A Commanding but Down-to-Earth Personality
Likewise, over the years many musicians have looked up to Showalter as inspiration. With a powerful yet humble presence on and off the stage and a Midwestern work ethic, Showalter has added new fans with each new person he meets.
For Vanderslice, Showalter’s personality made it easy to record with him. Not only was Showalter easy to work with, but also knew how to keep it light and humorous and keep things interesting with his ability to tell stories.
“When you spend eight days in a row with someone in a studio and you’re all trying to translate a group of songs, you feel an enormous amount of pressure. He is unguarded and open, and within five minutes I knew we’d have a very good record,” says Vanderslice. “You get very close to people in the studio but then you both go back to your life. Tim is one of the few people I’ve called just to say hello.”
Matteson, who helped bring Strand of Oaks to Wisconsin through Muzzle of Bees, describes Showalter as one of the kindest and most passionate people he’s gotten to work with.
“He’s super driven but so down to earth. He absolutely cares for and wants to know every single person that comes into contact with his music which is really great because each night he talks to everyone and makes them feel important – because they are to him. He’s an independent artist with no label or publicity support so everything he’s accomplished it’s truly grass roots and word of mouth. Which I find really impressive and enjoy being part of.”
On stage, Showalter is just as impressive as his commanding presence is hard to ignore. In fact Matteson says that he’s one of the only performers he’s seen live who “can absolutely silence the loudest and most inattentive crowd with his voice.”
“It’s just impossible to ignore the power it commands in a room. I’ve seen people be moved to the point of tears at his shows having no idea who he is.”
According to Vanderslice, years of developing and finding his voice and stage presence has definitely paid off for Showalter.
“He has a tremendous amount of microphone control and knows how to translate emotional content through the 4-5 minute narrative. He’s always developing and changing the story with subtle and slight changes in dynamics.”
The Great Search for Music
While Showalter may not have had this level of skills growing up, one thing that’s remained the same is his passion for music discovery and not getting tied down to one style of music.
It almost didn’t happen.
Growing up in Goshen, Indiana, a part of Indiana that was somewhere between urban and rural, there weren’t many things to do. But when he was little he shared a passion for sports since his dad was a basketball player. He had dreams of being a basketball player one day. Unfortunately for those dreams, while in middle school Showalter came down with a pretty serious case of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
With that option gone, he had to find a new passion. As he watched bands like Smashing Pumpkins and other bands in the ’90s on MTV, he knew instantly that music was the way to go.
Finding music, especially with the limited access to it where he lived, wasn’t easy. But Showalter’s determination grew as he dug deep into whatever he could find.
Sometimes he would follow suggestions of musicians he liked. After discovering Jeff Buckley, Showalter read an interview where Buckleye mentioned Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake.
“I spent six months trying to find those records and going to libraries and finding tapes of Leonard Cohen and finding bits and pieces of Nick Drake. It was just the discovery process opposite of the internet today of really having to work hard to meet people with records I’d want to hear. It was like an Indiana Jones treasure hunt or something.”
His music search eventually led him to his interest in synthesizers as well as his interest in techno and trance music which his friend introduced him to. To this day he doesn’t put limits on the music he listens to.
“I never define myself as a fan of something. I was never like ‘I like punk music or heavy metal or folk music. It was a really broad scope because there wasn’t a scene and shows to go to. My world lacked definition, through that I found my love of music.”
Showalter especially clung to artists that were always changing and doing things differently. “I really appreciate the fact that I arrived at a point where there weren’t a lot of boundaries of what music inspired me. I think that helps when making records and writing songs. I’m never satisfied with any particular kind of music. If I could play guitar like Billy Gibbons and write ZZ Top songs I would write that in a heartbeat. I write songs constantly and they all take their own meaning and shapes depending on what the lyrics call for.”
Deciding Between Two Paths
As Showalter moved towards college he started getting increasingly interested in teaching. He still was plenty interested in music though, and around 2004 or 2005 went on his first tour.
Teaching and music were intertwined during that time and kept Showalter’s mind occupied. Although when it came to graduating college, he found himself at a crossroads.
“Am I going to do music or am I going to do teaching?” Showalter asked himself as he felt the tug of two things that he had grown very passionate about.
Ultimately, since he had gotten a teaching degree he decided it would only be fair to see that through. It didn’t take long for a job offer to help seal his decision.
“I got a really nice teaching offer when I got back from England on tour at a Hebrew school for teaching second grade. At that point I thought, ‘I went to college, I need to see this through.’ It was a Midwest work ethic. So I decided to put music on hold for awhile.”
For about four or five years he taught and took on bus driver duties at United Hebrew Institute in Wilkes-Barre. It was a small school so he would only see about a dozen kids but he loved every minute of it.
“I loved the tangible progress you see, especially younger students how they come in at the beginning of the year and they’re little babies and you leave them and they’re like grownups and writing paragraphs and understanding grammar and speaking better. You have this sense of pride that you get to see a full cycle of a year. I taught at the school and made a lot of friends a community of people opened their arms to me and really accepted me.”
The bus rides in the morning and after school also makes Showalter smile when he remembers the joy he had. He had a tape recorder in the van but refused to play the bands they brought in. Instead he would play Sigur Rós tapes and various other bands of the post-rock influence.
For the kids riding the bus, these songs – especially with Sigur Rós, who doesn’t always sing in English – formed a fascinating soundtrack for their rides.
One of the 3rd graders would start telling stories and listening to the songs. Soon it caught on with the others. For the hour on the bus there’d be enormous fairy tales and epic stories where the prince would go to battle and the king would die, sometimes developing over a span of six months. When he tours in the area he remembers how much he misses those moments listening to these worlds of fantasy.
“Wilkes-Barre is beautiful in the fall as there’s a river that runs through it and the leaves are changing with the mountains around and the river had this snake of fog that goes through it,” says Showalter. “We’d look at that and listen to Sigur Rós and make up these stories. It was kind of overwhelming in the best possible way.”
During that period he met and married his wife Sue. Not long after, his wife found a job in Philadelphia, leaving Showalter to make another decision about what he wanted to do. He thought long and hard about applying for another teaching position. In the end, he decided since there wasn’t a lot going on at that point that he should revisit his music dreams, at least for the foreseeable future.
“I love both worlds that I’ve chosen to do but I realized you only live once,” says Showalter. “I feel like I’m talented at music and want to see it through as much as I can.”
Leave Ruin and a Test of Perseverance
A few years prior to graduating college, that happiness and ability to make a career decision might have seemed like a fantasy for Showalter. But instead of wallowing in despair Showalter used the experiences as a rallying cry – “Leave Ruin”, the debut album for Strand of Oaks would capture years later – to persevere.
The year was 2003 and Showalter was still living in Indiana. He had just recently gotten engaged to be married. Getting married when you’re young is encouraged in Indiana so at 20-years of age it seemed like a natural decision. He was all set to take on that new life but without much warning his girlfriend at the time broke it off.
Wanting to get as far from the situation as he could, Showalter decided he would move to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. While he had a friend that lived there, he had never visited that area.
“It was completely on a whim that I packed my bags and left, in pretty rough shape. With the idea of the breakup I was feeling pretty alone,” says Showalter. “I moved to this town that I didn’t know many people there and I lived there for about three months and was drinking a lot and partying being 21 and wild.”
A few months following the breakup, he was down in Philadelphia visiting friends when he got a phone call that jolted his world: his house had burned down.
“All my stuff, all my tapes I recorded since I was in middle school and the little things on my four-track, pictures and old synthesizers and guitars and all this stuff that was my life and my photographs and history of a person just was destroyed in a fire,” says Showalter. “I really had nothing left after that. I was embarrassed to tell my parents and was worried that they would worry so I didn’t tell them about it.”
Instead, Showalter spent time wandering around trying to make sense of recent events.
“I wasn’t homeless because it was by choice and not situation but I didn’t really have a place to stay for a month or two and I was just wandering around and trying to go to college and trying to keep my head together.”
Fortunately, he was able to get things together and slowly but surely things got back to normal. One of the biggest reasons for that was getting his thoughts out in songs, which would end up making “Leave Ruin”.
“It took every ounce of my strength and my determination to not let that take me over and not wallow in that horrible time,” says Showalter. “Part of Leave Ruin and the title and songs on it is not to be pitying myself or thinking ‘Boohoo this is a horrible life and shit happens to me.’”
While the album was released about six years later, the songs – a collection of folk songs driven forward by Showalter’s vocals – never lost a hint of the emotion that created them.
“I was struck by how raw and revealing the lyrics were,” says Matteson of the first time he heard “Leave Ruin”.
Though Showalter wishes those tragic events didn’t happen, he’s thankful that through his struggles that he managed to get to where he is today.
“Leave Ruin seems to me like a command saying that I don’t want this to take me over. I don’t want these bad times to be what define me in what makes me a person,” says Showalter. “I want my perseverance to go past that because the people I look up to most in life have perseverance and are able to understand and not dismiss the bad times. There’s bad times and shit happening in my life but I’m not going to let this take me over and I want to move on from it.”