When Tim Showalter named his band Strand of Oaks, the serene, bucolic imagery was apt. He was for the most part a sleepy folksinger—though his beard and wild mane were always a little more Dimebag Darrell than Sam Beam.
These days, the name seems a bit of a stretch.
Showalter, who along with his band will open for Alabama Shakes at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion on June 9, is in the midst of a transition from breathy folkster to explosive rocker. It’s a move that seems to suit him, and not just because of the metal/hair band visage. His latest album, HEAL, is his most expressive and honest yet. And it’s his biggest critical success.
“I just think it was my real self trying to poke out through my scared self,” Showalter told C-VILLE Weekly in a recent telephone interview. “Creatively, in the past, I would approach songs with love, but I would be scared of being myself.”
There were moments in the past when the real Showalter would appear, he said, but for HEAL, “all the rules went out.” That meant cranking up the volume on the guitars and his vocals and shining a lyrical light on his personal life. “I woke up to the music I love,” he said.
Showalter grew up in Goshen, Indiana, and went to Indiana University, but these days he identifies fully with his home of Philadelphia, where he’s been for the past decade and a half. It’s where he met his current band, which has been “pretty steady” over the past year, and his wife. It was his destination during a late 2013 road trip when the couple nearly died in a car crash involving two semi-trailer trucks.
“I do not recommend getting hit by two semi trucks,” he said. “It was pretty amazing that we both walked away from it. It was difficult for many reasons—it was right in the midst of making the record, and I am not a good person to prescribe endless painkillers to.”
Showalter was in the studio mixing HEAL just 48 hours after breaking nearly all his ribs in the accident. He said the state he was in was actually artistically freeing.
“I didn’t want to hide anything. You can hide so many things on records,” he said. “I decided, ‘I have to do it like this. I have to make it as honest as possible.’”
Before the accident, Showalter said he and his wife were having relationship struggles that contributed to the emotions that emerge on HEAL. “It was a rough year between us, and we are still figuring stuff out like everyone else,” he said.
The real breakthrough for Showalter seems to be that he’s gained confidence. He’s burst through his shell as a guitarist, singer and songwriter on HEAL, and what’s poured out is a stream of confessional consciousness. “I was better than I felt in year,” he sings on the record’s title track. “I was hurting people, so close to me/I spent 10 long years feeling so fucking bad/I know you cheated on me but I cheated on myself…And I knew it wasn’t me and I knew it wasn’t her.”
Showalter’s lyrics are colored by instrumentation that sounds at the same time straight out of the ’80s and completely fresh. The composition of his band, which has changed quite a bit over the years, has started to firm up, with guitarist Carter Tanton, drummer Mike Sneeringer and bassist Deven Craige promising to take the stage at the nTelos Wireless Pavilion.
“You can be Jimi Hendrix and suck without a good rhythm section,” Showalter said. “We have this intense rhythm section that is unchanging and steady, and that allows me to go off on guitar solos. Carter is a total feel guy—kind of the opposite of Mike and Deven.”
Showalter said when Strand of Oaks opens for a band, they call it the “hour of power.” It’s a tough gig warming a crowd for a band like Alabama Shakes, but the singer said he’d turn up the guitar amps, try to connect with the crowd in the summer heat and do his best to “start the sports car.”
The old Showalter probably couldn’t have done that.
Tim Showalter and his band Strand of Oaks play the Pavilion on June 9.