Tony Sheppard loves reminiscing about Cannery Row when most of the Steinbeck-era landmarks were still standing, before it became a kid-friendly tourist destination.
“Cannery Row had a mystique about it,” he says. “It was where all the locals use to hang out, and there was different kinds of music on just about every corner. It was a rowdy time.”
It was also a great time to be a working musician locally. Sheppard delved into the Cannery Row music circuit in ’78, regularly performing at now-legendary spots like China Row, The Outrigger and the original Doc Rickett’s Lab.
“I remember going from piano bar to piano bar down on Cannery Row,” Sheppard says. “Then, we’d meet up with all the other musicians at Segovia’s for last call.”
Sheppard, originally from the projects of Washington D.C., had always wanted to write his own songs and perform. In 1975, when he was stationed at Fort Ord, he tinkered for hours on his $25 guitar.
“I’ve always liked putting words together,” he explains. “I was mesmerized by the power of putting them to music.”
By 1978, Sheppard had become friendly with many of the Cannery Row regulars. When Sherri White, one of his closest friends and China Row’s house piano player, asked Sheppard to fill in for her – as a singer-songwriter guitarist – while she went on a three-month tour, he jumped at the opportunity.
“It all started there,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
Sheppard left the service and delved into a performance routine that entailed five nights per week for an average of four hours, sometimes five hours, every night. He became known as The Monterey Minstrel, covering everyone from John Denver to Gordon Lightfoot, and inserting originals here and there.
Like most of his peers, Sheppard had stars in his eyes, but other than a recording deal in Nashville that quickly fizzled out, he never got that break. He ended up going into education, where he continues to work for MPUSD as a liaison.
Fortunately, Sheppard didn’t give up songwriting. He’s made two full-length records – Gypsy Wind and Keeper of the Flame – under his independent label Merlin Records. The latter represents some of the musician’s best songwriting: His acoustic bar-room honkey tonk “A Shot of Jack” and Americana ballad “The Last American Folk Song,” are elevated by Sheppard’s untrained and endearingly and authentically flawed vocals, and embody Johnny Cash’s deep bellow.
TONY SHEPPARD 1pm Saturday, Feb. 14. Marina Library Community Room, 190 Seaside Circle, Marina. Free. www.FriendsoftheMarinaLibrary.org