The bandmates look to each other for inspiration.
The Sharrows didn't get a chance to meet music legend Jim Dickinson, whose storied career included working with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Replacements. But last month the local roots quintet contributed to the legacy of the late producer and performer at his Zebra Ranch Studios in Coldwater, Miss. There they recorded their recently released EP, Days of Yore.
After Dickinson's death in 2009, his wife, Mary, and two sons decided to keep the studio running. His sons Luther and Cody have used it as a home base for their band, the North Mississippi Allstars.
The Sharrows reached out to the studio to see if they could secure some recording time in June. There was an opening on the schedule, so the band spent six days recording Days of Yore in Mississippi. Famous studios can be a source of pressure for musicians who feel they must live up to the reputation established by bands who've recorded there previously. Not so for Zebra Ranch. It was like a home away from home.
"Our keyboard player, Joe [Hermanson], has a studio outside of Madison, in the country, where we recorded our first album. Zebra Ranch is also outside of town a bit," says lead singer Phil Sharrow. "It's a very relaxing place that feels like home when you're there."
The Mississippi recording session was also a vacation of sorts for the band.
"It was cool to get out to a place where it was just about making music for a few days," Sharrow says.
Guitarist Matthew Smith agrees, adding that the North Mississippi Allstars were a big reason the studio felt so welcoming.
"The [Dickinsons] helped us, especially since we're a younger band," he says. "It was great hospitality. We had a cookout one night."
When the Sharrows compiled the track list for the EP, they realized that nostalgia was an overarching theme. Hence the title Days of Yore.
Sonically, the EP shows off the band's eclectic sound, which draws from just about every genre, including rock, folk, blues, jazz and bluegrass. There's also a world music element, in part because the band's cellist, Sylvia Janicki, is from Taiwan.
Sharrow says the group's ability to trade instruments and vocals makes them a versatile, flexible act. All members of the band have a shot at contributing to a song, and they constantly try to inspire each other.
While in Mississippi, the band got to use some of Zebra Ranch's instruments and amps, many of which added distinctive textures to the songs on Days of Yore.
"I used a few of Cody Dickinson's drums that were there, and a few cymbals," says drummer Jacob Bicknase. "Phil used the acoustic piano that was there, which changed the sound a lot. Jim Dickinson had gotten that piano a few years before he passed."
Trips like the Mississippi trek have also helped the Sharrows get used to traveling together. Each member of the band knows how to tolerate a lot of face time with friends, something that can quickly fall into the "too much of a good thing" category.
Smith says "a sense of brotherhood" is an important part of the group's dynamic, and a reason they get along so well.
"Phil and Joe are cousins, so there's already a family aspect involved. I think the rest of us grabbed onto that [feeling of kinship]," he says.
Touring has also given the Sharrows a new appreciation for friends, family and the Madison community, as well as those musicians who make night after night of performances look easy.
"Being on the road and being in a new place every day...makes us respect other people putting their energies into music," Bicknase says.