Photo of Thom Shepard

Thom Shepherd




The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University

Common Chords:
Riding on Country Roads

Mason alumni find success in Nashville music scene, and Mark Wallace Goes Back to His Bluegrass Roots

By Tara Laskowski

They grew up listening to such artists as George Strait and Don Williams on their parents' record players—never dreaming they could make a living writing or performing country music. Nashville may not have been the original dream city for Thom Shepherd, B.A. Communication '93, and Bryan Galentine, B.S. Finance '89, but now that they've ended up there, it fits their style as perfectly as a broken-in pair of cowboy boots.

Photo of Byran Galentine

Bryan Galentine

Neither man had plans to break into the country music scene when they first came to Mason as undergraduates. Shepherd was a communication major, pursuing a career in film or television. It wasn't until the summer between his junior and senior years that he really started thinking about taking his hobby further. Galentine, who now writes under the name Bryan Wayne, was very driven as a finance major, honing his skills for the corporate world. He worked in health insurance for a number of years before deciding to take guitar lessons. "Instead of learning other people's songs, I was more interested in putting my own songs to music," he recalls. "It was the first time I realized I could make a living doing that."

Although the Nashville scene has been treating them well, they both say it takes a lot of hard work to break into the business. "If you want to get anywhere, you have to write your own material and be original," says Shepherd. Galentine agrees. "Perseverance is key. You have to be open to hearing 'no' hundreds of times. But if you're doing what you truly believe you are meant to do, you just can't give up."

Listening to their own advice, both men have had songs they've written hit the charts recently. For Galentine, his breakthrough song, "What If She's an Angel," was recorded by Tommy Shane Steiner and reached No. 2 on the Billboard and R&R charts last year. The song, a message about not judging people by appearances alone, inspired a web site for fans to talk about issues such as cancer, domestic abuse, and homelessness ( Organizations such as Kaps 4 Kids and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have used the song in various promotions and fund raisers.

"I have been overwhelmed by the success of 'What If She's an Angel,'" Galentine admits. "I still get emotional every time I hear it—it reminds me how hard I worked to make it happen, and how all the hard work was worth it."

Shepherd also found fame with his hit song, "Riding with Private Malone," which tells a story of a man who buys a car haunted by the spirit of a soldier. The song, cowritten with Wood Newton, won an American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers' Airplay Award and a 2002 Nashville Songwriters Association Award in the Song You Wish You Had Written category. The first single released from the album Amigo, recorded by artist David Ball, it climbed to No. 1 on the Gavin chart and No. 2 on the Billboard and R&R charts in 2001. Shepherd also recently released his third CD, Country Squire, which contains 14 original songs.

"It's amazing to hear a song you've written performed by someone you respect," says Shepherd, although he admits being on stage singing is what really makes him happy. Shepherd and his band, the Twang Thang, perform weekly in downtown Nashville. "The most satisfying part of this life is performing. Being on stage and seeing people's faces and seeing that they 'get it'—that they are paying attention and having an emotional reaction to your song—that's my favorite thing about being a musician."

Yet, whereas Shepherd loves crooning for the crowd on center stage, Galentine prefers to stay behind the scenes. "I'm pretty shy by nature, and I never wanted to be a performer. That's just not me," he admits. "I like being a songwriter and not having to be in the spotlight."

Galentine and Shepherd continue to write and produce successful songs and make names for themselves in the Country Music Capital. Galentine's song "Country by the Grace of God," recorded by Chris Cagle, was a top 30 single last summer and was recently nominated for Country Music Television's Video Flameworthy Awards. Shepherd traveled to Alaska in April to play for U.S. troops and is currently on tour opening for singer Ricky Van Shelton.

"It's amazing what a song can do," Shepherd says. "It can change your life."

Galentine admits he still can't believe the opportunities he's had since moving to Nashville. "I'm friends now with the guys who wrote big songs for the artists I grew up listening to. It still blows me away that I'm writing with these people. It's really been great."