Don McLean is immortal.
Since his enduring masterpiece “American Pie” first captured the world in the fall of 1971, it’s become threaded into not just our country’s cultural history but the world’s. McLean’s music has urged countless songwriters forward with icons from every genre citing compositions like “Vincent” and “The Grave” as inspiration. He might’ve never written another tune and we’d still revere him as one of the greatest, but McClean’s career has spanned six decades of constant touring and the release of over twenty albums, including his most recent, Botanical Gardens.
AI- I read a comment that you made about the evolution of the guitar playing Troubadour in popular music, how the Big Band era was essentially derailed by Elvis and rock and roll and then the folk rejuvenation in the 1960s…You witnessed all of this first hand and then experienced it as an artist, a guitar-playing troubadour in your own right. Do you think that it will always come back to that?
DM- We’re guitar-centric now. Everything is about the guitar. In fact, piano players… I have a wonderful keyboard man and he does not get that much call to be on records.,You don’t hear a piano on records anymore. So it’s guitar-centric and it’s gonna stay that way. Ed Sheeran’s probably one of the biggest phenomenons in the music business and he’s just him and this little guitar!
And he also counts you as a major influence.
(Laughs) Yeah. But he’s the phenomenon, social media guy… And kind of went around all the whole established business. And again, it’s some effects and him with the guitar. I kind of like that because I’ve been able to work. I’m getting pretty old now and I have just so many jobs, I don’t know what to do! I guess I helped with part of what created that in a way because from the ’50s and ’60s, we were all young and it was all new, that whole thing… Again, leaving the big bands behind and being just a guitar-playing songwriter troubadour became the thing. And that’s what he is.
When did you learn to play guitar? And how’d you learn that distinctive picking style you have?
I do a number of things all mixed together, which I invented and which I also learned from living with and being with a number of very famous and wonderful old-time blues guitar players. One of them was Brownie McGhee and he would play guitar in a way that was a lead, but also in a percussive, rhythmic way. ‘Cause the guitar is a percussion instrument, it’s a lead instrument, it’s a chord instrument. And those good blues boys would get that sound, all that stuff out of there at once. Then another great one was Josh White, who I had a chance to hang around. Josh would play a style with all five fingers on the right hand where he would make these chops on the guitar. (Makes chopping sound) Like that! It would almost be like a horn band giving a big stop. It was a very percussive thing that he would do. So I learned all this stuff from them and then I started to break it down and make it kind of a piano style where things were all going on at once in the chord. That and also my flat-picking… I like to do a lot of bass runs and little lead-ins. So when I play guitar with the band, my guitar’s loud! It’s in front of the whole band, it pushes the band. If my guitar drops out, the whole band starts to flow free. So me and the drums and the bass are the center of the whole thing. It was an evolution because I wanted to be a lot of different things with the guitar when I was young. I love Carlos Montoya and I loved jazz guys and I liked blues guys and I had to figure out what was right for me.
And that leads me into my next question actually… ‘Cause you grew up with early rock n’ roll but then it was folk music that became your medium, directly influenced by your mentors, the Weavers, and then your good friend Pete Seeger. Why folk music at that time? Why not rock n’ roll all the time?
Elvis was really from the country and folk background and Buddy Holly too. What they did was they got gravitated over to those electric guitars… I was in a bunch of little bands playing rhythm guitar. I was not a lead player. I loved all that stuff, the Ventures, and everything thing. Rock n’ roll was a big part of it. But here’s the thing, I didn’t really work well with people and so when the folk thing came along, it was perfect for me to get a start in the business because I could work alone with my guitar and banjo. I learned my stagecraft and then I began to add back on the musicians to work with. One of them was John Platania who was on a bunch of Van Morrison classic albums– and he was with me for 15 years, just the two of us. And then I started building a band unit, starting with Tony Migliore on the piano to what I have now, which is four or five, sometimes five guys. But I paid my dues as a soloist and went out of that into a group. That served me well because sometimes if the band doesn’t make it… At one time or other, we did a tour of England and there was… I don’t know if you remember this, but in Iceland, there was a huge volcano and the volcano spit out so much of this volcanic ash that planes could not fly into England. So all plane traffic was almost nonexistent for about nine days, maybe two weeks. And I had a band that was coming over, we were starting a tour! So I ended up doing it. Anybody else would have said, “Well, you know, I guess we’re not going to do the tour and just to have to cancel it and do it some other time.” But I did the first nine shows solo– and I got great reviews (laughs)! So sometimes it’s handy to know how to do that.
You brought up the banjo. How much of that instrument did you pick up from Pete Seeger?
Well, there’s two different banjo players– you know, the great ones. One is Seeger and the other is Earl Scruggs. They’re both different. Earl does his style and Earl has everything planned out. It’s all planned out. Every time he played a break… You know, the “Flint Hill Special”? He played exactly the same way every time. And in my opinion, Flatt and Scruggs were one of the greatest musical organizations ever. They’re as great as The Beatles, they’re as great as any great rock n’ roll band. They are way up there. Great as the Sons of the Pioneers or any of those great groups. Because they’re perfect. The music was gorgeous and anything they did was… You can’t change a note! Each one of those players were brilliant, but Pete was more of a guy who had a grab bag of wonderful things that he could do. He had a number of different strums that he used and some of them he invented. He had a rhythm style on the banjo, certain things that he would do… I know how to do everything he did. I watched him very carefully. I invented a few things on my own, but eventually, I moved away from playing that instrument because I realized I could never be as good as either of those people. I didn’t want to be doing a bad version of somebody else’s stuff, so I kind of stopped. But I did get on a number of records, a few tracks with Leon Redbone, which came out pretty nice.
Let’s talk about your latest album. I guess it just passed the one year mark, Botanical Gardens. I loved it. It’s full of reverb, a fair amount of twang, which is my thing, but it was your first project in nearly a decade. Why the break?
I didn’t have anything to say. I had some other problems that took a couple of years out of my life. And I’m not in a hurry. Nobody’s waiting breathlessly for anybody’s album these days. Except maybe Taylor Swift! I’ve got a lot of albums out there, but I put a lot of effort into [Botanical Gardens] and it wasn’t hard. I enjoyed doing it. My favorite song on there is “Ain’t She a Honey” which I don’t know if you heard that, but that’s got some wonderful slide work by Vip Vipperman who is a songwriter as well as a great guitar player– and he’s from Athens, Georgia!
Who were some of the other players on that album? ‘Cause I really enjoyed the guitar tones. Sometimes it sounded like Ricky Nelson’s old alt-country, Americana band that he put together later on.
We love that stuff. We love rockabilly, and we love that old fashioned telecaster era, stratocaster sound. I love that big D-28 Martin thing… My piano player is Tony Migliore and the drummer is Jerry Kroon who’s been on a lot of hits. The bass player is Brad Albin, and also Mark Prentice. Both of them are fantastic. Brad travels with me. And also, in addition, we had Mike Severs as well on some of the stuff where we were double guitar things.
Where’d you record that album at?
A little place called Watershed Studios. It’s a little house on a hill that Mike, who produced the record, found. I loved it! I think it turned out really well. It’s in Nashville. I always record in Nashville. I have for many years. I know all the guys and the background singers.
That makes it easy. You just open up the Rolodex and go.
Yeah, because you never know when you’re going to get a jerk in the studio who’s gonna f–k up the whole session. If you don’t know the people? You know what I’m sayin’? You don’t want that. So you know how cool these guys are. They’re all friends and you know you’re going to have a good time.
You made two particular albums I wanted to ask about… Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins in 2001 and The Western Album in 2003. I’d always assumed that the pink carnation line from “American Pie” was a nod to Marty. But were you a big fan of cowboys and westerns growing up? Is that what got you into that project later on?
I wouldn’t say I’m embarrassed to say this… But I’m kind of B western expert. I’ve been collecting films of the great B western stars since the mid-Seventies. And my favorites, of course, are Buck Jones and Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson– and Ken Maynard is probably the greatest of all the B western star film guys. They are quintessentially what America should be. They are daredevils, he-man army guys… They flew their own planes and in the case of many of them, they wrote their own scripts. They were really something… And a lot of them came from the Midwest around car country, like Indiana. Buck Jones and Ken Maynard came from there and they were way into cars back in the 1930s. So these guys were something else.
Were you ever tempted or have you ever considered the opportunity to be in a western? You wouldn’t be the first a singer-songwriter to go and do that?
No, I’m not an actor. I do what I know how to do. But I am a western horseman and I still have three horses. I’ve had horses and I’ve ridden horses on my own in all sorts of weather and environments and everything. I’m one of those guys, I know how to ride a horse and I know how to handle horses. I wouldn’t mind doing some of that on a western movie but I wouldn’t want to be in it because it takes a certain kind of… I don’t think today you’d have the kind of actors that you would require to make a decent western. The last decent western was really Unforgiven that the Clint [Eastwood] did. Clint knows how to make a western movie!
I’m holding out that he’s gonna make one more.
Well, I hope he does. In the old days, in the movies, you had a group of guys– and if you know westerns, you’d know these people by their faces and their voices. They called them the Gower Gulch Gang and these guys would show up at the door of the studio where Gower [Street] was every morning. And there would be like a “show-up”. You know, like you were working as a stevedore almost on the docks? They’d tell people, “We want you, you, you, you, you, and you!” And they’d come in and work for two or three days on a B western. Not more than that ’cause that’s how long it took. And then they’d do it again. That’s how they made their living. But their faces and voices… Al Bridge and Charlie King and all these guys… You know these people because they would also turn up in legitimate movies. There’s quite a few of them in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart. There are real western guys that are predominantly in western movies.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about “American Pie”. One thing you’ve stated is that you wrote that one rather quickly when you were rushing to put together the follow-up to your first album, Tapestry. I find it oddly comforting and strange at the same time that anybody could just sit down and write an epic in one fell swoop.
No, I didn’t write it quickly. I wrote the first part, the “long, long time ago” part, the slow part. And then I had that a long time. I knew I had something that was really special and I had no idea how I was going to finish it.
So you did know at the time how powerful it had the potential to be?
I knew I had something I didn’t want to blow, you know? I didn’t want to lose it. So I was very careful. But I didn’t really realize how long it would be because when I actually wrote the body of the song, I just kept going! One verse led to another… I was in this just… Writing it down as fast as I could because I had this crazy idea and it was coming together! I was like tuning in on radio almost, like a telegraph operator or something. And that’s how it happens.
Did you think that the length of it was going to be a detriment when it came, to the record label and the radio and the masses?
I never really thought like that. First of all, I never thought that Don McLean would amount to a hill of beans. Okay? I’d made a first record, and the record was well accepted. It was played on radio, underground radio. I went from being an opening act on a three-act bill in little night clubs to headlining and playing colleges and drawing audiences… It caused attention to be paid to me. And then I had to come up with another album. Pretty much, I was way into that and I certainly never thought I would ever have lasted 50 years– and all over the world and have all these things happen to me. I never had that kind of ego. My ego was tied up in trying to do the most beautiful and interesting things I could do.
From Elvis to Madonna to Tupac, you and that song have had an influence on 20th and 21st Century music, and it’s truly been incredible. It’s 2019… People are waking up every day hearing “American Pie” for the first time and becoming inspired. Why do you think it continues to resonate with people even today?
I have no idea but I’m damn glad it does. I’ll tell you that.