Considering her humble raisin’ on the Louisiana border in the tiny East Texas town of Nacogdoches, it should come as no surprise that Sheila Marshall’s earliest — and fondest — musical memories are firmly rooted in the Three C’s: church and classic country. “My parents had a really bad divorce, and I lived with my mom in a trailer park for pretty much my whole life, so the church I went to was kind of an escape,” she recalls. “It was a small church, but the music had a lot of soul, and I just loved it. I think that was a huge influence on me. But I have to say that my mom really influenced me, too, because she was a big fan of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Loretta, all that stuff. And that’s what we did on Friday and Saturday nights: listen to those albums over and over and over …
“I think I knew every Patsy Cline song that was ever made,” she adds with a laugh. “And I mean, all the words.”
In fact, she likely still knows them all — and odds are she could probably still sing the everl-iving hell out of a gospel hymn, too. But as Marshall makes clear from minute-one on her new album, Good to Be Me, somewhere along the way that little stay-at-home-on-Saturday-nights choirgirl took a giant bite out of the devil’s apple and grew up to be a bona fide badass rock ‘n’ roll gypsy. Or come to think of it, maybe that Sheila was inside of her all along, just waiting for the right time to break free. Because there’s just something about the ultra-confident way this woman can sing a line like “I was born for trouble and trouble is all I’ll be” over a snaky slide guitar groove that rings righteously true. Just ask Ray Wylie Hubbard, a man who knows more than a little about such things.
“Sheila Marshall has compelling songs, a delicious cool voice, and fire and soul,” affirms the renowned Americana artist and songwriter’s songwriter, sealing his approval with two little words that tell you all you really need to know about Marshall’s credentials as Hubbard-certified, grade A Real Deal: “I dig.”
Mind, there’s also the fact that Hubbard himself happened to co-produce Marshall’s new record — and also had a hand in co-writing two of its most indelibly profane and wickedly assertive songs, “Watch Me Move” and the “Ain’t Gonna Cuss Your Name Anymore.” But as unmistakable as that patented Ray Wylie “grit ‘n’ groove” imprint may be, Good to Be Me is first and foremost Marshall’s record through and through: equal measures sassy and soulful, sacred and sexy, with Faces-worthy swagger to spare and uncompromising spirit to its bluesy core. And although it’s not the first album she’s ever made — counting EPs and side projects, it’s actually her seventh — it’s arguably the first one to capture the full rafter-rattling force of both her powerhouse voice and her uncompromised artistic vision.
“I hate to say this, because I wish it had been this way throughout my whole career, but I feel like I really had more control on this one than I did on any other album I’ve ever made,” says Marshall. “I mean, a lot of times in the past, I had producers say to me, ‘That’s never going to be on the radio; it’s good, but it’s not mainstream, so why waste your time and money recording it?’ And so more often than not we’d end up going in a different direction for whatever songs or ideas I had in mind, and although I do like the other stuff I’ve done, it was never exactly what I wanted. But with this one, from the very beginning I was like, ‘I don’t care about being mainstream or whatever; this is how I want it to sound!’ — and people actually listened to me!”
Now, in fairness to all that aforementioned “other stuff” that comprises her back catalog, it’s not like Marshall’s artistic trajectory up until this point was ever characterized by missteps. By any objective standard, her career as an independent songwriter and recording artist has been successful from the get-go. She started out playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band while still attending Stephen F. Austin State University (on a music scholarship) in her hometown, but quit both the band and her studies after three years to try her luck in the nearest big (BIG) city. With hindsight, she admits to sometimes regretting the whole dropping-out-of-college decision, but the move and commitment to pursuing music full-time paid off remarkably quickly. Within three months of arriving in Houston, she landed her first of what would soon be many overseas gigs. “I played a club in Japan, booked by a Japanese promoter who had seen me in Houston, and then I played for the military over there as well,” says Marshall, who in the 20 years since has performed for troops stationed all over the world, including Iraq and Kuwait. She stayed plenty busy closer to home, too; in 2004, she was a Top 10 finalist on the second season of Nashville Star, performing two of her original songs on national TV, and then went on to spend the next several years building a loyal Texas (and beyond) fanbase on the strength of her 2005 full-lengh debut, Makes Perfect Sense, and its 2009 follow-up, What If I Was.
The latter album also marked the beginning of what would be a near-decade-long musical partnership with producer Kyle Cook, best known as the guitarist for the multi-platinum ’90s hit machine Matchbox 20. After making What If I Was together, they went on to form Rivers & Rust, a duo project marrying Marshall’s bluesy Texas honky-tonk/roadhouse soul and Cook’s affinity for mainstream pop-rock. It was an intriguing experiment that yielded enough sparks to fuel one eponymous album and a pair of successful tours, including a 2017 run opening for Matchbox 20 and Counting Crows that found Marshall playing in front of some of the largest audiences of her life. But it ultimately wasn’t built to last.
“It was fun, but we’re just very different,” explains Marshall. “It was the kind of thing where you know, it works, but it doesn’t work. In the end, he basically wanted to take everything into even more of a pop band direction, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do that.'”
What she did want, on the other hand, was the opportunity to work more with Hubbard — both as a longtime fan of his decidedly non-mainstream aesthetic and of the kindred spirit connection she’d felt with the legend the first time they wrote together, two years ago. “At the time we were trying to write songs for Rivers & Rust, but they ended up being more my style than that band’s style,” she says. “I just always liked that gritty, swampy, whatever-you-would-call-it style he has, and I’ve always written songs in that vein myself — but then I’d get to the studio and again, people would invariably be like, ‘Oh, we need to change that up a little …’ But from the first time that I ever sat down to write with Ray, it just felt like, ‘This guy gets what I’m really after!'”
Marshall admits with a laugh that Hubbard’s approach to producing, eschewing fussy perfectionism and polish in favor of a raw, almost primal immediacy, initially took some getting used to. “When I worked with Kyle, I would usually have to sing a song like, 20 times, just to get it perfect,” she recalls. “But wih Ray, you go in there and sing one take and he’s like, ‘You’re done!’ And at first I’d be like, ‘wait, what?!’ But he’s really good at just making you feel comfortable the whole time you’re in the studio, and it turned out to be really refreshing to work like that.”
As quickly as that process moved things along, though, their work at The Zone Recording Studio (nestled in the Texas Hill Country just outside of Austin) was paused halfway through the tracking of Good to Be Me when Marshall had to leave for what would be her last Rivers & Rust tour. By the time she got back to Texas five months laer, Hubbard was out on the road himself, so Marshall and her husband, rhythm guitarist Scott Steinsiek, ended up finishing the production themselves. But thanks to the invaluable assistance from A-list Austin multi-instrumenalist Jeff Plankenhorn and drummer/Zone engineer Pat Manske, they were able to pick up right where they had left off — with that lowdown, gnarly vibe very much still in play, even on the handful of brand new songs Marshall brought to the table after the break: “Feels Good to Be Me,” “What Do You Pray For,” “Mysterious Ways,” and “Hallelujah.”
And no, those last two are not covers.
“I actually sent ‘Hallelujah’ to Ray, even after I found out he wasn’t going to be able to come back in, just to get his take on it, and he said, ‘Be careful — everyone’s going to think it’s Leonard Cohen, so you might want to use another word …'” she recalls with a laugh. “But I was like, ‘I don’t think I can think of another word to use!'”
Needless to say, she left the lyric unchanged — further testement to her determination from the get-go to keep Good to Be Me 100-percent true to her own gut instincts. And truth be told, Hubbard likely would have done the same had he written the song himself, or at the very least grinned in proud, knowing approval had he still been at the production helm when Marshall stubbornly threw his one note of cautionary advice to the wind. Because as Hubbard knows better than anyone, true rock ‘n’ roll gypsies and dangerous spirits — especially those reveling in their first taste of complete artistic freedom — don’t play things safe. Dig it.