Shane Chisholm performs hard-to-pigeon-hole music on one-of-a-kind “recycled” instruments — and does it all in his own inimitable style.
The 45-year-old Red Deer-based roots artist has won four Canadian Country Music Awards for his finger-picking prowess.
Two of the awards were for playing the standard bass guitar. The other two were for plucking the strings of a stand-up gas tank bass — a custom instrument he made with the gas tank from a Chevy Astro Van.
Chisholm admitted he’s always been environmentally conscious — and inventive. “I like the challenge of making things out of things that are being thrown out.”
While scouting for car parts in a wrecking yard, he spotted a metal gas tank roughly the same size as the body of a stand-up acoustic bass.
He’d been teaching himself to make his own instruments but wasn’t particularly eager to “whittle 110 pounds of wood down to 15 pounds” to make a conventional stand-up bass. “It was making too much of a mess,” he recalled.
Suddenly a lightning bolt of an idea struck him: Why not skip all the whittling and bring out a drill and some screws instead?
Chisholm attached a wooden neck and strings to the metal gas tank. He made some acoustic adjustments to its metal interior to achieve a richer tone. “It took me two weeks to build, then two years to make it sound good,” said the avant-garde luthier.
While he isn’t giving any of his manufacturing secrets away, he added music production people have expressed surprise about how good it sounds.
Other musicians have noticed too. So far Chisholm, who recently moved to be with his girlfriend in Central Alberta from Claresholm, sold five of his gas tank basses — including one that raised $5,000 for the Make A Wish Foundation.
He also created three upright basses from pots, pans and salad bowls from Ikea, stacked to resemble a certain large hockey trophy. And he’s made a guitar from a corn broom.
Chisholm’s weirdest music-making contraption is called The Grinder. It’s a steam-punk novelty made from a pitch-shifting device musicians use to digitally alter their instruments’ sounds. His decked-out Grinder makes a three-octave whine like no other.
“I always think it sounds like whales (procreating),” he said, with a laugh. “I was trying to make it sound as annoying as bagpipes…”
As for the folks who think you can’t make music from odds and ends, Chisholm said, “I don’t listen to those people. I’m not much into reason. I just follow my heart.” And “taking my hobby to work” has meant that Chisholm gets to enjoy making music on some mighty unique instruments.
The musician, who relocated to the wide Alberta Prairie from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. two decades ago, was also named the very first Male Artist of the Year by the Alberta Country Music Association in 2011.
Besides winning his four instrumental CCMAs, he was also nominated, along with Corb Lund, for CCMA Roots Artist three years running — and was beaten out by the better-known Lund each time.
Chisholm isn’t a standard country guy. His tunes includes folk, blues, bluegrass, honky tonk and rockabilly elements.
“They call me a roots artist — which basically means non-commercial. They can’t sell you,” he added, with a chuckle.
However, anyone who’s checked out his engaging, high-energy live shows — which have involved Chisholm stunting BMX-style on his bass — will see why he was hired to back many Canadian country singers over the years, including George Canyon, Jimmy Rankin and Duane Steele.
“I aim to really entertain an audience, and you have to have showmanship to be entertaining,” said the performer, who was also part of a “variety show” that toured Canadian entertainers to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan to entertain Canadian Forces troops.
“We got rocket attacked while we were playing (in Afghanistan),” Chisholm recalled. “After that we said, ‘I guess the Taliban doesn’t like country music …’”
These experiences instilled in him a deep appreciation of Canadian Forces soldiers, whom he continues to recognize with yellow banners on his albums.
Most recently Alberta floods inspired his third album, Blow Away, which will be released in January. The new album follows his 2009 debut release, Hitchhiking Buddha, which featured the single Kickin’ Up Dust — which charted at No. 16 in Australia, and his second album, No One Came from 2012.
Chisholm said the title track for Blow Away was sparked by the frustration of his former brother-in-law lost his High River home to rising flood waters in 2013. “I use a lot of metaphors. It’s about being blown away by whatever — about letting the wind take away your troubles…”
The new song Float is about turning negative feelings around to positive ones. But Chisholm has also included a couple of irreverent songs on the release — including If Jesus Was A Canadian.
“In our depiction we thought, wouldn’t it be funny if Jesus was born in Canada?” said Chisholm, who goes through the different regions to describe what the Son of God would be like if he hailed from Atlantic Canada or the West Coast. Prairie Jesus would stop the flood waters and turn overflowing rivers into beer. “To save dear Alberta, he’d raise Ralph Klein from the dead.”
Chisholm, who gives private instruction to students on guitar and bass in Red Deer, has learned to listen to his own sensibilities when he writes music. “I was once listening to the wrong people, and doing things that didn’t feel right, and I could see it wasn’t getting me to where I wanted to go…
“You’ve got to stay true to who you are and stay on your own path…”
And if that musical path includes some highly idiosyncratic instruments and some unique sounds — so much the better.