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Danny Shafer has recently undergone a change of heart. For one thing, he's been wired to a honky-tonk frequency, studying the players and pluckers who perfected the two-stepper years ago in Texas, Nashville and Bakersfield. He's also done some stepping of his own -- out of the limelight and into an ensemble dynamic with the All Night Honky Tonk All Stars, who appear Thursday, September 26, at the Fox Theatre, with the Dalhart Imperials. The Stars lineup includes guitarist Greg Schochet and bassist Jim Sullivan, formerly of newgrass outfit Runaway Truck Ramp, as well as drummer Jason Pawlina and Rebecca Hoggan, who landed in Boulder after migrating west from Virginia.
It would be easy to understand if Shafer had found it difficult to relinquish his frontman role. During his almost-three-year stint with folk-rock outfit the Danny Shafer Band, he served as the group's songwriter, vocalist and namesake. Fortunately, he hasn't let ego cloud his judgment about his role in what, over the course of the past year, has evolved into a fine combo.
"I'm singing maybe 40 percent of the songs and playing rhythm guitar," he says. "I just feel so fortunate to be playing with these people. We work hard to keep it simple."
Simplicity is a recurring theme for Shafer, who approaches his new job as a kind of workshop in elementals. Asked to boil classic country down to its basic elements, he cites "good singing, good phrasing, a good rhythm section and simple words, so that someone can get the point without even having to think about it."
Weaned on Willie Nelson and Marty Robbins, as well as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, Shafer's also a sucker for big harmonies. That affinity is clear in the All Stars' quicksilver shows, which feature duets between Shafer and Hoggan, who's a disciple of twangmasters like Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells. Hoggan -- a solo artist with her own disc, Born in East Virginia -- also plays guitar and mandolin; Shafer recalls the first time he saw her perform, at a bluegrass jam in Boulder. "She was my dream vocalist," he says. "And then I saw her play her acoustic guitar, and I was like, 'Man, she can play, too.' It was almost too good to be true."
Traditional touches -- songs with bone-basic titles like "Hung It Up," Pawlina's occasional brush strokes, Schochet's astonishingly acrobatic guitar twang -- have made the All Stars a band that purists and newbies can both embrace. Unlike many local acts that incorporate country into a more amorphous whole, there's very little neo-ness at work here.
"We can play places like the Fox, with a solid college audience, and then drive to Wyoming and play a honky-tonk and get people two-stepping -- with the exact same set," Shafer says. "We feel a lot of respect toward our elders in this music and the way it's been presented in the past."