For more than a decade, Caleb Stanislaw was an ever-present figure in the Fort Worth music scene. Whether fronting his own projects like catchy alt-rockers Deep Sleepers or lending his adroit guitar skills to dozens of other projects (Vincent Neil Emmerson, The Hendersons, Chillamundo, Tripp Mathis & The Traitors), he was a fixture on local stages. Two years ago, with looming uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, the area’s skyrocketing cost of living, and the ever-increasing population as main drivers, Stanislaw made the difficult decision for his family to pull up stakes and head for the hills. Literally. After living in Fort Worth all his life, he relocated to the Ozark Highlands in Northern Arkansas.
“It was a conscious choice,” he said, a difficult one but one he felt he had to make and for good cause. “I walked away from good gigs, two or three good bands, but I was looking at my family at the time and thinking, ‘I only get a few more years with these kids, so let’s go soak up the family life that is eventually going to reach its logical conclusion.’ They’re going to go to college. They’re going to leave. It’s going to happen. I guess I just realized how much time I wanted to spend with them while I could.”
Trading city life and the grind of juggling multiple music projects for the simple ease of picking guitars while watching the chickens from his front porch on his 13 acres of gorgeous natural countryside less than a mile from Buffalo National River proved to be exactly the respite that he and his family were searching for.
“Everything about this place forces you to slow down,” he said. “From the speed limits to the topography of the land, how spread out everything is, you have to go slow. There’s less than 8,000 people in the county of 700 square miles. That’s about 11 people per square mile. You can go sit on a gravel bar and not see another soul the whole day. You’ll see eagles. You’ll see a bear. But you have it all to yourself. Of course, it’s not easy to get a loaf of bread. A case of beer is an hour-and-a-half round trip, so you never buy just one case,” he added with a laugh.
Not only has the transition to deep rural living been the elixir for his soul that he was looking for, the natural surroundings and the colorful history of the place have become the muse for his music. Adopting the moniker Shine Eye Yell, a name that combines excited exclamation with the name of a bend of the nearby Buffalo River, Stanislaw has recorded an album devoted to his new home. Buffalo National River Songs Vol. 1 is a collection of love songs for the Ozark land and its residents.
“I’m just happy to have something to write about, honestly,” Stanislaw said. “I think a lot of artists have a lot of talent but don’t have anything to direct it toward. Having good subject matter helps so much. I guess I fell in love with this place. Yes, I totally have. It’s just really amazing, and I’ve just been singing its praises ever since.”
You can certainly hear the love he has for the area in his voice when he talks about it. More than that, you can hear it in the songs that make up Buffalo River Songs. With a comforting and well-rooted Americana sound, Stanislaw sings about the beautiful surrounding landscape as well as story songs about what he calls “the unsung heroes” that make up the land’s history. Songs about moonshiners, Civil War deserters, train derailments, and even a midwife from the area who delivered more than 1,000 babies.
“I wanted to write songs that locals would appreciate, about things locals care about,” he said. “There’s something about making art with the intention of it being for everybody, not just you. The biggest leap my songwriting has made is that I’m not writing for me anymore. I’m writing for you, man. I’m writing for them, for everybody, for the people I don’t even know and probably don’t even like me that much because I’m still the ‘new guy.’ I’ll be the new guy around here for the next 25 years.”
For the album, Stanislaw collaborated with local studio owner Scott Hoffmann. Though it took a bit of time for the working relationship to gel, the two have become a prolific duo, with Stanislaw writing the songs and playing guitar while Hoffmann offers the rest of the instrumentation and arranging. Work on Buffalo National River Songs Vol. 2 has already begun. Stanislaw predicts four volumes in total before they’re done. As well as being fruitful, the working relationship has elicited a lot of pride from Stanislaw.
“I think it’s some of my best work,” he said. “I can still listen to the record and enjoy it, and that’s a hard thing for the creator to say sometimes. By all rights, you should hate it by the time you’ve heard it 40 or 50 times, but I’m still proud of it. A lot of people are enjoying it, too. My grandparents enjoyed it. I’ve never written a song my grandpa liked,” he laughed.
On Buffalo River Songs, the imagery Stanislaw makes with intricately interplaying acoustic guitars and his cheery baritone puts the listener right on that gravel bar next to him with the eagles overhead and the bears scratching in the brush. It’s exactly as he intended.
“I’m trying to write songs that anyone can see themselves in — to be standing in the middle of a song,” he said. “I think that’s when art succeeds. A good Monet makes you think that you’re standing in a garden in France. Through your tear-filled eyes, you can almost see it the same way Claude did. Art is experiential. Music is designed to touch people in an auditory way. If you’re going to try to reach people that way, you’ve got to make plenty of space for them to come in and enjoy it.”