On His New Album, Charlie Shafter Explores His Own “Helplessness and Hopelessness”

Charlie Shafter has a new album out.
Charlie Shafter has a new album out.
Brooks Burris
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With the release of his third album, When I Was Yours and You Were Mine, Fort Worth-based songwriter Charlie Shafter has his first record since his self-titled album in 2012. Fueled by an eventful set of personal peaks and valleys, Shafter’s new set of songs simply had to be recorded for him to move on with his life.

“The main thing I really want to get out of finally making a record,” Shafter says, “is that I just want to get the songs that I’ve been living with for so long out of my system.”

With more than 30 songs to choose from for this record, Shafter, who spent years living in both Lubbock and Denton before his recent move to Cowtown, certainly unburdened himself of some unrecorded material. With the help of producer Dwight Baker and Texas country titan Josh Abbott, who happened to be Shafter’s roommate for a couple of years over a decade ago in Lubbock, acting as a sort of executive producer, the stories in the songs were enriched sonically in the studio.

But the writing of the album was a continuation of Shafter dealing with some major life timestamps. His daughter was born four years ago, and only a year later, he and the baby's mother broke up, leading Shafter into an existence where emotional whiplash became familiar. Such circumstances are inevitably going to find their way into an artist’s creation.

“I wasn’t heartbroken as much as I was blindsided by the breakup, which is its own kind of deal,” he says. “But I’ve been able to be with my daughter a lot, which is obviously great. Those things made it to where there are elements of both helplessness and hopefulness in the same song — even the same line in some cases.”

That extreme range is evident in “Thought Too Soon,” a gorgeous country waltz from the new record that's kissed with gently soaring pedal steel in the background. Shafter displays an innocent hope that quickly slides into stark reality when he sings, “I thought the light was the moon / when I woke it was noon,” soon followed by “I thought you loved me / but I thought too soon.”

Shafter is a skilled storyteller who isn’t always in need of miserable depths nor triumphant heights for a story to find its way out of him. Sure, life’s greatest beginnings and endings make for obvious song fuel, but there’s plenty to be explored in between those dramatic moments.

For the harmonica-enriched country-rocker “Billy Creek,” perhaps the album’s standout track, Shafter drew inspiration from a hobby and a little history.

“I like to go camping at this place named Billy Creek in southeast Oklahoma, near the Arkansas border,” he says. “I wrote the song there, because it’s close to Mena, Arkansas, where the CIA used to import drugs and weapons, and I wrote about a guy that I think would be involved in all that.”

If the story sounds familiar, that’s likely because the 2017 Tom Cruise movie American Made is based on that same real-life scenario. Great minds, and all. But Shafter wrote his song before the movie came out, and “Billy Creek” follows the story of a character Shafter came up with on his own, unlike the movie.

Many of the new songs were written “at night in the shitty apartment I had to move into really quickly after the breakup,” he says. But that dismal environment likely aided his creativity. For the guy who has an almost physical need to get songs out of his head, breathing life, pain and joy into new characters is also helpfully cathartic.

“Writing songs with different characters is sort of like giving all your stuff to someone else and saying, ‘Here you go, you deal with all this now.’”

Charlie Shafter performs at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18 at the Tributary Cafe in Fort Worth.

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