing anyway?
A - (laughs). She's very controversial with a lot of people. She's got a very strong fan base, the tween age group, but even so, she spilled into middle aged people and older people who are listening to her. I've met women who are in their 60s and 70s who are like diehard Taylor Swift fans. It's funny, as a songwriter I like to listen to other people's material and find out what interests them. What do they write about? What is popular on today's radio? What's being played all the time? A lot of what she writes about is what the typical teenager goes through, the heart ache of breakup every other week. She's got a whole army of young people out there that connect with the songs that she writes and so she's basically singing about breaking up with another boyfriend and they are all connecting with it. I'm not sure where the older crowd is connecting with it. I think melodically her stuff might appeal to them. It's kind of singsong stuff as you are driving along in the car. That kind of thing.
Q - I don't know how you can do that. I don't understand what she's singing!
A - (Laughs).
Q - When Johnny cash saying "Ring Of Fire", you understood the words.
A - Oh, sure.
Q - When Kenny Rogers sang "The Gambler", you understood what he was saying.
A - Right.
Q - When Dolly Parton sings or Loretta Lynn, you know what they are singing.
A - Oh, absolutely.
Q - I'm telling you, I'm missing a great deal of the lyrics Taylor Swift is singing. I can't understand her! I can't hear her voice!
A - I think part of it too, and I've noticed that with today's Country music and popular music, is that when they are mixing these tracks down and mastering them, quite often I notice when I'm listening to them, for whatever reason, whoever is mastering them, is mastering the music above the melody line, above the lyric.
Q - Right!
A - So, quite often the singer is sort of pushed into the background while the guitars and drums are kind of driving the tune. I think that tends to be the way popular music is going right now. It's a real Hip-Hop beat to it. I know in our group, when you play clubs, you have to play "cover" tunes. We'd love to play original music all night long. That's what we do. That's what we are about, but when we play Toby Keith's next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, it's a big crowd of people and they want to hear songs they know. You can slip a few originals in here and there, but you basically have to play what's popular on the radio. So we learn 'em. We do 'em. We do the cover tunes and some of the stuff I kind of chuckle to myself. I say, gosh, I can't believe I'm singing this stuff! But we do! (Laughs). If you want to stay relevant, you gotta stay up with the trends. That's one thing we work really hard at doing, but I certainly understand exactly what you're saying. It's a different world with the music world. It really is.
Q - I notice you're an ASCAP writer, not a BMI writer. When I think of ASCAP I think more of the David Foster type songwriters. Why are you with ASCAP?
A - Well, let me tell you why, and you're going to laugh because this is the truth. When I first started writing music many years ago and had to start registering the songs as part of my catalog, I was told, "You need to pick up a pro and you need to pick up one fast and you need to register one in." I'd literally took BMI and ASCAP and a couple of others that were sort of starting out at the time, through them into a hat, picked one and ASCAP came out and that's the one I registered with, and have been with ever since. So, that's the story. There's no rhyme or reason to it whatsoever. It wasn't like a conscious decision to go with one or the other. I've noticed more of the Country artists tend to go with BMI. I have a lot of friends who are writers in the Country field and they went with BMI. Then I just picked ASCAP out of a hat. I said okay, that's who I'm registering with and have been with them ever since. I don't do a lot with them as far as attending conferences and things like that. I use them mainly to register my catalog, so when you put the music out there, you're not worried about copyright infringement or things like that.
Q - How does a cover band get to the point where they begin writing their own songs?
A - To be honest, years and years ago I started writing literally my first song when I was nine years old. I can still remember it. I had a tendency to always write music, lyrics, melodies. It was one of those idiot savant things that was always with me as a kid. My parents say they always remember me standing in front of the TV as a little boy, four and five years old, making up these words and crazy little tunes coming out of me. I've always had that in me, to write music, to write songs. Even when I was in all my previous bands that were quite often cover bands, I was always infiltrating them with my original music. With this group, we made a conscious decision to do a lot more with the original music because we realize we could take this in two directions; we could continue to be a really great cover band and play in bars and clubs and make a decent salary out of it and have some fun, or we could get serious and say we don't want to be another cover band. We want to be something different. I'd been writing music for many years and have been seriously involved with other co-writers and working with the folks in Nashville. I'd had a song in a movie soundtrack, had some of my songs recorded by other artists. So, I've always been a pretty serious writer, but then when we formed this group, this group wanted to be different. Right from the outset we said we don't want to just be a cover band. We want to do something that makes us more happy and it makes us more happy to do our own music, create our own stuff. So we decided right from the outset we were going to do that. Within the first year we put out our first album and I think we're on album number three right now. And I've already started working on material for the fourth album. Collectively as a group, we just wanted not to be labeled another cover band. Wherever we play, it doesn't matter if it's a club or a bar or a big event, we will put our original music in. We tell people at all the venues we play at, that before they hire us, we'll do mostly cover material for your club, however we're also a very serious original band and we will be infusing our original material into the set list. If that's not okay then we're probably not the best band for your venue. So we approached it that way and we been honest with people and it's worked out. People have been like, okay, that's fine, yeah. And then, some people have been like, no, we want a cover band. We are perfectly fine with that and say best of luck to you. There's a lot of great cover bands out there. I'm sure you'll find one that fits your bill. And that's how we leave it.
Q - The Shana Stack Band appeared on the same bill as Sugarland. How did you get that gig? Through a promoter?
A - Yes. There is a venue in Gilford, New Hampshire. It's called Meadowbrook. It's an outdoor concert facility. I think originally when they built it a number of years ago it seated close to 10,000 people. This past year The Bank Of New Hampshire took over management, part management of it, and they added additional seating onto the pavilion of another 3000 to 4000 seats. So, it's grown to be quite a venue. I think the Country Music Association nominated it as Country Venue Of The Year twice in the last few years. It's getting recognized nationwide now. We had started putting out feelers with them a number of years ago when we first started the band. It takes a long time to build a relationship with people like this because everybody wants to open for somebody. There's a lot of bands in Vermont and New Hampshire and Maine and Massachusetts. Tons of Country bands. Everybody wants a slice of the pie and so you have to find a way of getting into these places and it's very difficult. Most of these bigger venues, they don't want you to know who the Booker is for these places. They don't want a ton of people calling them and e-mailing them and inundating them with PR packets. So what we would do, and this is literally how we did it, we started going to concerts there and then slowly we started talking to staff. We'd meet the people that would seat you, the aisle people, the people at the concession stands. We would just slowly ask questions. We'd say, "This is such a great place! We love it here. We have a band. We'd love to someday play a place like this." Slowly, you build relationships with these people. They see you there all the time. Then, little by little, they might open up a little bit. "Well, if you see so-and-so, they might be able to connect you with that person and that person may connect you with that person." Before long, three years later, you might be connected to the right person who can get you to an audition and that's what happened. The first year we played there we were very fortunate. We got to play with Reba McEntire. We spent some time backstage with her. It was a wonderful experience. Once you are in and they know you are good people; they know you aren't going to come in there and embarrass them or make a mess of your set and people walk out. Once you establish the fact that you are serious musicians and know what you're doing and that you're good as far as establishing relationships with these people and you are nice to work with and you don't have a reputation as being difficult, then low and behold you might be asked back to these places. That's what we did. It took a long time to establish that. To this day, no band that has done this sort of thing would reveal who they talk to at these places. We keep that very closely guarded because it took us years to unearth that and we don't share it with anybody else. (Laughs).
Q - But, I'm saying you took the long way around.
A - We did.
Q - Directories are put out listing who is in charge of these venues.
A - Yeah. Sometimes they do. It looks like that on the surface, but the person who is the gatekeeper is very often not that person they list in these directories. We have access to those directories too. We have used them and what we often find out is that, that gets you to Point A. You need to be at Point D or E and so by the time you get to E, you have gone on to another four people. These venues are very careful who they list and quite often it's very mysterious. It took us a long time to figure out who the Booker was at Toby Keith's. We had to go through a million hoops to figure that out. There's no easy way. It takes a long time to establish these relationships in the music business. It's really about connecting and patience. We've had to have incredible patience, but now we're at a point where because we've been patient and because we've waited our turn and because we've been nice to people to work with and because we show up on time and because we don't trash the dressing room and because we know our stuff and we get out there and entertain the crowd and get off the stage when we're told to and hustle when we're told to, then you get the reputation and then pretty soon doors open for you. And that's kind of how it's happened for us.
Q - So, I take it you have to know somebody to get into The Turning Stone Casino as well.
A - Absolutely. It took us two years to know that somebody. We've been working on getting in there for two years.
Q - See, I thought with the Internet, you'd send an e-mail and say "Here is our website. Read over our Bio. Watch our video."
A - Nope, not anymore. I don't want to say it's a closed off society, but finding the people can be very difficult. Even when you find them, you find the right person you're supposed to talk to and you start talking to them about yourself, they are like, "So what? I've got six other bands that have the same Bio as you do. How are you different from them?" Then you have to say, "Well, we have three albums we've released of original music. We won this award. We won that award. We've done this. We played here. We played this venue." Then, they might give you an audience and say, "Okay, let's talk." But not always. Not always. We've gone in with guns drawn to some clubs saying, "This is a no-brainer. We'll get in here." We throw all this stuff at them, all this stuff that we've done, and they look at us and say, "Yeah, well I've got four other bands that can do that too. I like this other band better. He knows my brother-in-law." That kind of thing. (Laughs).
Q - That is tough to combat
A - It is. It's all about knowing this one who knows that one. Sometimes we'll get frustrated. We'll sit down and say, "Why can't we get in there? We're just as good as that band we saw playing at that particular place." You do all kinds of research and it comes down to be so-and-so's brother knows the brother of the Booker and they are good buddies and they go out for an occasional beer and that's how they got in. So, sometimes it has no rhyme or reason other than the fact that it's all who you know and where you are at the moment you know them. That's the music business and it's a tough business. It really is. It's an incredibly tough business. That's why we've been so proud and happy and grateful and relieved to just have made it as far as we have. We never say this isn't good enough or we deserve better than this. We don't feel that way. We feel grateful for every opportunity we get. We are grateful to have this opportunity to speak with you. This interview can continue to open doors for us. You never know. We had a rule we set, a hard and fast rule we set when this group was formed and one of the things we promised one another, and we've managed to do it; we will always remain humble, no matter what happens. And we have done just that. No one in this group gets a big head at any time because we all realize it can all be gone tomorrow
Q - You've got a great attitude.
A - Well, thank you. That's the attitude we'll continue to keep. We realize it's a very competitive market out there and there's new groups cropping up all the time. I was noticing the other night, as part of the New England Music Awards that we've been nominated for; we were nominated in a category where there's all these young artists, one of the contestants is 17 years old. They're just cropping up everywhere! So, you have to realize it's a big world out there. There's a lot of people with talent. They all want a piece of the pie and it's hard to always share the pie, but you have to realize instead of making enemies with these people, you gotta keep them close to you.
Q - Another way of looking at it Ed is there are too many people singing, too many people playing instruments and too many people putting out music in one form or another. The public can't keep up!
A - That's exactly right.
Q - Go back to the days of the early Beatles, 1964. A wide-open territory act then.
A - Yeah, exactly. Right. And with the onset of Social Media like Facebook and all these other myriad of Social Media outlets out there, anybody can be a singer or a musician. You can start your own band page and boom, boom, boom, you are out there on the World Wide Web. People are just inundated every day with this stuff. It's hard to get recognized. It really is. You've got to do something that is going to touch these people. I guess if there's any successful formula, we've had to touch one fan at a time. In the summer time we do a summer concert series all over New England. All these individual towns, we found out, sponsor a summer concert series. We've traveled all over New England in the summer. I think we did close to 50 or 60 of these last year (2013). That's where we get to really meet people because it's an informal event where people come from the town and they sit down and listen. They are listening to your music. They are not there because you are the opening act for somebody and they don't really care about you or they are just biding time until the opening act comes on, or they are talking over their beers are talking over you while you are singing. These are people who show up for these concerts from the towns who want to hear these bands play and want to hear all original music. Quite often that's where we have most of our success connecting with people and selling our merchandise and getting our music out there into the hands of the people, right to them. We've grown our Facebook page two-fold over the last year because of this one person at a time. We always have something we do during the summer concerts; we take an intermission and divide the show into two halves. We'll do one hour and then we'll take an intermission and we go out into the people and we meet them. We greet and we shake hands. We sign merchandise. That's where we get to know people. We say if you like what you are hearing tonight and you've enjoyed meeting us, go on to our Facebook and like our page and sure enough people do it. We've grown our Facebook page over the last year by about 1500 or 1600 fans. That's quite an amazing amount of growth over the last year, just chatting to one person at a time.
Q - You were on the same bill as Travis Tritt.
A - Yes.
Q - You played to 100,000 people.
A - We did.
Q - That's quite a difference from playing in front of a club audience.
A - (laughs).
Q - Were you scared?
A - Well, what happened with that is, we were contacted by the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which sponsored the Sylvania 300, which is one of the largest races in the country. They hosted it. They have a large rectangle facility. They are part of the NASCAR family. We played there before. A number of years we played there, like two or three years in a row where we played for some smaller events. This is a huge facility and they have lots of events going on in their big weekends. They have a smaller restaurant venue and they asked us if we'd play for those and we said sure we'll do that. Sure enough, you do two or three of these and you get to know management. They listen to you and they get feedback from people. They contacted us and said, "We'd like you to open for Travis Tritt at the Sylvania 300 race. It's broadcast nationally and we'd like you to open." I'm like, "Of course we will." (Laughs). And so we did. It was a blast. It was an early morning for us. I remember it vividly. The weekend started out on Friday. Friday night we were in Massachusetts at the Big E Fair, performing there. Then we had to immediately leave the Fair and travel up to Maine to where we performed for Thomas College. They were inducting their brand-new college President, their first female Presidents ever in the history of the college and they hired our band to play for the ceremony and the after party. That was probably 3000 to 4000 people. Then that very night, after we finished that, we traveled back to New Hampshire, the Concorde, New Hampshire area and then we had to be at the racetrack at 7 AM that morning. The show began at 10 AM in the morning. I think we were on for about half an hour and then Travis Tritt came out about 15 minutes after and right after that they started the race. So, when we first got there, early, early in the morning, we were there probably quarter of seven, the place was already a nuthouse. It was just a crazy scene. I mean, who gets up this early on a Sunday morning to go to the racetrack? (Laughs). I guess I'm not like a huge racing enthusiast, but Shana Stack is a huge race fan. She said, "You have no idea how big this is Ed. This is a huge moment for us. Race fans are rabid in this country." I had no idea because I don't tend to watch car racing, but I learned a great lesson that day. A good majority of this good 'ole country are race fans. (Laughs).
Q - Did you get any bookings as a result of performing their?
A - Oh, absolutely. We were able to get into several venues after that. That's what kept us going to places like Meadowbrook and Toby Keith's. It just kept growing. We have a guestbook on our website and immediately after that show, people were writing comments saying, "Saw you at the Sylvania 300. You guys were awesome." We got a lot of press out of that. A lot of newspapers called us. We did a lot of interviews with them, radio interviews. So, it was well worth our time to do it. It really was.
Q - You worked with George Jones?
A - Yes, many years ago at a ranch in Webster, Massachusetts. I can't remember how old George was at the time. He was in his 70s I want to say, but George Jones never lost his popularity. Right up until the day he died he was hugely popular with all ages. There was just this charm about him and awe when you were in his company. This is George Jones! (Laughs). We never got to be on the stage the same time he was because we opened, but afterwards when we were packing up our gear and his crew was getting ready to go on, we got to meet his band and they were very nice guys. These were all veterans of the music business. They had done this their entire life. They came up and told us what a great job we did and that was such an honor for people like that to tell you that. Then when George Jones came out, there he was, bigger than life. He started singing hit after hit and you just realized, my God, this guy has had a million number one hits in his career. He's earned this stage in his life. He said during the show, "I could've retired a million times, but this is what I love to do and I'm going to do it until the day I die," and he did. He did just that. And he was very humble. Very humble. Very nice guy.