By Mara Dresner
When Max Shakun was growing up in West Hartford, his mother, Karen Shakun, remembers he always had musical ability. More than that, he wasn’t shy about letting less talented grown-ups know of their musical shortcomings.
“If someone wasn’t singing right, he would tell them,” said Karen. “Right from when he was two or three.”
Max was onto something. Today, he’s part of a group called Poor Old Shine, whhich is on tour – with upcoming dates in Missouri, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut. The group recently released its first CD (the self-titled Poor Old Shine) and recently finished a run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., performing the music in The Heart of Robin Hood.
It’s been a heady time for Max, who attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Hartford and William Hall High School. He started piano lessons in kindergarten, taking up guitar in middle school, which he called “more of a passion in my life.”
He’s not quite sure where his musical talent comes from.
“My mom did musical theater in high school; my dad loves listening to music; that’s about it,” he said. While he simply said that he started choir in high school, his mother tells a more complete story.
“In seventh grade, he begged, he really, really wanted a guitar and he just took off with it. Going into high school, he played guitar and piano,” remembered Karen, who suggested that he add choir to the mix to help him become more marketable to future bands. He steadfastly refused until one of Karen’s friends said, “‘Why don’t you bribe him?’ He wanted an amp.”
Max got his amp, joined the choir, and according to Karen, “he did so great singing throughout Hall.”
In addition to choir, he was in an a capella group and even sang in Europe as a senior. As a choral member, “that’s where he got so much pleasure,” said Karen.
Max went on to study music education at the University of Connecticut, when he first met Poor Old Shine bandmate Chris Freeman while singing in an a capella group. He stayed at UConn for a year before deciding to pursue music full time.
That was two years ago, and Max obviously has no regrets.
“I was taught that when you’re ready to do this and make a full-time commitment, you try your hardest and ride it out long as you can and see where it goes,” he said. “I’ve toured most of the country. I feel very blessed to have had those opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was Robin Hood. “One of the managers of the theater is married to our producer and she heard our album and recommended us to the play,” said Max. “It is very different than doing a regular concert. None of the five of us has any theater background whatever. It’s a different experience but very positive.”
His family has enjoyed seeing the show. “They [the band] become like a character in the story. They pop up everywhere in the set and move the story along,” said Karen, who noted that a number of the band’s songs already fit the play’s story; sometimes with a minor adjustment, such as changing the word “train” to “carriage” to better match the time frame. They also play traveling minstrels in the play.
“It’s so much fun,” she said.
Now that the show’s run is over, Poor Old Shine will get back to touring.
“It’s very exciting to have the opportunity to play in different cities every night and always get a brand-new audience. The challenge to win over new audiences is very rewarding,” said Max.
Describing Poor Old Shine’s sound is not as straightforward as one might think.
“It’s easier to say what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s not quite bluegrass; it’s not quite rock; it’s not quite folk,” said Max. “It’s a mixture of the three. I like to call it Americana.”
Their first CD is “just a collection of the songs we had at the time” and was recorded last year in Maine in what Max called “a little town in the middle of nowhere. The closest grocery store is 30 minutes away. There wasn’t cell phone service. You just live and breathe music,” said Max. “I think the message came across very well.”
And while you won’t hear it on the album, if you attended a Poor Old Shine show around Chanukah you might have been treated to a bluegrass version of Hava Nagilah. “That was quite a crowd pleaser,” Max noted.
And that’s the point of Poor Old Shine. When people attend a show, Max wants “them to have as good a time as we’re having doing it.”
His mother Karen (other family members are his father, Roy, and twin siblings Madelyn “Maddy” and Eli) thinks he’s accomplishing just that. “He brings so much joy to people,” she said. “We are his biggest fans; we’re just so thrilled for him. … He is such a mensch. Everyone who meets Max loves Max. He just has this sparkle. He always finds the good in people. We just couldn’t be prouder of him.”