Before this past weekend, all Zak Shaffer knew about Pennsylvania was that it was a long drive between gigs near his home in Ohio and those in New York.
But now -- after Thanksgiving weekend shows in Allentown and New Brighton -- he feels right at home performing for Pennsylvanians. Tonight at 8 he takes guitar in hand at The Handle Bar & Grille in Canonsburg.
A native of Toledo, Mr. Shaffer grew up in Nashville, where his father, Randy Shaffer, penned hit country songs. It wasn't long before the younger Shaffer was strumming a guitar alongside.
Over the years, he's explored most every aspect of music -- country, rock, pop, blues and metal. The result is a rich catalog to tap into, depending on the venue.
"I've been doing this music thing ever since I was 15," he said this afternoon. "I'm 29 now. I can go into a place and I know exactly what I'm going to play first.
"Like Sunday night in New Brighton. As soon as I walked into the place, I knew right away I was going to play 'Folsom Prison Blues.' It got their attention and it was just a great show. I played three full sets even though I was only supposed to play two."
In January, he was playing with a metal band in California.
"I loved it. It was good therapy to get out there on stage and head bang and scream," he said. "It's something I still throw into my shows, especially if I've got a younger crowd. I can still scream. Not a lot of people can do that scream."
It wasn't the music that was the problem. It was being part of a band. So in February, he and his girlfriend -- who also serves as his manager and booking agent -- moved back to Toledo, where Mr. Shaffer has a regular paycheck as a disc jockey.
Playing as a solo act suits him better, he said.
"There's a lot more freedom. You don't have to get together with three other guys and figure out exactly what you're going to play," Mr. Shaffer said. "It's a lot more fun. I've been in a lot of bands. It gets to be like work. And, hey, I've got a 9-to-5 job already."
So far, he is living the life of the young troubadour, dropping into places where he can stay at a friend's house. Or maybe a generous club owner has a spare room upstairs for the night.
"I played at a festival for police officers and firefighters at a campground in North Carolina and the sheriff said, 'Boy, if you come back again next year, I'll take you out for a beer and a steak,'" Mr. Shaffer said. "And, sure enough, I came back this year and I had a sheriff take me out for a beer and a steak. It's awesome."
The Handle Bar & Grille opened at 342 W. Pike St. in July. Owners Donna and Thomas Staaf only recently started moving tables around so they could feature occasional live acoustic music.
"We heard Zak was going to be in town touring, so we grabbed him," Donna Staaf said.
Those who come out tonight to hear Mr. Shaffer will be able to dine, drink and delight in a wide range of classic rock songs, as well as a few written by the artist and his father. Not that there's a "set" list. It's not unusual for Mr. Shaffer to play requests shouted out by people in the audience.
"I've gotten comfortable and I have that much material," he said. "One place, some guy yelled he wanted to hear Megadeth. Well, I didn't know any Megadeth, but I do know a Metallica song. And he loved it.
"I have six hours worth of music original and covers, but I never know really what I'm going to play until I get into a place and see the people. I mean, I want to give the people what they want to hear."
Here's something you may want to hear: There's no cover charge.
This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/