Small Town, Big Voice

Tristan Shields ’05 is in the middle of nowhere – like, the kind of nowhere that’s at least 30 minutes from any sign of, well, anything other than a handful of people who seem to really like horses and land. He’s sitting in the garage on his family farm, resting from his chores and listening to tunes from Bret Michaels’ new solo record, when his phone chimes.

Cee Lo Green is texting him.

“It’s just crazy to be in the backwoods of Virginia and get a text from Cee Lo Green – especially when you’re listening to a track with your own voice singing with Lil John and Bret Michaels,” says Shields. Last winter, he and his brother Rory recorded the backup vocals on Michaels’ new solo record, Get Your Rock On, which also features Grammy-winning rapper Lil John. “These guys are celebrities to us. We’re fans of these people. They live in Hollywood and L.A. We’re in Rixeyville, Va. Worlds apart. That we’re in a tiny little piece of their world is still surreal.”

To be fair, it hasn’t been very long that the Shields’ world collided with that of America’s favorite rock stars of soul, glam and rap. In fact, less than two years ago, they were just two farm boys rocking out in their garage-turned-studio (garage-io? stud-iage?) in the middle of nowhere and playing gigs as The Shields Brothers around D.C. and the Jersey Shore.

But then came former fellow theatre major Lacy Forrest ’03, a casting director for NBC’s The Voice, who suggested through Facebook that Shields try out for the show – and after six months of auditioning and waiting, The Shields Brothers appeared on the second season of the popular reality talent show judged by (among others) Cee Lo Green, who chose The Shields Brothers to be on his vocal team.

“It really shows how, now more than ever, Facebook and community building and networking have so much to do with where you end up,” says Shields. “The Voice has turned out to be the catalyst for all kinds of success.”

Most important, it gave them the exposure needed to create a broader fanbase – and taught them exactly how important those fans are.

Case in point: Less than 24 hours after The Shields Brothers launched a fund for their new album on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter.com last March, their fans had topped the band’s $4,000 goal. By the time the campaign was over, their fans had raised $8,255.

“We wouldn’t have had that without The Voice,” admits Shields, adding that their Kickstarter success got them further attention, landing them a label with Potomac Records, not to mention a Forbes.com article using them as an example of how artists raise money today. “The music industry is morphing into something different now. These days it’s about talking with your Twitter followers, getting out on Facebook, doing videos for YouTube. It may seem cliché, but it’s all about the fans, especially in the new music, or, should I say, entertainment economy.”

Tristan and Rory Shields, The Shields Brothers

And so, The Shields Brothers are keeping their current fans excited and their new fans flocking with weekly cover videos on their YouTube channel; a new album, Kickstarter, which released in September; and an ongoing wink about “punching America in the face with rock ’n’ roll.”

“People like us because we have an edge, but we’re not negative. We represent the fun side of rock ’n’ roll,” says Shields. “We just want to rock and have fun and that’s it.”

And, he points out, you can rock out and have fun just about anywhere – especially when Cee Lo Green is just a text message away.

– Alicia Lutz ’98