Touring artist: At 50, Joey Shaheen followed his dream
by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Middle-aged musician Joey Shaheen always wanted to experience the life of a “touring artist.”
So the Elk River father of four, who has a real day job, just took off and did it, spending last January, February and March entertaining at small venues in the Midwest, South, Southwest, and West Coast.
Joey was accompanied by wife Joan and fourth-grader Jake, whom they home-schooled on the road, and the Shaheen’s had a blast.
“It was more work than I reckoned for, but more rewarding than I could imagine,” said Shaheen, who’s approaching the anniversary of the trip with a mind to do it again. Maybe.
Two years ago, at age 49, he put on hold a successful career as a software engineer and self-employed consultant and joined a band with three college kids, led by his singer/songwriter daughter Beckie. He played, sang and lined up their gigs. He also had his own little group called “The Wrong Omar” and recorded a CD of songs he wrote.
When he made the crazy decision to tour, Shaheen found he couldn’t get his young cohorts to go along with it, they being more concerned about paying off college loans and landing jobs. Beckie’s band went on hiatus a year ago.
“I wanted to give them a chance to live a little before settling down,” said Shaheen, who had played in bands in college, but got married soon after graduation, had the first of four kids and 26, and became a “closet musician-writer” while raising a family.
He decided to take off on his own, which meant digging into a comfortable nest egg to fund a unique adventure.
“As they say, you can’t take it with you.”
Shaheen eventually lined up 33 dates for what he called the “Sled Dog Slushy Tour.”
The opener was in Des Moines on Jan. 17, where the venue host had him share the stage with Hamilton Loomis, an artist once written up in Rolling Stone who had toured with Bo Diddley. Other than that, he was a one-man band — piano, guitar, harmonica, tambourine and vocals.
Next was Chicago to play the “Horseshoe,” which turned out to be “a true dive of a bar,” and he walked out in mid-set.
He was alone and already falling behind in sleep, learning the hard way that “you need to live healthy while doing something like the this.”
But things picked up. Still in Chicago, he played Heartland Cafe and Gallery Cabaret, both gigs much better than the Horseshoe. And Joan and Jake arrived in a snowstorm to join him after the boy’s semester ended. He picked them up at the bus station.
He played Poplar Bluff, MO, and they camped in the Ozarks, enjoying the area’s natural springs. On to Memphis, where they walked legendary Beale Street and ate at Dyers, the Food Channel favorite.
Next was Nashville, where he performed at the Listening Room, a block from the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they strolled down Honky Tonk Lane.
“We had a big time, as they say down there,” he said.
He found Knoxville, Tenn., a beautiful city, and he was excited to perform on the WDVX radio “Blue Plate Special” broadcast daily at noon before a live audience. He opened for a favorite son of Knoxville, writer-playwright R.B. Morris.
The trio hiked and camped in Johnson City, TX, and on to New Orleans, where they dried out their camping gear and stayed at a Hilton, using the last of his frequent flyer points accumulated from a decade of business travel. They had jack and cokes and “enjoyed the feeling of being on Bourbon Street.”
Jake was tutored, mainly by Joan, in the back seat of their Prius. “His classroom was the United States,” remarked Joey.
Joey played in coffee shops, cafe’s, lounges, rowdy bars, performance spaces of all kinds.
Fiddlers Dream in Phoenix was a complete acoustic concert space, no amplification of any kind, and run by a woman from Minnesota. “If you want to meet Minnesotans, just head to the Southwest.”
In Portland he played a downtown coffee shop with a no-amplification policy. People would set their drinks in gigantic wood blocks. With no inhibitions after two months of touring, he climbed ona block and started projecting.
At BrainWash Cafe in San Francisco, a restaurant, bar and laundromat that’s top-ten in many guide books, he performed, sold some CD’s, got the laundry in, and collected free left-over sourdough loafs from the owner.
They spent a few nights in a Yurt (a portable wood-framed dwelling used by nomads) on the coast, enjoyed the Monterrey Aquarium, and picnicked in Carmel, where Clint Eastwood was once mayor.
Missoula, MT, was a rowdy town that “smelled of drunkeness” but the visit included a radio appearance on KDTR (“The Trail”) which had a 30-minute delay. They ate sandwiches in a park and listened to Bruce Springsteen, Jason Miraz, a few others, and then … Joey Shaheen. “It was exciting to hear a nice relaxed performance come back at me on the airwaves.”
They wanted to beat the Minnesota winter, but chilly weather stalked them all over. “Everywhere we went, people would apologize for the uncommonly cold weather,” Joey said. “We started to take it personally.”
One day they drove from Sante Fe to Tuscon just to soak in some heat. The first day was boiling. But on the second day, while sitting in a hot tub, they got hailed upon. “The snowbirds,” he said, meaning transplanted Minnesotans, “began to ask, where are you going next, so we can avoid the cold weather?”
The “tour” also hit Gulf Shores, Dallas, Salt Lake City Reno, Seattle, the Dakota’s.
After circling half the country, the Shaheens were happy to arrive home. A country song he once wrote summed it up: “I’ve been planted; it ain’t much, but it’s home; dust is rising, traveling farther than I’ve ever gone.”
Shaheen admits the wanderlust is returning. His wife loves to camp and travel. Jake, doesn’t like missing school, but has been asking about an East Coast trip. “We may do it again,” Joey mused.
Shaheen’s music can be accessed at www.reverbnation.com/thewrongomar.