On his new album, singer-songwriter Stuart Oliver often is inspired by a sense of place, the natural environment and of traveling.
On the country-rockin' Sheddin' Every Skin, he sings of locations such as South Texas, Alabama, Georgia and, of course, Southern Arizona. Sometimes he uses place as a comparative metaphor, such as on "Denver Is the Tropics," and at other times he refers to a specific place, time and event, such as during the Revolutionary War-set "The Wagontrail Disaster." His songs consider the acts of leaving and returning, standing on the border, living in a cage and facing "Seven Miles to Go."
"I love exploring different spots and soaking in the culture of them," Oliver says during a recent interview. "America is probably the most fascinating country in the world, when you consider all the differences you encounter, regionally and culturally, here. I guess it's just a folk tradition to sing about the places you are in or have been in."
Stuart Oliver and the Desert Angels - which includes most of the musicians and singers on the new album - will celebrate the release of Sheddin' Every Skin with a gig Saturday night, March 30, at Café Passé on North Fourth Avenue.
Oliver apparently has a habit for moving around.
Born in Georgia, he moved with his family to England when he was a child, and then moved back to Georgia before striking out on his own. He lived in New Mexico and Hawaii before settling down in Tucson in 2005. Somewhere in there he lived for a while in Bisbee, and he still loves traveling back and forth between here and that eclectic arts enclave (a former mining town) near the Mexican border.
Physical journeys obviously play a large role on Sheddin' Every Skin, which is Oliver's second album overall, and his first with the backing band the Desert Angels.
But so do journeys of a spiritual nature. Listeners might guess - judging from the album's title track or others such as "Jesus Has a Soft Spot (For Losers Like Me)" and "I Need to Love Myself (More Than I Hate You)" - that Oliver is intent on exploring a state of spiritual transformation and resolving emotional issues.
In fact, Oliver is completing a bachelor's degree in shamanic healing, with an emphasis on using music a vehicle for healing, at Prescott College.
If it doesn't sound like a typical higher-education experience, it's not. The Northern Arizona-based liberal arts college allows students to customize degree programs to their individual interests, stressing experiential learning and self-direction within an interdisciplinary curriculum. Most of Oliver's course work is accomplished online.
"When you talk about shamanic healing, a lot of it involves using harmony and vibration as a part of the healing process," Oliver says. "You can expand from that to meditation, and then you get to using the drum for a journey, and then we start looking at all the sides of music. It becomes a process of working within sacred ceremonies, and in my work I do a lot of research into that and into the act of being mindful of whatever form of creative expression you're working in."
His minor also is also related to music, and pretty practical, too. It's in expressive arts, focused on digital web design and graphic presentation.
Such skills no doubt come in handy when running a record label. Oliver founded his Old Bisbee Records more than five years ago, releasing his recordings, as well as those of other artists.
Oliver also has played in a variety of Tucson and Bisbee groups over the last several years. The most prominent of them include the acoustic-folk street band The Dusty Buskers, roots rockers Dylan Charles & the Border Crossers and the soul-funk-jazz combo Kate Becker & the Zodiacs, the latter led by Oliver's partner, the singer-songwriter Becker. All of those artists have released CDs on Old Bisbee, as have Silver Tread Trio, The Awkward Moments and a number of others.
He's had to back away from performing with most of them to focus on his solo material with the Desert Angels, even as he maintains musical connections with Becker and Charles. "We all sit in with each other once in a while, but for now most of my impetus is behind this project."
However, The Dusty Buskers recently convened for a St. Patrick's Day gig at Plush, and Oliver allows that they'll play for special occasions.
You actually don't have to know anything of Oliver's spiritual and educational pursuits to appreciate the lovely and meticulously arranged twangy folk-rock of Sheddin' Every Skin. It's a killer album nodding to 1970s-era influences such as The Eagles and Gram Parsons - born in urban honky-tonks and the haunts of space cowboys.
It's the kind of music the 34-year-old Oliver grew up hearing at home.
"My mom would listen to Eagles records all the time, not necessarily the Joe Walsh stuff, but the earlier stuff," he says. "And, growing up in England it's easy to romanticize the States and the way certain musical artists capture that sense of Americana. Then came my interest in the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons, who really did the most to legitimize country within the rock world."
On Sheddin' Every Skin, Oliver employs many talented musical friends from Bisbee, Tucson and beyond. His friendly, light-spirited tenor lead vocals often are accompanied by one of the following female voices: Becker; Oliver's sister, Angela Taylor; Laura Kepner-Adney of Silver Thread Trio and The Cordials fame; and Danielle Panther of Bisbee's Green Machine.
The CD-release gig at Café Passé will feature guests such as Becker and Taylor, we well as Deanna Cross on viola, Mark Holdaway on kalimba, Louis Levinson on pedal steel guitar, and special guest Dan Davis, of the Determined Luddites, on mandolin.
Oliver says his compositions come to him from unexplained places, but their creation almost always allow him to resolve an issue occurring in his life.
"I've written probably the best songs of my life when I was half-asleep and couldn't translate them. 'Sheddin' Every Skin,' I believe, I wrote after waking up from an absolute nightmare. I woke up so scared and emotional I had to get it down.
"Sometimes the only thing that works when facing a challenge is to write it down and make some music from it. Music is something that I feel we all need to heal ourselves."