On October 23 Time Life released the new Don McLean recording Still Playin’ Favorites (read about it here.) My eyes lit up. Don’s Playin’ Favorites (1973) is one of my favorite albums. When a message from Don’s publicist turned up in our in box that morning, I asked if I could interview Don. The publicist arranged a 30-minute telephone interview for me with Don this past Thursday.
It turns out that Time Life entered into an agreement with Don earlier this year to load 173 tracks from 11 of Don’s post-United Artists recordings onto streaming platforms including YouTube, where Time Life has set up a Don McLean channel. Still Playin’ Favorites follows on that agreement.
I wrote about Don at length late last year in a previous installment of this series. Taking a break from politics, I only want to add these notes and videos to what I wrote last year.
I’ve seen Don perform live twice. Both concerts were highlights. Except in a song or two, such as Josh White’s sly “Where Were You Baby,” he kept politics entirely out of his shows. He was there to entertain.
Although he came up working with Pete Seeger, Don has avoided the trap of left-wing politics and the show business shibboleths that accompany them. He appreciates the virtues of ownership. He emphasized the limited nature of his agreement with Time Life. As I understand what he told me, he retains the ownership of all the rights, publishing and otherwise, in his work. Capitol is the successor in interest to United Artists, which released Don’s first six albums, but he told me “they can’t do a thing” with the recordings without his permission. “I completely control those records,” he said.
Don told me he used to razz Seeger about the song “Little Boxes” that was a staple of Seeger’s live performances. The Malvina Reynolds song mocks the sameness of suburbia. I asked Don if he would expand on what I had read elsewhere about that.
Seeger was an elitist without realizing it, he said. He told Seeger, “You think the song makes fun of the middle class. You’ve been living in such a rarified air — my grandfather would have loved a little box.” The song “revealed the prejudice in Marxist philosophy without Seeger realizing it.” Don added that he didn’t like that, but Seeger was tone deaf, although Seeger didn’t mind Don’s razzing him about it.
Seeger was a Communist, but “he wouldn’t have lasted a day out of jail in Russia,” Don said. “The same goes for China and Vietnam. Only in America do you get to criticize everything and not go to jail.”
Don hasn’t had to work a day since a certain 8-minute song he wrote became a ginormous hit upon its release in 1971, but he is not retiring. He just turned 75 last month and is still hard at work 50 years later. It’s what he enjoys. “I love my work,” he said. In the course of our discussion he previewed coming attractions including an 11-CD box set and a Broadway show.
That certain song went unmentioned by me and by him. I told him I didn’t want to ask him the same old questions he’d been asked a million times before. He thanked me for that.
The theme of ownership came up in another context as a metaphor. Thinking of Playin’ Favorites and Still Playin’ Favorites as well as other songs in his catalog, I asked him what drew him to the songs he covered. “I cover a song because I think I can own it,” he said. He continued, “You’re not gonna forget my version. I feel I can own it, really understand it, really love it.” He likened it to cleaning up the diamond in a diamond ring.
I asked Don what artists he enjoyed. This really set him off. “I like a lot of old stuff — early Bob Dylan, ’60’s Stones, Beatles, early James Taylor,” he said. Then he lit up and listed favorites: “I go back to the Everly Brothers, Little Richard — basic meat and potatoes — gospel, the Swan Silvertones, good Western music, the Sons of the Pioneers, the Weavers.” He commented: “No one will ever top them.”
And don’t forget Josh White. He raved about Josh White. “He was brought down by [his association with] the Communists, but he fought racial discrimination. He was a cafe society star.” Although his career was hampered by the blacklist, “he was one of the great American heroes.” Citing White’s “Uncle Sam Says,” Don exclaimed, “he sang it to FDR in 1941!” Then he mentioned Chain Gang Songs recorded by White and his Carolinians — “Red Sun” and “Trouble” — “don’t know where they came from, just amazing.”
Toward the end of the interview Don expressed gratitude for the life he’s living. He said he has a great girl friend, a good home life, and a lot of interests and pursuits. “When I get into it, I get into it all the way,” he said. “I love finance, economics, politics.” What doesn’t he like? “I don’t like the careless use of words. I love the English language.” Will somebody say amen?
In the course of the interview I asked Don if he would pick out favorite tracks from a few of the albums that Time Life has loaded on the streaming platforms. I have only the thinnest knowledge of these recordings, so I wanted his help in directing the attention of readers. He was extremely patient in helping me out. Skipping over a few albums, I am serving up these highlights mentioned by the artist himself.
Chain Lightning (1978) was produced by Larry Butler and recorded in Nashville in 1978. “Crying” returned Don to the charts after a long absence. This is Don’s cover of the Roy Orbison hit. See his comments about ownership above.
Don also picked “Wonderful Night.” His Nashville recordings regularly include the Jordanaires on backing vocals. He said he thought this was a “beautiful recording.”
Don mentioned “Lotta Lovin,’” the Gene Vincent number on the album. I would like to pick out Don’s cover of the Buddy Holly number “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” written by Paul Anka.
Believers (1981) was also produced by Larry Butler and recorded in Nashville with the Jordanaires. Don mentioned “I Tune the World Out.”
“Love Letters” is an old Edward Heyman/Victor Young composition.
Jumping ahead to the new millennium we arrive at Don McLean Sings Marty Robbins (2001). Don mentioned “El Paso.” Again, he aims high. See his comments about ownership above.
He also picked “Kaw-Liga,” the allegorical Hank Williams number written by Williams with Fred Rose.
Don’s Western Album (2003) digs deep into the songbook. He said he wanted to show every side of the Western experience in the album. The cover draws on one-half of a collage created by Don. The first song Don picked on this album was “I’ve Got Spurs (That Jingle Jangle),” again with the Jordanaires.
Don also picked the Sons of the Pioneers number “Timber Trail,” written by Tommy Wells.
The YouTube notes attribute the writing credit on the “The Trail to Mexico” to Don, but I believe this is a song whose authorship is famously obscure
Don noted that Rearview Mirror (2005) was produced by Joel Dorn, who produced Roberta Flack’s first three albums. It includes Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind,” in which Don again seeks to claim the interpretive ownership.
He also picked out his own “Wonderful Baby” (“as sharp a performance as I ever gave — one take”).
My choice from the album would be his rendition of Jimmie Rodgers’s “TB Blues.”
The Starry Starry Night album was just posted by Time Life on October 22. Don reminded me that the recording derived from a 2001 episode of Austin City Limits on PBS. The show and the recording, I believe, were both produced by Don’s friend Terry Lickona. I don’t think Don helped me pick out anything on this recording. I would suggest “You’re My Little Darlin,’” written for his daughter.
Let’s also check out the title track from this live recording.
We come now to Still Playin’ Favorites, the proximate cause of my interview with Don. He mentioned Johnny Cash’s “So Doggone Lonesome.”
He also mentioned the Ray Charles number “Hide Nor Hair,” written by Morton Kraft/Percy Mayfield.
Don also covers “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith on the recording. I appreciate the breadth and depth of his commitment to the preservation of American popular song.
As I note above, Don mentioned his love of gospel music. I want to sign off with “I’m Going to Live the Life I Sing About” by the great gospel composer Thomas Dorsey, performed most famously by Mahalia Jackson — a genuine Sunday morning song.