Shelley Short Press

Shelley Short on NPR affiliate WBEZ



Shelley Short, an art school dropout who now calls Chicago home, is a relatively unexposed singer/songstress, which means she might have a tough time making a dent into what has become an increasingly saturated pool of talented women and their love for traditional country. She has a few tricks up her sleeve that should help her get noticed, or at least distinguished, not including her ties to M. Ward, either.

Listeners will notice her voice is very high, very child-like at times. It might be off-putting at first, but like Joanna Newsom, you soon forget about it and start to find her rather endearing. What complements her voice so well are the song arrangements, woven through with banjo, piano, ukulele and gorgeous violin lines. Classic, yet contemporary sounding.

Short is a storyteller of nonchalant musings on the everyday, a nice break from the usual downer fare we are accustomed to. Overall, “Captain Wild Horses” is a fantastic album, and suggests that axing those art school plans was a smart move indeed. — Michael D. Ayers


Full-up with nonsensical album titles (check 2004’s Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?), tunes about Marlon Brando films (“On The Waterfront”) and a Mirah-esque coo of a voice, Chicago-via-Portland alt-country maven Shelley Short tries her damnedest to sound quirky on paper. She’s hustling gunsmoke and mirrors, though; underneath the practiced eccentricity, sophomore effort Captain Wild Horse (Rides The Heart Of Tomorrow) showcases a far more clever—yet wholly classicist—approach to post-Bloodshot Americana, cutting a healthy dose of Portland pop playfulness in with trad country’s usual tropes. Short makes the keyboard swagger of “Lupine Manner” swell with DIY atmospherics, as tossed-off horns and bursts of scraping “fireworks” (the latter sounding like a tin pan run through a couple effects pedals) offset an otherwise straight performance. Elsewhere, drummer/“recordist” Jamie Carter and Pinetop Seven bassist Andy Rader are given free reign, adding a not-quite-swinging art-rock undercurrent to “Sweet Heart Said” and kicking evil into an appropriation of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on “Roaring Roars.” The album’s tasteful backdrop of strings and brass keeps things thick, but the production’s kitchen-sink quality remains underplayed; for all the bells and whistles breathing through its mix, Horse is still directed by Short and her languid melodies.


Following a move from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, Short begin work on Captain Wildhorse with her Midwestern friends. The change in scenery results in music that remains uncluttered, though guests including former Decemberist drummer Rachel Blumberg leave starcrossed tales such as “On the Waterfront” sounding not quite so lonely as the material on Oh Say Little Doggies, Why? An inviting country waltz with swooning harmonies, “Like Anything, It’s Small” describes Short as she settles into her Windy City surroundings in search of stories to tell. The impressionistic and beatific “Lupine Manner” joins a childlike chime with the trumpet of Desert City Soundtrack’s “Cory Gray.” By contrast, “All Eyes on the Skyline” is a foreboding sea shanty featuring the uneasy wash of Bright Eyes violinist Tiffany Kowalski. (
by Jeff Elbel


Shelley Short must get tired of being told her voice is sweet. In every review of Captain Wild Horse I’ve encountered, the adjective has come up in one incarnation or another– sweet and high, sweet and solemn, sweet and country, sweet and, well, just sweet. I’m sympathetic to how annoying and uninventive this must seem, but the trouble is, when describing Short’s voice, sweet is an adjective that’s hard to avoid. Her speaking voice, too, sounds much like you might imagine after hearing her sing; it’s girlish and frank and, to use another adjective she may have come to resent, incredibly cute. Sweet and cute, charming and frank — Short’s music must be sugar, spice and everything nice, right? Well, not exactly.

Captain Wildhorse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow) is Short’s second release after 2003’s Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why?. Three years ago, she packed her bags in her hometown of Portland and headed east to Chicago. Leaving her band behind, she was fortunate enough to meet new band members Andy Rader (bass), Tiffany Kowalski (violin) and Jamie Carter (drums). For this album, Short also teamed up with The Decemberists’ Rachel Blumberg on drums and Desert City Soundtrack’s Corey Gray on trumpet.

So, if incurably sweet, what saves Shelley Short from ever sounding saccharine? Her songs’ dark edges, her unique delivery, and her talented band’s ability to follow wherever she leads (and, at moments, to take the reins themselves).

Captain Wild Horse opens with “Tomorrow Night.” Its languid, slightly sloppy fingerpicking and haunting vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Star, and its lyrics are simple and mystifying. It’s hard to say who Short’s ideal audience might be, but she has a dramatic, spell-casting ability that could charm all ages. When, on an exaggerated, nasal glissando, she sings “Tomorrow night’s got sisters and brothers / tomorrow night’s got stars in the sky,” it’s easy to imagine her, eyes glistening, calming a group of screaming five year-olds into a deep sleep. “Tomorrow Night’s” a deceptive sort of lullaby, though. As a child may be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic language of a Grimm fairy tale only to be stirred by strange dreams in the night, Short’s songs gain force and complexity as their murky imagery comes to light. To the melody of “The Ants Go Marching,” on the hypnotic “Roaring Roars,” she sings “the fish are coming up to eat / the dusk is breaking at my feet / Hurrah.”

Short maintains an old-timey intensity on the more straight-ahead country numbers, “Wild, Wild Horses” and “Goodbye Old Morning,” and shows us on the gorgeous “Pullin’ Pullin” that she’s got country phrasing — somewhere between Hank Williams and Patsy Cline — down pat. The harmonies and instrumentation (banjo and violin) on “On the Waterfront,” a song inspired by Marlon Brando’s character Terry in the movie with the same title, are evocative of The Be Good Tanyas.

What sets Shelley Short apart from her country-crooning contemporaries is her ability to write songs that don’t announce their true colours right away. Sweet and pretty on the surface, a few listens reveal a depth more focused and cunning.

Kate Steele
March 23, 2006


“Perfect for a ride on an unpaved country road”
By Paige Newman

Updated: 2:33 p.m. ET Feb. 9, 2006
Just because Shelley Short has a delicate, sweet voice doesn’t mean the 26-year-old has the sugary personality to match. “I’m sweet sometimes,” she told me, but — as she was a woman of few words — I quickly got the feeling that Short really wanted her gentle, countrified folk music to speak for itself.
Her new CD, “Captain Wild Horses,” is inspired by sources as varied as Marlon Brando and Edith Piaf, yet still manages to feel completely personal. The sound harkens back to another time — the spare arrangements and beautiful use of upright bass, violin and ukulele, bring pictures of dusty roads to mind, as if you could hear these tunes out of one of those old-time giant radios that families used to gather around on long evenings. There are suggestions of a time of universal poverty in her songs — even though she’s not specifically singing about it — but a general sense of deprivation makes these tunes seem just right for the Depression era. “I’m inspired by people going through hard times,” she said.

It’s probably not surprising that Short counts Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan among her influences — but I did perk up when she mentioned Jimmie Rogers. For a woman originally from Portland, Oregon, Short has certainly embraced her inner country crooner. She wrote most of the songs for the new CD right before and right after a move to Chicago, and the Piaf-inspired “Like Anything, It’s Small” reflects her feelings of being uprooted. Short sings, “By the time I go to pieces you’ll be gone / When the hands detach the leashes / move along.” It’s hard not to ponder the transitory nature of relationships when you’ve just moved all the way across the country.

On “All Eyes on the Skyline,” Short sings, “I’m pointing dear captain towards the cracks in the sky / superstition will lead us ‘till the land hits our eye.” This song, about trying to find your way and trusting yourself, becomes almost mythical and folk tale-esque in the hands of Short. Upright bassist Andy Rader adds to the atmosphere by using his bow to create squeaks that echo what old wooden ship planks might sound like during a long night at sea.

Short saw Rader playing at the Chicago bar, The Hideout, and approached him about joining her band. Soon after that, she was introduced to violinist Tiffany Kowalski, who had previous gigs with Bright Eyes and Mayday. Drummer Jamie Carter not only joined the band but also offered up his own studio space to record the CD. That’s a lot of luck for a woman who seems to thrive on hard times.
Or maybe luck didn’t have anything to do with it. In the song, “On the Sunny Side,” Short sings, “Between the sheets and the sky / somewhere where it won’t hurt to try / that’s the place that I’m goin’/ that’s the place that I know.” I get the sense that that’s exactly how this CD came to be — that she created a place where luck could exist and then just made it happen.

Short and the band are going to hit the road on Feb. 10; they’ll hit the Midwest first and then head to the East Coast. Short told me that she doesn’t listen to much current music, preferring to stay in the past, but she did reveal a love for Joanna Newsom.

“You guys would make a touring pair,” I said.

“Yeah, I would love that,” she said.

Somehow, in her soft-spoken way, I get the feeling that Shelley Short is just the person to make that happen.


With his signature blue yodel, Jimmie Rodgers became country music’s first superstar shortly before the Great Depression. But by the spring of 1933, the “Singing Brakeman” was close to death — though he was only 35, he’d been bedridden for years fighting tuberculosis. Knowing it would be his last session, he booked time at a studio in New York City, where he was attended to by a nurse and lay on a cot between takes. Just a few days later he died of a lung hemorrhage. His remains were taken by train back to his native Mississippi, and thousands of people gathered to watch the railroad car bearing his casket pass by. When his body was interred in Meridian, a parade of mourners from all over the country came to pay their respects.

More than 65 years later, in the summer of 1999, singer-songwriter Shelley Short — at the time a 19-year-old art student in Oregon — made her own visit to Rodgers’s grave. “He was unlike anything I’d ever heard,” says Short. “The sparseness of the music, the sound of his yodel. The idea that he was sick in bed and had to struggle to make his last records really struck me in a deep way.”
Short made the stop in Meridian as part of a two-month country-music pilgrimage that also took her to Hank Williams’s resting place in Alabama and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Though the musical style she’s developed since then can’t strictly be classified as country — it mixes elements of moonstruck honky-tonk, bleak old-timey folk, and introverted indie rock — her reedy, winsome voice summons the ghosts of Rodgers, Williams, and a host of other long gone singers. When Short moved to Chicago a year and a half ago, hardly anyone here knew who she was — her discography consisted of a CD-R she’d released herself and a proper album that’d gone out of print. But on Valentine’s Day the Portland label Hush Records will put out Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow), a collection of loping waltzes, nuanced love songs, and delicate ballads that ought to help fix her in plenty of people’s minds.

Short was born and raised in Portland, the second of two children, and music was a constant in her early life. “My dad had a huge record collection, which he’d play all the time — thousands of records,” she says. “He would stay up all night and play one song over and over. He would make me and my brother stay up and listen and memorize songs.” Although her father didn’t play music, “he had a piano in the house, drums, bass, trumpets, all these instruments. I think he just loved how they looked.” Short picked up trombone in middle school band and in tenth grade started playing bass in a punky two-piece called Bogadoy, named after her brother’s childhood imaginary friend. The next year her obsession with country music began. “Hank Thompson, Hank Williams, but especially Jimmie Rodgers,” she says. “I remember hearing the first song by him and thinking, ‘God, this is awesome.'”
While attending the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Short taught herself how to play guitar and sing. She went to work as an after-school art instructor after her graduation in 2001, and late that year a friend invited her to perform at a hoot night called the Holiday Hot Dog Rodeo. “But it was for singer-songwriters, and I didn’t have any songs of my own,” says Short. “So I sat down and wrote a couple. It was good to have an assignment or a deadline, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have ever done it.”
Soon Short was playing regular solo gigs and dallying with a few side projects, including a cabaret-country duo called the Dying Ember and the Americana outfit Nervous & the Kid. In 2002 she self-produced a solo CD-R called Your Story Has Touched My Heart (“It’s the kind of stuff I wouldn’t want anyone to hear now,” she says), and the next year started on a more ambitious production, Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?, working on the cheap at friends’ studios in Oregon and New Mexico with the aid of her roommate (and former Decemberists drummer) Rachel Blumberg and multi-instrumentalist Adam Selzer, Blumberg’s bandmate in Norfolk & Western. It was released in early 2004 by the Tucson label Keep Recordings in an edition of 150 hand-signed copies.

Despite its tiny run, Dogies earned Short a rash of favorable online and zine reviews and a growing buzz in Portland. But she was getting restless in Oregon. “Portland is really comfortable and it would’ve been easy to stay there forever. So I started to think, if I don’t leave now, I’m never gonna leave,” she says. Her decision to come to Chicago was fairly arbitrary: “When you’re from Portland they only tell you about the west coast and the east coast. . . . No one ever talks about the midwest. So I knew nothing about Chicago, but I was curious.”

In September 2004, Short and a friend packed up their belongings, boarded a train, and headed for Illinois. Short settled in Roscoe Village, where she discovered that her neighbor Jamie Carter — now her regular drummer — had a modest studio in his attic. “We got together, but we weren’t going to make a record per se,” Short says. “It was all very casual.” But after Carter moved to Pilsen and set up a proper studio in May 2005, the sessions got serious. Short’s band became a four-piece with the addition of upright bassist Andy Rader, whom she’d met when she saw his band Can-Ky-Ree at the Hideout, and violinist Tiffany Kowalski (Bright Eyes, Head of Femur), referred by mutual friend M. Ward. By the end of that summer Captain Wild Horse was in the can.

The new album hits hard for such gentle music. Short wrings every drop of emotion from story-songs like “Goodbye Old Morning” and “Like Anything, It’s Small” and delivers lovesick meditations like “Pullin’ Pullin'” and “Wild Wild Horses” with almost painful tenderness. But she isn’t sure how best to describe her sound. “I think I would have to say folk — I suppose that’s vague enough,” she says, laughing. “If you say country it kinda throws people off, even though my songs are pretty country sounding.”

Captain has already received glowing reviews in No Depression, Magnet, and Giant. And though Short’s first local gig, at the Hideout in December 2004, was a disaster (“There was only one person there,” she says), she’s recently reached large and receptive audiences opening for the likes of Colin Meloy and Edith Frost. After her Empty Bottle show on Saturday she’ll embark on a short tour — her first — playing seven shows across the midwest and east coast.

Short says she isn’t in a hurry to “make it,” though — she’s working full-time as a nanny and would rather let her musical career grow at its own pace. “But whatever happens, I definitely feel like I’ll always be playing music,” she says. “It’ll be a part of my life, no matter what.”


Coming here was a very intense time,” Shelley Short says about uprooting her life from Portland to Chicago in September 2004. “I moved here with a friend and another close friend lives here that I’ve known since high school, so I wasn’t all alone, but I left a lot of people behind.” Her cell phone still has a Portland number, “So I can talk to my family for free,” she says.
Homesickness still creeps into her voice when she talks about it, but bad times often make for good music. If that’s proportional, Short’s bad time was devastating: Captain Wild Horse (Rides The Heart Of Tomorrow) is an astonishingly good sophomore release.

Not much in her debut, Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why, pointed to a next effort on this scale. An intimate and off-the-cuff acoustic, country folk collection, it was long on lyric potential and quirky melodies, but it sounded as if it could’ve been made in your bathroom with your more talented roommates.
“It was recorded [in 2003] partly in Portland and partly in New Mexico,” Short says. I wrote a couple of [songs] in New Mexico because my friend had a studio there and I wanted to use it. The whole thing probably took a week to record, so it was kind of spur of the moment.

“A friend sent it to a small label [Keep Recordings] in Tucson, Arizona. [They] only made 150 of them, so between my family and friends they’re pretty much all gone, but I did sell some at shows.”
Short, you see, recorded with friends in friends’ studios, and a friend sent the record to a label. The more you talk to her, the more friends she talks about. And she makes more friends wherever she goes.

In Chicago, a Portland pal set her new geography in motion for her. “My friend Colin [Meloy] who is in The Decemberists, was coming to town to play solo and he called me up and asked if I would open for him at Schubas. That was really nice of him, because I would never have gotten that show on my own.”

Besides wowing the audience with her irresistibly charming, not-quite-girlish vocals, and establishing her reputation in the Chicago music scene, that first Schubas show eventually started her on a path to her first real band. “I found Andy [Rader, bassist] at The Hideout when I went to see Can-Ky-Ree. He had actually seen me play before at Schubas, solo, so he already knew kind of what the songs were like, so he came in and recorded and now he plays with me live.” Rader led her to drummer Jamie Carter, who also recorded and mixed Captain Wild Horse.
– Linda Ray

Venus sits down to talk with the singer who just finished up a tour, and is gaining critical acclaim
by Ceda Xiong

Captain Wild Horse Rides the Heart of Tomorrow rings a faint bell of recognition. Is it Neil Young? Is it Captain Beefheart? Never mind the familiarity, Shelley Short’s new album has the essence of her title, it is an album of folk songs that stirs faint memories, but revisits her brand of sadness made new. Critics have referred to her sounds as “sweet” and folky, but her musical heritage ranges from Dylan to Nirvana to the Carter Family.

When are you going on tour again?
I just got back this Sunday (Februrary 26, 2006). We will be touring more, but I’m not sure when — probably in April. We’re going to do the west coast, maybe in Seattle, and maybe all the down to California.

What was the touring experience like?
It was really fun and exciting — lots of driving, cold, and lots of snow. We had some really neat shows. The best show was in Burlington, Vermont, we played a house show, a real house that people lived in. They had a stage set up, but I said, “Let’s play in the kitchen” and everyone gathered around. We got great feedback.

When I was at your show in Chicago, I noticed that you really reproduce the sound of the entire album on stage. How did you do that?
Well, basically everyone who played on the record, except for a couple, were playing [on stage]. The recording, even though we had spent a lot of time on it, started with me and the guitar, and I didn’t know that I would meet these people. They laid down tracks towards the end. It’s still pretty simple; it’s not layers and layers of vocals.

Can you tell me a little bit about your early influences?
We listened to a lot of Bob Dylan as we were growing up. I would listen to him, over and over again, trying to interpret what he was talking about. You get these visuals in your head, especially in that song [“A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”], “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?” And lots of jazz, folk music, and ’70s rock.

What kind of folk music did you listen to?
Besides Dylan, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, Judy Collins, Ron Davies. We listened to the Carter Family too. My mom has relatives who are miners and in that world, so she was always listening. It [mountain music] can be boring because all of it’s all kind of the same, but then some songs just hit you. Jimmie Rodgers too, he actually performed with the Carter family.
Who in the current music scene really strikes you?
People have asked me this and the only person I can think of is Joanna Newsom. She’s an amazing songwriter.

Do you see yourself as more folk or country?
I see myself as more folk. The difference comes, well, the basic structures of the songs are really similar. Neko Case, for example, in instrumentation and the vocal styles, she has a lot of reverb on her voice, pedal steel — her stuff is more country rock.
When you get inspired to write your music, what are some of the things that come to mind?
I really try to think of something that people have in common, a sadness that is human and not specific to me, even though it’s coming from my experiences. I write about sadness with a hopeful tinge to it. Most songs in the world are sad, and that’s what I listen to. Sadness is a little more universal.

You have a song called “On the Waterfront.” How do you get inspiration from something like a movie?
I think the basis of that movie was pretty inspiring. The union and love story was so intense, because he basically killed her brother. It’s one of those things — I could probably write songs about a lot of different movies. It was winter in Chicago, I was bored and there was nothing going on, so I decided to write a song about this movie.

The first measure of “Roaring Roars” sounds like “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” Was that intentional?
I was thinking of “The Ants Go Marching”. I took the melody, and I really like that rhythm and the lyrics are loosely-based and as political as I can get.

When did you start playing your instruments?
I played violin in fourth grade. I was in band in middle school, and I played trombone. My parents had a piano, so I would teach myself how to write songs on the piano. I played bass in a band in high school and learned guitar during my first year of college. I taught myself. My boyfriend at the time taught me like G, C, D, F — all the chords you needed to play every song in the world.

What spurred the decision to move to Chicago?
I was born in Portland, born and raised, so I decided I had to go somewhere, or I wouldn’t go anywhere.

Why did you decide to move to Chicago? Was it the musical heritage?
It was definitely the culture of Chicago. It seemed blue-collar, and a little sad. I like how sad it is, in a good way. People seem really human here. Not that people don’t seem human in New York. I was reading Nelson Algren from Chicago, his book Neon Wilderness, stories about Chicago in the ’40s. It just shows the underbelly of Chicago, the dark side.

What’s different about life in Chicago verus Portland?
It’s just bigger, a big city. It’s really industrial. The main difference is in how industrial it is, there are no hills, no trees. I’ve been craving the wilderness a lot lately. I think that the landscape influences the lifestyle on the west coast. There’s a lot to do with people saying “I’m going to go to the ocean, or I’m going camping.” There are places to go camping in Chicago, but not 10 minutes away. On the west coast, there are more coffee shops than there are bars. Here, it’s the opposite.

How do you make time for work and your music?
I’m just really busy. When we were recording the record, I would go there right after work, and we’d mix and practice. I didn’t sleep very much when we were mixing. That would be all weekend, all day and all night. It was worth it. I was mixing in a studio called Carter co. recording. It started in my friends’ attic and it’s in a real studio now, in Pilsen.

Do you get annoyed when critics refer to your music as sweet?
Sometimes I get annoyed because I think a lot of people get put off by high vocals and sweet vocals, and then they just don’t listen to the rest of it. But it’s just the way my voice is.

Do you have a stage persona?
I think the more I’ve been touring, the more I think about it [a stage persona]. I like doing it Ramones style. Just woohoo on the stage, and then leave.

Did you listen to a lot of punk when you were younger?
Some. I liked Nirvana a lot — it’s not punk, but grunge. I listened to a lot of grunge.
Nirvana’s out of the Seattle scene.

When you were growing up, were you immersed in that whole grunge scene?
Definitely. I had purple and blue hair, flannels, and baggy pants. Lots of eyeliner and tons of mascara. It lasted through high school and I stopped half-way through senior year. I think a lot of it was the high school I was going to; I felt the subculture scene was the grunge scene, and I always felt like I’d be part of the subculture.

The title of your second album “Captain Wild Horse Rides the Heart of Tomorrow,” where did that come from?
It’s funny because it sounds like a mixture of Captain Beefheart and Neil Young and Crazy Horse, people get it confused all the time. I was having a really, really hard time thinking of a title. It was important to me to have a title that wasn’t corny. I was calling all my friends, making lists, pages with hundreds of names. I called my friend Jake in Oregon who said “What are the names of your songs?” I listed the names and he put together all the titles of the names of my songs and said “Captain Wildhorse Rides the Heart of Tomorrow.” I was like “It’s brilliant!”


Singer-songwriter Shelley Short released “Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?” in 2003 on Keep Recordings to modest acclaim.
With only a few copies pressed, Short’s chance at national success was limited, but that didn’t stop many from comparing her sound to that of Cat Power or Iron & Wine. Growing tired of the scene in her hometown Portland, Oregon, she decided to move to Chicago.
“It was basically kind of a whim,” she says of her move. “Definitely the music scene [of Chicago] was involved. But pretty much I just wanted to move. It’s weird, coming from Portland. You never hear about the middle, it’s only the West and East coasts.”
Short began writing songs for her follow-up record, “Captain Wild Horse Rides the Heart of Tomorrow,” just before she left Oregon, and finished just after she landed in Chicago. “The Chicago music scene is just different than the Portland music scene. Portland was just small, I knew a lot of people in it. It’s refreshing to jump into a place where you don’t know anybody, to start fresh. It’s still really new to me. It’s really exciting, really supportive. Not cliquey at all.”
The new record has a much more elaborate sound when compared to Short’s debut, featuring grand amounts of horns and strings, and including some drumming by The Decemberists’ Rachel Blumberg and violin-work by Bright Eyes’ Tiffany Kowalski. Short’s vocals are hushed and dreamlike, intimate and soft, a perfect match with the expansive and reflective melodies she presents. It sounds a lot like snowfall.
“I had just moved to Chicago when we started recording,” she says. “I felt like I was in Russia. We don’t get snow in Portland, really, not like here. I love the snow though. I love how it’s so extreme. I think it’s kind of romantic.”
Short, who does daytime duty as a nanny for two families, doesn’t find too much difference between Chicago and Portland in their general acceptance of the kind of music she writes. “Since I’m from Portland–I grew up there–I kind of knew everyone, and it was hard to think of this as a professional thing or a serious thing to do. That has more to do with the mindset of just being from there. You probably could do [what I’m doing] in Portland, but [moving to Chicago] was just more about my own mindset and needing to get motivated.”


A Portland gal transplanted to Chicago’s Roscoe Village, Short sings old-fashioned acoustic music with a little bit of Gillian Welch’s mountain spirit plus some Tin Pan Alley fizz. She’s an impressive talent with good songs, made all the better with creative arrangements that even include harmonium and ukulele. The music sounds authentically antique. Short plays Saturday at the Empty Bottle.


Geography plays an awfully dubious role when it comes to music. While it’s comfortable to speak of a sound in terms of a “scene,” and the two of them being interrelated. But those are often the exceptions to the otherwise scattered and random mix of music, literally all over the map (though not, like, a literal map…that backfired, damn). Country music, for instance, seems best when it’s spawned from the South. And listening to Shelley Short, it would make sense that she come from the Carolinas or Texas, despite having no accent to speak of. But no, she’s from Portland. And where did she go to record her new album Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow)? Chicago.

It does seem a bit odd that an album this steeped in Americana, from Woody to Emmylou, is written and recorded in two cities nowhere near the Grand Ole Opry. And yet, Short (not the Bizarro World Shelley Long) could easily fit in alongside alt-country chanteuses such as Carolyn Mark or Neko Case, who also comes from the Pacific Northwest. Yet Short’s balladry seems more carefree and upbeat than Case’s, at times. “Like Anything It’s Small” flutters about on a daydream, as Short displays her witty wordplay: “My vie en rose/my feeling grows.” And “Lupine Manner” sounds almost childlike with its toy piano melody and loopy waltz.

Even despite the brighter sounds that emerge on the album, Short still holds her own as a haunting Americana troubadour. On opener “Tomorrow Night,” the rumbling cello beneath Short’s voice only seems to enhance the reverbed-out atmosphere, lending the song a darker, gothic quality. And yet, there’s hope in Short’s comforting tones: “tomorrow night is filled with light/and if it comes then I’ll give you some.” Even more reverb comes into play on “All Eyes on the Skyline,” as Short sings of seafaring, or seafaring as a metaphor for a broken relationship, rather. But on “Pullin’ Pullin'” she makes a fairly straightforward countrypolitan mosey into a lovely, standout track by merely keeping it simple. Her borrowing of the melody from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” on the string-laden “Roaring Roars,” however, is possibly the most genius moment on the entire record.

There may not be a big country scene in either Chicago or Portland, barring some rare exceptions, but then again, Shelley Short isn’t one hundred percent country. Rather, she takes from classic country and folk and adds her own quirks and charms to the mix, resulting in a very familiar sound, but not one that speaks to traditionalists. And there’s no harm in that, because Short isn’t exactly the most traditional songwriter.


The new album hits hard for such gentle music. Short wrings every drop of emotion from story-songs like “Goodbye Old Morning” and “Like Anything, It’s Small” and delivers lovesick meditations like “Pullin’ Pullin'” and “Wild Wild Horses” with almost painful tenderness. But she isn’t sure how best to describe her sound. “I think I would have to say folk — I suppose that’s vague enough,” she says, laughing. “If you say country it kinda throws people off, even though my songs are pretty country sounding.”


Shelley Short is a folk singer, which is probably as broad a description I could possibly open with. Her music, however, is not vague in any sense, it’s almost purely steeped in Americana. Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow) is full of waltzing acoustic instrumentation and the kind of string arrangements that pack a wallop instead of metropolitan theater seats. The song writing is strongly intuitive in presentation, imbued with the slight air of improvisation that comes along with any folk tune worth a damn. And Short’s voice is like a robin’s whistle, a wholly embraceable tone that could melt the end product of a late-winter East Coast snow flurry.
In spite of that, Captain Wild Horse tends to remind you, “Hey, it’s cold outside.” The affectionate passion of Short’s vocals seems to contradict the stark compositions at times. And though exceptions to the rule aren’t hard to find, these still resonate with a somber frost.
“Like Anything, It’s Small” works on a nice, lilting bounce, but Short sings that she’s “writing the end to a story that hasn’t begun.” Bassist Andy Radar and drummer Jamie Carter create a steady rhythm section that stabilizes and perfectly accentuates the lyrics, which seem scattershot at first scan. Likewise, “Lupine Manner” has a bouncy whimsy that creates distance from the melancholy; it almost feels like some kind of schoolyard ditty. Here, the sorrow takes on a shade of ingénue interest, these are quiet meanderings on dwindling sadness.
Comparisons to aesthetically similar contemporaries like Chan Marshall or Neko Case are almost inevitable, even if not altogether accurate. Devotees of either would likely pounce on Short’s sound with little hesitation. But her style is rootsier in a fashion and, perhaps by default, more haphazard. “The Sunny Side” reflects this with its first-take throat clear, threadbare arrangement and lo-fi production.
Captain Wild Horse finds Short reaching into the Dylan songbook and looking to Marlon Brando for inspiration while paralleling the work of a handful of classic country artists. Her Americana is a little cosmic like Gram Parsons’, sans drugged-out confections. It’s a part folk, part country like Parson pupil, Emmylou Harris. “Pullin’ Pullin’” can’t be mistaken for much else. But more than style, Captain Wild Horse  exudes a strong sense of confidence and an even stronger affection towards the material. Short tackles every song with the intrigued zest of a stranger in a foreign land, even though she’s clearly at home in the world of Jimmie Rodgers.

So maybe cuteness is the mitigating factor then. Even though her approach is introspective and pensive, the superficial move is to consider Short “precious” and chalk up this album as an adorable delight. Between the comely vocals and the focus on easily approachable melody, it’s not a hard card to pull. Best not make it your Jack of Hearts.


‘Captain Wildhorse (rides the heart of tomorrow) is a fantastic album’, concluded someone on Billboard recently, overstating things but only fractionally. Back in the summer of 2004 this blog was telling anyone who’d listen about Short’s charming limited-edition debut, Oh say little dogies, why? and is deeply pleased to report that everything said then holds true for it’s successor.
And happily, despite it’s more conventional release (via Hush) and enhanced recording process, the sonic qualities of airy homespun directness which, among other things, made Dogies so appealing remain intact. Short has gathered round her a sympathetic acoustic ensemble whose bowing and a-pluckin’ stand as ballast to her disarming plinking and plonking. reallyrather isn’t going to say Captain Wildhorse.. is better than its predecessor but its peaks are higher.
Specifically, we have something like Lupine manner, Short’s wide-eyed vocals sparkling like glass beads in candlelight while fat, frazzled glockenspiel, a lonesome trumpet and fireworks – yes, fireworks! – fill the air. Magical. The jaunty twang of Goodbye old morning ends with some irresistable ooh-oohing, Like anything, its small is as pleasing as it’s title while about one minute into All eyes on the skyline comes the album’s most luminous melodic moment, albeit frustratingly fleeting. And while faint traces of Dolly Parton and Joanna Newsom surface in things like The sunny side and Wild wild horses, Short remains distinctively her sweet-sounding yet unsentimental self throughout.
The opening of Roaring roars borrows from the melody of When Johnny comes marching home. The reprised Pullin’, pullin’ feels almost like a traditional itself so familiar is it from her first release. Captain Wildheart is indeed ‘the same old beautiful story’ and you should own it…


Not much of a fan of pre-fabricated Hallmark holidays, I offer a prickly-cute, offbeat sort of Valentine’s Day salute, courtesy of the prickly-cute, offbeat Shelley Short. With a timeless, deep-folk melody, charming percussion, and an arresting violin accompaniment, the song clangs along with a determined stop-start-iness; it’s like someone deconstructing the McGarrigle sisters. Short’s new album, Captain Wild Horse (Rides The Heart of Tomorrow), is as endearingly enigmatic as the title suggests, a sometimes hypnotic amalgam of soft but often off-balance sounds, recorded in a purposeful sort of lo-fi sheen, if such a thing is possible. Short is a refugee from both art school and the Pacific Northwest who has settled for the time being in Chicago (“for no good reason,” notes her bio)


Captain Wild Horse (Rides the Heart of Tomorrow) è il nuovo album di Shelley Short pubblicato da pochi giorni  per Hush Records. Coadiuvata dal basso di Andy Rader (Can.Ky.Ree, Gypsee Garage Combo, PineTop Seven) dal violino di Tiffany Kowalski e la batteria di Jamie Carter, Shelley elabora un folk crudele come quello di Lisa Germano, a tratti infernale come il lamento di Nina Nastasia e narcolettico come l’esordio di Victory at sea; senza per questo allontanarsi da un sentiero di tradizione country-folk di frontiera che a un primo ascolto potrebbe risultare inadeguato. Piuttosto, è questa frizione che rende il songwriting di Shelley Short molto interessante; non si tratta certo del country-icona di Jenny Lewis, tutto giocato su posture e strategie di mercato ben oliate. La copertina del cd è uno splendido viraggio in stampa, che stuzzica il ricordo di un’altra cover art, quella di un classico degli Husker Du; songs and stories di lacerante bellezza. Spazio su myspace da questa parte, altre info su gorilla vs. bear e streaming da sito ufficiale in calce.

“Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?” [Keep; 2005]


It’s homespun and relatively unadorned. A little bit back porch, a little bit bar-room, a little bit arts club but a whole lot wonderful. Now that there’s finally some proper heat in the days, Shelley Short’s debut Oh’ say little dogies, why? cools like the small antique fan that belonged to your grandmother. A kind of worn-in timelessness pervades this limited edition release (150)from boutique label KEEP Recordings, itself one of the year’s most encouraging musical enterprises. Back in Feb this blog recommended KR release #2, the low key country-folk demos of Chad King’s Love your engine; record #6 is even better.

Oh’ say little dogies, why? was recorded (not ‘produced’, not ‘mixed’ just ‘recorded’) partly at the Type Foundry in Portland and Adam Selzer’s Norfolk&Western gang join in on several of the 14 songs. They bring drums, bass and Wurlitzer into the spare acoustic mix but the unfussy immediacy and natural ambience is never lost. Uncomplicated folk-twang is mostly what’s on offer, the musical equivalent of lollopin’ wagons bobbling over stony terrain. Quite simple ‘dum-ching’ guitar, a.n.other instrument and lilting harmonized vocals – it’s all you need with tunes as taking as these.

Not that you’d really claim it as especially inspired songwriting, it’s just very, very appealingly rendered. Opener Who am I to fall takes your legs clean away, barroom charmer Carbon paper skys promptly pins you down and at least half a dozen more winners – Sugar falls, the amblin’ Buy a fish (perfect with just a picked electric and twin vocal), Pullin’, pullin’, pullin’ etc – subsequently pile in, pummelling you sweetly insensible by the end. And the end is Time oh’ time where a young child’s uncertain vocal accompaniment momentarily threatens to bring the wheels right off the charm wagon. But it’s only a wobble and quickly resolves into possibly the most affecting tune of the lot.

Echoing the style and spirit of The Be Good Tanyas and Nina Nastasia, with a dash of Patsy Cline, at her first attempt Shelley Short gets so many things right (right down to the artwork). Now you know why you never quite got round to buying those Jolie Holland or Tres Chicas records, all the time you were really waiting for this…

* * *

Willamette Week Online

Even in a packed club, Shelley Short’s music has the same warmth and intimacy of hearing her strum shy country-tinged songs at 4 am in a kitchen of a Mojave ranch house. Short’s debut album, Oh’ Say Little Dogies, Why?, is a collection of sand-and-sunstroke odes with the Southwest acting as a backdrop in the same way as Monument Valley vistas of classic westerns.

* * *

Jon @ Blue Mag
Portland, OR based singer/songwriter Shelley Short’s “Oh’ Say Little Dogies, Why?” is a full length worth warming your hands over. Shades of Iron & Wine, Cat Power, and the mid-70’s heyday of Emmylou Harris fall on Short’s warm, earnest voice and sparse, organic arrangements. Members of Norfolk & Western, the Decemberists & Harbor lend their talents to Short’s casually rustic yet ambitious project. “Carbon Paper Skies” is a sunny shuffle of double tracked vocals and twangy melody laced with an undercurrent of piano and banjo. On “Trouble Takes A Long Time”, Short sings “Did you know that I know / the words to an old old song?”, neatly summing up the spirit and sentiment of her songcraft. In line with the current country-folk revival, much of “Oh’ Say Little Dogies, Why?” sounds like it could have come off an old 78 of folk standards and frontier heartbreak. “It’s Here it’s There” is a classic lonesome road song wholly stripped down yet still reverberating ghost tones of absent pedal steel and plucked bass. Nowhere is Short’s music more satisfying than on the sub two minute epic “Time Oh! Time” that closes the disc, complete with far-away echos and bled-in laughter at the end. “Time Oh! Time” sounds like it was recorded live with one overhead mic and friends crowding the tracking room, fitting for the vibe of the album. Like the afromentioned Sam Beam’s homespun “The Creek Drank The Cradle”, “Oh’ Say Little Dogies, Why?” slowly unravels it’s rusty charm over the course of 14 tracks on a string of strummed guitars and brushed snare drums.

Delusions of Adequacy

There’s no doubt that the debut album by Portland, Oregon musician Shelley Short is a predominantly country album. The soft acoustic strumming, the hints of tambourine and lap steel here and there, the themes of love and loss: it all works out to personal, finely done country. But somehow – perhaps in Short’s pretty voice or the effects she uses on her vocals – there’s something more emotional, more modern, more unique that keeps this from being a typical country affair.

Now remember, there doesn’t have to be an alt- before your country to appreciate it or for it to be modern. There’s still a far cry between this kind of emotional, melodious country and folk and the radio-friendly country that’s always rearing its ugly head. In fact, Short’s unique vocal approach makes this very unique, and it stands out quite a bit from its contemporaries. Maybe that’s why I like these songs so much: they’re quiet and pretty and personal and different.

The best songs here, in my opinion, are those filled out with more instrumentation than just Short’s guitar. “Carbon Paper Skys,” with The Decemberists Rachel Blumberg on drums and Norfolk & Western’s Adam Selzer on bass, is one of the best songs here, with just enough twang and some nice male backup vocals to fill it out. “Sugar Falls,” with the same folks and some nice lap steel and whirlitzer, is the most playful song on the album, cute and light as Short sings “sweetie sweetie, salty salty day.” The piano on “Trouble Takes a Long Time” is a nice touch, even if it’s simple and light, and her voice doesn’t sound any cuter than on the light “Imagine That.”

By contrast, some of the more sparse songs here, which feature just Short’s voice and acoustic guitar, feel more bare, more deeply personal, but also a bit dark, a bit moodier than one might expect. “Who Am I to Fall?” which starts the album, is a perfect example. On “Giving Someone Giving,” Short’s layered voice singing “my whole world’s been turned around / since the day you came around,” has a very plaintive, longing feel. “It’s Here it’s There” is especially poignant, while “Something Has Changed” feels deeply personal, telling a relationship story.

The first time I heard Short’s voice with its echoey effects, I immediately thought of Tonya Donnelly, and maybe even Kristen Hersch. It’s an odd comparison, for her style of music is nothing like those mid-90s chanteuses. But listen to her voice – especially on “Heavy Flowers” – and you might agree. It’s very pretty, and it’s very personable, and it makes the songs on her first album shine. But seek it out quick, because it’s limited to only 150 copies.

* * *

Rabbit @ Shmat
It’s sort of difficult to classify this music, though in my heart (and from the bio) I know that at its most accessible level it’s some sort of blend of country-folk music. It’s not as preternaturally dark as Edith Frost, nor as uptempo as Neko Case, not as poppy as Mary Lou Lord. Shelley Short’s songs seem to hover at times between straightforward country inflections and an even more primal Americana sound that really gets under your skin in a good way.

This is perfect for listening to on soft summer nights while sitting on the porch with a fifth of Jack Daniels. No, you don’t have to be drunk to appreciate it. Not by any stretch. But like Norfolk and Western (whose key member Adam Selzer played bass on several songs and also runs Type Foundry, where parts of Shelley’s album was recorded) you get a certain sense of distance and even melancholy sadness from all the empty space within the songs. That sadness is there, but it ain’t all bad. It just makes you think about things other than what reality TV show’s on the boob tube. And thinking puts you in a meditative state of mind where you’re apt to amble out onto the front steps and look at the sunset with a drink if there is one nearby (I mean the sunset, not the drink). So it goes.

The atmosphere is probably the most important element in these songs, and helps transport the album away from the rut that other more straightforward alt country acts dawdle in. For instance, “Even The Water” has a strange little clarinet submerged in the background. And “Pullin’, Pullin’, Pullin'” has drums that sound more like kettles and cans, and the whole song has an A.M. radio type of quality. The tinkling piano hovering far on the horizon on “Trouble Takes A Long Time” adds depth and character to an otherwise typical song. I don’t ever doubt that these extra things are important. Even so, one of my favorites was the more straightforward folky picker “Giving Someone Giving” with it’s simple approach and great harmonies. Really reminded of Edith Frost here. The beautiful vibrato electric guitar on songs like “Buy A Fish” sets up a pretty background for Shelley’s personable twang. At times Shelley’s singing voice is so innocently sweet and childlike (not childish) as to trick the listener into thinking that this is some 14 year old prairie girl singing her heart out. But thankfully, she’s no Lee Ann Rimes. That much is quite clear from the subject material and the arrangements that she uses to great effect to complement her style. “Heavy Flowers” almost feels like a slow Neil Young song, especially that picking near the beginning and end. Some strange type of glasses or metal plates clinking in the background add even more atmosphere to this song. “Singing Brigade” is very Southwesternly minor in feel, at times nearing the hushed whispers of Calexico’s stuff. And why not, since the CD is out on Arizona’s finest limited edition label, Keep Recordings. Although, Shelley’s actually from Portland, OR. Could have fooled me any day.

Foxy Digitalis

This strangely-titled CD begins with some ambient noise that I can’t identify: a dog barking? A rusty gate swinging? Both recall the desolation that is the main sentiment here, with production so sparse and dry it practically crumbles to dust in your ears. Short holds it together with subtle songs – a little too subtle on the first three, almost floating away. The elliptical “Even the Water” is almost entirely subsumed by an echoing, feedbacking (?) clarinet – a ghostly effect of considerable power, but a little too distracting. Short and her smartly written songs reassert themselves as the album goes on, though. “Pullin’ Pullin’ Pullin’” is a sweetly lilting shuffle, its lyrics betraying a bemused resignation that old Ernest Tubb would find familiar (“It’s the same old beautiful story, it’s a strange love that you carry for me”). Elsewhere, folk (“Sugar Falls”) and psychedelic (“Heavy Flowers”) influences creep in, with Short bending her sweet melodies and pliant harmonies slightly to fit her ever more plaintive moods. On “It’s Here It’s There” she explicitly cops from Leonard Cohen to underscore the melancholy, but there’s no need to do that when you can write your own songs of pained yearning, as Short does with “Trouble Takes a Long Time.” These dusty songs have lullaby tempos and countrypolitan chords, but they’re not here to limn the pleasures of easy living; they doubt and quake and pine.


Great folk artists seem to revel in the masochistic feat of openly displaying their own vulnerabilities and delicate emotions to an audience. That’s what Shelley Short has done with Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why?.

A lilting, country influence permeates the disc. Wailing lap-steels and skipping banjos are heard on several tracks (including the slyly-bouncy “Carbon Paper Skies” and the melodically meandering “Giving Someone Giving”), but it’s Short’s voice that most betrays her honky-tonk inspirations. Her singing is intoxicating. Largely Hatfield-esque in its alluring cuteness, it also evokes the lingering depth of Victoria Williams and Emmylou Harris — it’s irritating and sensuous at the same time. Like these artists, Short continually engages a restrained yodel, her voice in constant flux as it meanders across complex melodies.

The album’s textured instrumentation perfectly complements Short’s vocals, and indeed sometimes seems to echo them. “Giving Someone Giving”‘s fluctuating lap-steel accents match Short’s meandering performance, but the lap steel is differentiated by it unnatural, digitally-manipulated tone. You’ll notice these elements throughout the disc, adding dense texture through minimalist dynamics: “Even The Water”‘s waltzing clarinet, “Pullin’, Pullin’, Pullin'”‘s crackling lo-fidelity, “Trouble Takes a Long Time”‘s plonking atonal piano and “Time Oh Time”‘s children harmonies. All of them perfectly match the album’s mood, lackadaisically lingering and then fading in restraint.

This aura of genuineness is Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why’s greatest strength, and helps to make it truly memorable. Everything is subtle and unforced, simply begging for repeated listens. When Short whispers lines like “The telephone is dead / won’t you stop this ringing in my head”, or “The sugar falls on the salt / they both look the same” (“Sugar Falls”), or even “What’s it like to be a winner / I asked you over dinner” (“Buy A Fish”), they don’t seem like dramatic indulgence, even though they clearly could be. You simply believe every word that she says, and you empathize. The instrumentation, similarly relaxed and natural, is a perfect finishing touch. Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why? is an impressive achievement for Short — it’s resonant without being indulgent and overbearing. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, it’s clearly one of the best singer/songwriter albums of the year.

Left Off The Dial

A sweet voice can be dangerous. Both critics and listeners may make the mistake of taking a wispy vocal track less seriously than the gritty sound of a diesel-powered singer. But a delicate voice can also speak to a part of one’s heart untouched by gutsy soul. Shelley Short is poised to join the ranks of sweet-voiced lullaby ladies that I favor for candlelight and a cup of tea. She just needs a little time.
Ms. Short sings in the fine tradition of fairy voices like Karen Paris of Innocence Mission, though her voice is a bit rough at the edges, more from lack of training and practice than quality. Oh, Say Little Dogies, Why? is a fine effort at atmospheric folk, replete with the unpolished sound and occasional cavernous echoes of a live session. That lack of pretension can occasionally seem more like amateur’s work than a focus on purity. Recorded in Portland, Oregon and Questa, New Mexico, this album is almost unusually divided in quality between the two locations. The Portland-recorded tracks are all of lesser quality, with more falsetto and discordance. Although some of these songs miss the mark, the larger portion demonstrate Ms. Short’s intended goal – sweet folk with comfortable, bittersweet lyrics.
“Who Am I to Fall” opens with a melody reminiscent of a Christmas hymn and perfectly aligned backing vocals. “Carbon Paper Skies” strikes an off-note in the same area, however, the backing vocals of Larry Yes seem out of touch with mood and slightly grating against Ms. Short’s delicacy. On “Time Oh Time”, a preschool-age girl backs Ms. Short, and though this is appealing in a cute sense, it does not make for a pleasant listening experience. Sweet music is most usually dismissed for purveying ‘cute’ sounds.

One of the stronger tracks on the album is “Giving Someone Giving,” which reaches beyond the sweet to the beautiful – Shelley Short’s voice sounds more invested in her lyrical message, thrumming the line “Who’s gonna be there when I fall?” with something like a desire for a real answer. “Even The Water” has a particular grotto-like feel, and makes one wonder just what the recording space looked like; it also has an unearthly clarinet, which can be a difficult instrument to handle; here, it is used to beautiful, spacey effect. “Pullin’, Pullin’, Pullin” and “It’s Here, It’s There” round out the best tracks, and indicate the direction Ms. Short should pursue to improve her sound.

Shelley Short has chosen to walk the fine line between smooth, honeyed tones and the danger of lurching into a sugary, piercing falsetto. In general, she does well, but she needs more time to cultivate her lower register. She also needs better backing vocals, or to stick to the purity of her one voice against the guitar, lap steel, and banjo she employs. Given more live exposure and some time to grow as an artist, Shelley Short may soon be turning out albums that are perfectly suited to the sweet times of life.

* * *

JP @
Shelley Short sings shimmering, alterna-folk/country. This record’s title perplexed me at first, but shortly after hearing the first track, I was down for the ride. Piano, acoustic and slide guitars, simple, loose-snared drumming, and male backing vocals on some tracks, make this record keen for quiet moods – preferably a melancholy feeling, or an activity that requires some intense listening. Its somber melodic presence seemed a bit too eerie for the overall length of the record, and the songs can drag at times, some with no real chorus or attempt at any hook. If not braced, it can make for a busy skip button finger. This isn’t to say it doesn’t have its redeeming tracks. Tracks like “Giving Someone Giving” are so beautifully executed and so delicately attuned that they could almost fall apart at any second. It brings to mind tear-forming childhood memories of standing in a summer field and watching the wind play with the sheets of long grass, and gently blowing the dandelion spores about. She dabbles in sparseness, somber, and calming, and does it well. This is the kind of record that you hear a track off of in a film and go “goddamn that was a good song,” only to never see or figure out who wrote/sings it. One could arguably say that this is a perfect record for film, which isn’t a bad thing, just secular. Overall, “Oh Say Little Dogies, Why?” is a somber, delicate, and well-crafted release, if you’re in the mood for it.