Sand Sheff
by Johanna J. Bodde


Sand Sheff
Reviews of Sand's wonderful CD's can be found elsewhere on this page.
Johanna: Sand, most singer-songwriters have day-jobs, popular occupations among them are carpenter, lawyer, there are some journalists or they sell guitars. You live in Utah and you're a cowboy in daily life... Very interesting for us, Europeans! Could you please tell us what a typical day looks like for a cowboy? Do you sometimes encounter wild animals? And please, don't forget to describe the landscapes of Utah for us!

Sand: We have a herd of about 300 cows here at Red Cliffs Ranch outside Moab, Utah. There are actually two parts of the ranch, a horse, cattle and hay farm next to the La Sal Mountains and a guest ranch along the Colorado river where we have a lodge, restaurant, cabins and a winery. I have been the Ranch Foreman for the last year, which means I’m in the middle of various different infrastructure stuff.
The last couple of weeks (October) we have been working with the cows, bringing them off their summer range in the mountains and moving them out to where they will be grazing all winter. We herd the cows horseback and they graze freely, essentially without fences, the same way it has always been done out here. The cows here have a good life and a good view. This area is famous for its wild nature and its beauty.
I don’t get to cowboy all the time, but it is part of my work and our lifestyle and I love it and the tradition that it represents. I like to ride my big old paint horse, Rebel, but I’ll get on anything. Yes, we sometimes encounter wild animals, and occasionally, wilder women…
J: On the first track of your CD "Cowboyin'" ("Riding My Paint Out In The Snow")  you sing "Me and that horse are friends, you know!" I've heard enthusiastic explanations from dog and cat lovers, but what makes a horse so special?

S: I just know I love them and their smell and their spirit and their movement and the way they complete the experience here in the country. They make great friends and fine companions on the Big Green Earth. Good ol’ Bible quote: “His majestic snorting is awesome. He paws in the valley and rejoices in his strength. He goes out to meet the weapons. He laughs at fear and is not dismayed;and he does not turn back from the sword…Did you give the horse its might? Did you clothe his neck with a mane? Did you make him leap like the locust?” Job 39 :19-22  I love to ride.
J: I always like CD's with good artwork. All of your latest CD's ("Free On This Mountain" and the whole "Dust Trilogy") have beautiful paintings on the cover. Could you please tell us about the artists who made them and how the paintings came about?

S: My brother painted the cover for “Free on This Mountain”. His name is Clay Sheff and he is an artist in New Mexico. His art is available on the Internet. The painting is just what came to his mind when I mentioned the title of the CD… It means the world to me.
My friend Don Weller did the covers of the other 3 records. He’s an extraordinary western artist who is quite famous in his own right. He likes to go out herding cows with us and he ends up painting some of the scenes…. That’s me on my paint, Rebel, on the cover of “Dust”.
For “Lion on a White Horse”, I requested that Don paint something for the album and he came up with a very unusual and striking image of a horse. I’m so grateful for Clay and Don’s art. My mother and sister are also amazing artists.
I like having paintings on the covers because they add a commentary and depth to the music in a way that photographs just don’t. Art is more elusive and descriptive than just another picture of my face.
J: On "Free On This Mountain" played and sang at least twenty people, "The Dust Trilogy" was done by yourself ("Cowboyin'") or with your two friends Thomas Sneed (Reeltime Travelers) and Glenn Keefe (Leftover Salmon). Did you want to go back to basics or was this because of a small budget? You recorded all your three new CD's during two weekends, can you please tell us more about those days? And please, introduce Thomas and Glenn to us, do you know them a long time already?

S: For the “Dust Trilogy”, I wanted to go back to basics AND I had a small budget. “Dust” and “Lion on a White Horse” were cut on the same weekend in Grand Junction, Colorado. I don’t remember much about the weekend except that it was charged with a great energy, a certain spirit came out of the recordings. That could probably only have come from it being recorded essentially live, lots on first takes.
Thomas Sneed is a great musician and old friend who I have known since high school. He co-founded the band Reeltime Travelers, an old-time music outfit that achieved quite a bit of renown.
My bass player, Glenn Keefe, is also a great musician. He lives in Colorado.
Monty Risenhoover was also there at the sessions and we couldn’t have made it without him…You can hear him recite the 23rd Psalm on the gospel record.
J: Before you went back West, you lived in Nashville for five years, from 1995 until 2000. You had a band called Buck 50 and recorded two albums with them, then you made a solo-album "Turn Me Around" with producer Marshall Morgan, who also worked with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ricky Skaggs and The Whites. Did you have an exciting time in Nashville or was it disappointing (after all, you left...)?

S: I loved Nashville, but I am concerned about its role in the control of America’s musical voice. As Leonard Cohen said: “Everybody knows the deal is rotten”.
It’s part of a big, stinky, consolidating corporate mess. There is some good music there, and some not-so-good music, but nowadays what’s really being sold is a worldview… And we have this strange situation of a soundtrack being imposed on us like we are in some lame movie called “Consumptionville USA”, and there is this obvious lack of songs about the genuine economic and social conditions of rural America… So Nashville is cool, what’s happening there is not so cool - but no so different than what is happening all over the world.
My band Buck 50 was pretty cool.... I’ll have the music available again soon. Marshall Morgan did a great job with my last album and I hope to get that out soon too.
J: When you took a hiatus from performing, you wrote a book. What was the subject?

S: I left Nashville in July 2000 and went out west. I ended up fighting forest fires in 2000 in Montana.
Afterwards I began writing a book entitled “What the Fire Said”. I’m re-editing it now. It’s about fires and storytelling and visual technologies like the computer and television.
My initial premise is a riddle of sorts: Once upon a time we sat around fires and stared at the fire while we told each other stories. That was how we learned the truth about ourselves and the proper way to behave. NOW we have a fake fire located in our home (the TV, the computer) and IT tells us the story.
The book is a collection of essays written over the course of the year, finished in the days before the 9-11 attacks. It’s a warning about the potential tyranny that awaits at the end of the digital rainbow, and the hope and solace we can find in things like music and nature.

J: And you worked as a wildforest fire fighter. When we hear that, we see all kinds of heroic pictures... Please, tell us about that dangerous job?

S: Wildland firefighting can be a little dangerous but its mostly just hard and dirty… and we all marched up on the mountains every day with chainsaws and hand tools and we’d cut lines around the fires so that they could burn themselves out. The hours are pretty long but the pay’s alright and there is a real camaraderie among the crew.
I fought fires in Montana and eastern Oregon in 2000 and in Oregon and Wyoming in 2002. I don’t do it anymore though every fire season I feel a bit of a pang for it; it’s very purposeful work - kind of like going to war but without having to kill anybody.
J: If I pick a couple of favorite songs from your albums, can you please tell something more about them?
From "Cowboyin'" : "Mr. Jones (The Buckskin Stallion)" + "Bandit"

S: "Mr. Jones (The Buckskin Stallion)": Just a little story I wrote after we had a new foal born at the ranch and my friend James named him Mr. Jones. In the old days, there used to be stories about wild stallions like these messing with the mares… I like it that he pretty much gets away.
"Bandit": A song I wrote in Nashville; kind of a creepy, ambiguous song… love and possession and murder stuff… pretty much romance in the Ozarks.
J: From "Dust": "Nowhere Town" + "Come And I Go" + "It Ain't Too Late" + "Tijuana"

S: "Nowhere Town": The narrator lives on the dark side of the trailer park… with the TVs, ex-convicts, meth-labs and memories… a very claustrophobic song for sure.
"Come And I Go": I wrote this back when I was 21 or 22 after I spent the day hitchhiking on a stretch of Interstate 70 between Utah and Colorado.
"It Ain't Too Late": I wrote this in Nashville not long before I  left…. the usual subjects: techno-tyranny, mother and money and me and you… I believe it, it’s not too late.
"Tijuana": Sort of a half-true account of a night in Mexico when I was 20. I didn’t actually get together with a senorita that night, but the images and feelings were from that trip.
J: From "Lion On A White Horse": "Jesus Turn Me Loose" + "Come Out Of Babylon"

S: "Jesus Turn Me Loose": It's a ship and it’s the belly of a whale and it’s a buffet line at the trough and it's America and Europe and Babylon and Nowhere Town and it is screens and hypocrites and rats and the captain’s drunk and it's funny too… Jesus turn me loose from this story when you’ve had enough.
"Come Out Of Babylon": Come Out of Babylon: that line is from Revelations… Babylon is a place both literal (2500 years ago, in what we now call Iraq) and figurative (western civilization with all its excess and looming oppression).
…Like all my songs it just kind of popped out, I believe it and care about it but I might not totally understand every thing I was trying to say.
J: From "Free On This Mountain": "Last Song For The Days" + "Bang On Me"

S: "Last Song For The Days": It’s a song about where I grew up in Eastern Oklahoma in a town called Tahlequah. Small town living - sort of sentimental, sort of sad…The green hills, the bulldozers, the sparrowhawks. The Indian graveyards… the idea of being a stranger in your hometown.
"Bang On Me": I think this was just straight from a dream, like it says. I don’t remember much, but I wrote it in Durango, Colorado… about getting together in reality. Stay Free-live in 3-D.
J: Religion is obviously very important to you. You were (or are) also a minister? Here reverends (in official churches) have to study at the university, in the USA that's a bit different. How did you become a minister?

S: My faith is important to me, but not easy to explain here. My degree of ministry came in the mail and I just use it to marry people because a friend asked me to do so about 15 years ago. We are all Ministers of God.

J: People do lots of bad things in the name of religion. How do you cope with that?

S: Religions often give faith a bad name. But it’s not God doing that... it’s just people being the way they are. That men commit evil and then do it in the name of God doesn’t make God any less a Creator or Sustainer. He simply IS and cannot be otherwise. I believe he offers us access to His spirit and that he has blessed us with life and music.
J: What are your plans for the future?

S: I am going to be playing music for a living, getting my book published and touring… I’m leaving the ranch soon…. I hope to be touring Europe in the near future…

Interview by Johanna J. Bodde, February 2008.