Saturday, August 15, 2009

An Interview With Don McLean - Working With Chet Atkins

By Tom Redmond

TR: Do you know how Chet first came to know of you? Had he heard some of your music?

DM: I think he first had heard "And I Love You So" in the '70's, and he got that song to Perry Como. So he already liked my songwriting, and he got songs of mine to Eddy Arnold. Eddy Arnold later became a friend of mine.

"And I Love You So" had been kicking around since it broke into the charts off my first album "Tapestry" in 1970, and of course, it was a big surprise to me to be on the charts right from the start. I never dreamed I'd be on the charts. What I found a lot was that the recording studio liked the way I sounded, and the songs worked, and so I immediately had some success, which was terrific. "And I Love You So" got recorded by many, many people, and then it became a big hit in '75. It sold a million copies for Perry Como.

TR: Do you remember the first time you actually met Chet?

DM: It might have been when we did that performance of "Vincent" together on "The Ralph Emery Show" in the mid -80's. At that time I had already done hit records with The Jordanaires, and of course I knew of Chet's relationship with them. They worked on my songs "Crying", "Since I Don't Have You", and the re-release of "Castles in the Air" - all of which were chart records.

"Crying" was number one in many places around the world. And so I had already worked with them in the 70s. It was now 10 years later. I'd never personally met Chet, but of course he was always a very important figure and always spoken of reverentially by everybody. Chet was thought of with tremendous respect. There were other well known producers that people were afraid of (I won't name who they are), but not Chet - he was loved and respected. There also was a time we met at a place where everybody had lunch, and a fellow I knew named Dave Burgess introduced me to Chet Atkins. I believe that actually did come before the Ralph Emery show.

I remember him talking about his golf game, and he was joking about his name being similar to a television actor. He said, "Yeah, Claude Akins always gets my golf balls." Then a bit later, Tony Migliore sent me a message he got from Chet saying nice things about a Christmas record that I'd done in 1990 and Chet just loved it. He said some wonderful things about me and it was great for me. You know, sometimes the critics like you, sometimes the critics hate you. I've never been "in the pocket" where they always liked me.

There were always things the critics said because I do different kinds of stuff. They never know where I'm coming from, and they did not like it. But Chet understood me, and coming from him, validation was extremely reassuring. It really meant a lot. Eventually I started to see him socially on occasion. When I came to Nashville, he would ask if I'd come over and visit, so I remember a couple of times we went over to his office, and then we sat and he was eating some lunch, and another time we went out to lunch.

I used to have a lot of fun talking with him about the Delmore Brothers, or Gene Autry. By the way, I think Gene Autry was a magnificent singer with a beautiful vibrato, and Chet would say, "Well yeah - he always hit the notes". That was often a big problem for a lot of singers, but not Gene Autry. So we had some good conversations about people that most people don't often talk about. They don't know about the Delmore Brothers and they don't think of Gene Autry as a singer, you know? But Chet certainly did.

TR: You once said that you thought that Chet Atkins was an innovator and an "American tinkerer". What did you mean by a "tinkerer?"

DM: When I first came to Nashville, I was amazed at these guys I saw. They had this strange kind of genius where they would just tinker around with things. They'd have a guitar that they would just mess around with, and try different pickups and new kinds of sounds and if something appealed to them, they would try to control it and make a new kind of music with it. Les Paul was the same way and so was Chuck Berry. That tinkering is the way you move forward. If you just sit there and do what everybody's been doing, then you just stay where you are.

Bob Moore, the legendary bass player told me that once on a Marty Robbins session, they had an amplifier go bad. It was making a strange buzzing sound, and they liked it, so they went and figured out why it made that sound and they ended up developing the idea for the fuzz tone guitar. At least that is what I was told.

So that's how these innovators moved music forward - in all sorts of big and little ways. In the studio where Chet was I'm sure hundreds of things were done to get certain sounds and make the records better. And it comes from this idea of just playing around with things. And of course Chet had a workshop at home where he had guitars all taken apart, and he had all kinds of different guitars, so this is what I mean by a tinkerer.

TR: I've seen you interviewed before and it seems to me like you have somewhat of an encyclopedic knowledge of artists and music history, and Chet was the same way.

DM: Well I'm just an amateur, compared to him. Chet had an incredible knowledge, plus Chet was a big part of history. He remade a whole music form into something with a broader appeal. From where he came from country music was Uncle Dave Macon, with gold teeth and straw hats - and that all changed into Eddy Arnold and the "countrypolitan" sound that crossed over, and that's a huge accomplishment.

DM: Chet was not a guy that just went along with things, you know? I once asked him what he thought of Bruce Springsteen, and he said, "The biggest hype in show business." That's what he said. And it wasn't any punches pulled at all. "The biggest hype in show business," and I thought, "Wow - here's a guy who's not afraid to say whatever he thinks." He says what he thinks even about people who are doing extraordinarily well and are popular at the time. Most folks in the business won't express those types of opinions, at least for the time period that the people are doing well anyway. Most folks usually jump on the bandwagon.

TR: I know Chet felt that the melody had a special importance in music. In other words, if you could hum with a tune, then there might be something to it.

DM: Well try to think about this - there was a very popular show on television called "Name That Tune." And you could name many successful pop songs in four to five notes. Now that is what great songwriting is, and I'm afraid that's completely disappeared today. We do not have songwriting anymore. We have things out there that are a reasonable facsimile of music, but a lot of it is not really music. At least I don't accept it as music, and it doesn't interest me at all.

Chet was always into those kinds of songs, ones with identifiable, beautiful melody - you know, a really nice chorus, or a good story, and yet brilliantly written like those early Kris Kristofferson songs. They were just brilliant, those five or six songs that he's known for - and they say everything. So, I guess Chet latched on to a few of my songs that he liked. I know he liked "Vincent" quite a bit. I'm not sure "Vincent" is all that great a melody.

TR: It's one that's very memorable - That one might be good for "name that tune".

DM: Yeah!

TR: If you hummed eight or nine notes of that, a lot of people could get that one. Now, I've seen interviews of you where you say, "I don't know what I'm doing or how I do it, I just do it" and I like that and wonder if Chet would say the same thing.

DM: Well you try to find the next interesting thing to do and see where it goes. You don't know where it will lead, so you just go with it.

TR: You seem very comfortable with performing your songs on stage. Chet was the same way. I wonder what that is about the two of you that make you so confident.

DM: Well, he's completely wrapped around what he's doing. I have never done anything but what I do and I don't think he ever did anything but what he did. You know, Chet's like some character out of "The Twilight Zone". You see these pictures from the 1940s, and there's Chet Atkins. And then 50s and then 60s and then 70s and then 80s and then 90s, alright?

He's always there, you know, and looking pretty much the same. I still picture that old photo with him holding the fiddle. So he only did what he did, and that's been the same with me. When you do only one thing you get very comfortable. You just have the one ability, which is your whole focus all the time.

TR: Do you have an opinion on why you think Chet could be so influential with pop and rock artists. Countless musicians credit Chet with influencing them, George Harrison, Randy Bachman, John Fogerty, Mark Knopfler etc, all rock artists. They didn't really do fingerstyle.

DM: Well, they grew up with the records, and they grew up with the inspiration and they took it from there, I mean, he started something in them and they took it to another place. I think the big reason why all those guitar players go back to him, it's not just his playing, it's his whole musical contribution, you know, which is more than his playing.

I had one guy that turned me on to everything. He was the son of a radio announcer who announced for the Tommy Dorsey show. And this guy turned me on to Johnny Smith, Chet Atkins, Josh White, The Ventures, Buddy Holly, and Elvis. I was born singing, but guitars were not around people in New Rochelle. They were around people in Tennessee, Mississippi, wherever but not where I grew up.

You didn't have guitars in people's houses where I grew up. It was an upper middle class white suburb. You might have the piano or a violin, maybe. Kids took orchestra lessons, they didn't take guitar lessons. Occasionally you might find a banjo in an attic from the old Fred Van Epps classical banjo period from the '20's. When I got going, I was pulling instruments out of attics all around town. Someone's grandmother might have one and they'd bring over this thing that had been in the attic for 30 years. I was a magnet pulling out guitars and banjos from attics.

TR: If you had lived in Tennessee, you'd trip over one walking on the front porch.

DM: So then the whole "folk scene" thing started, but again, I was turned on to a lot more than that. I started with all these different people. I started getting Flatt and Scruggs records. One friend's father had probably 30 white label Columbia singles of Flatt and Scruggs, the 45 records which I still have. And I would go play those things, and it was dynamite! Blew my mind. And the thing about it is that those records sounded different. They've screwed around with those songs as they brought them on to CD. They don't sound like they did on vinyl.

TR: What were some of the early "folk" artists that interested you?

DM: Well, I began a quest as a young man to know The Weavers. I became very interested in The Weavers. Chet, by the way, loved The Weavers also, and so did Gordon Jenkins, who's the one who produced them. I just love their music and I love harmony singing and so I got to know them all very well, especially Lee Hays, who's quite a character and who I learned a great deal from about politics, and about music, and about just different things.

When I went to Nashville in '78 and sang the Chain Lightning album that's when I suddenly realized that Nashville was the place for me. They had four-part harmonies and they had great studios and incredible players and they were very inventive, and they didn't mind anything that I asked them to do, and so I would ask them to do crazy stuff.

And Bob Moore once said to me, "Just play what you want to play here, and then when I tell you to stop, play this one note." And it was a song called "It's A Beautiful Life", which is just a riff on the bass. Bob said to me, "You don't know how many times I've gotten my hand slapped if I did one thing that wasn't exactly like the producer wanted". So in my case it helped to just go in and do crazy things. Even doing "Crying" was crazy at the time because it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing.

TR: People that are creative and innovative are inspiring to be around, correct?

DM: Yes. I thought that the people I met in Nashville were very exciting to be around. They were the singers, the players, the studios - everything, and Chet was the king of that whole movement. He was the man.

TR: Did I also read that you liked Merle Travis growing up?

DM: I love Merle Travis. I got a lot of Merle Travis videos, but I didn't get around to playing Merle Travis because I got stuck on that Christmas album that Chet made when I was about 12, and that's where I got more into the style. Later on, I got into him. I like Western music, you know, "Clang your silver spurs on the golden stairs." Merle Travis had all these cool songs. I have some old videos on a video reel.

TR: Sounds like you are saying you draw your inspiration from a lot of different places. I don't know if today's artists do that as much anymore.

DM: Well, it's a visual world now, you know, they want you to really look good. Most singers through history weren't all that pretty. Julie London was pretty - that was about it, you know? Even Peggy Lee was kind of sexy, but I wouldn't call her pretty.

TR: Weren't there some of your tunes that got held back by the record company because they didn't think they would sell? Was "Vincent" one of those songs that you had written but they wouldn't put it out for some reason?

DM: Well, "Vincent" was so different from "American Pie." "American Pie" was a phenomenon when it came out and it perplexed them, then "Vincent" came out and we just had terrible times with the record company and now I understand why. They didn't understand what to do with me, you know? I'm writing these crazy songs, you know, with these odd ideas. You look back now and say, "Well, of course 'American Pie" , that make sense, but if you think about it a little bit, it's a crazy song, and it's very long and very un-commercial.

TR: In your case, you wanted to do some things that they didn't want you to do, and then when they realized it was a good idea they were behind the curve.

DM: I was always in a fight with a producer. I always came in with an open mind and a happy heart and a wonderful, exciting feeling but when the sessions were over, there was always a problem about something. Somebody didn't understand a song, or they didn't want it, and there was just a fight about it. So it made for a less than 100% happy experience for everybody because I just wouldn't give in.

Usually they expect you to do as you're told, but I don't do what I'm told. Anyway, it makes a big difference whenever you have someone like Chet Atkins who appreciates you. Someone who not just knows music, but knows real artists and real quality in the music business.

TR: I want to read you a quote from a fan who was commenting about a video on youtube of you singing "Castles in the Air". She said, "It's a special gift to write such simple and beautiful melodies as he does. His poetry, his music, his appearance is simply inexhaustible and wonderful. This man is a pure gift to all who can listen and feel his songs."

DM: Wow. I don't know what to say about that.

TR: Do people feel your music?

DM: I guess so, I'm still working and doing well. I get good jobs all over the world, so there must be something going on, and I do my best out there with the songs. Again, music is all I've ever done, and I think I am for real. I don't just phone the song in, I'm totally for real every time. That's probably the best thing I can say about what I do. And I'm truthful in my music. I tell the truth with the music as best I can.

Sometimes, I have some angry songs some people don't like, but I do many different things. It's an amalgam of things I've put together, and I think in a way Chet was an amalgam also. You know, he had the country, and he had blues, and he had folk, and he had the jazz - I know he loved Django Reinhardt. So he was an amalgam. Certainly the Western stuff I like - "Sons of the Pioneers" - you got the "Hot Club of France" built right into that group. Kenny Baker, the famous fiddle player for Bill Monroe said he was a big fan of Stefan Grappelli.

I think we all hear each other and cross over. The problem is that a lot of guys who are successful don't ever go outside the boundaries of what they know the audience expects from them, whether it's pop, bluegrass, rock, whatever. That's where I've been fearless. I go all over, and I don't care. If I like it, I do it. Willie Nelson's a lot like that. You know, I've seen him do crazy stuff. I saw him sing, "Some Enchanted Evening" one night on the guitar. I said, "What'll this guy - wearing a confederate hat - what will this guy do next?"

One thing about me is that I've lived my life so that I can basically be who I am and do as I please. That's what I've done all my life. I don't live beyond my means, so I am always financially secure. I don't have to go begging to somebody for anything. In the beginning I saw how that worked in this business, how some people would make money and then blow it all and then they'd have to go back and do silly things because they didn't have anything left. So right from the start I was watching for that because I don't do silly things. I do what I want to do.

TR: You're comfortable in your own skin it sounds like.

DM: That's the best I can be, I guess.

TR: Well thank you so much for taking the time today.

DM: Thanks Tom.

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