“I’ll never get tired of playing ‘I’ll Be,’” McCain admits. “It would be equivalent to having a winning lottery ticket hanging on your wall, and walking by it every day saying, ‘stupid lottery ticket.’ It is a blessing to have any kind of success in the music industry, especially a hit song. But the end game for me is always to share an evening of music with an audience, not just one song.”
Still, that winning ticket set McCain up for life, right? Not necessarily. Two albums later, he was dropped by Atlantic Records. No worries, though: The label’s action brought some relief to McCain. He strongly laments the way major labels view hit songs and those musicians who make them.
“They find a horse that runs, then beat it to death,” he says. “Then they beat it to death some more, light it on fire, and pee on the ashes. Then they beat the ashes. The fastest way to never be heard from again is to record for a major label. It will beat people to death with your music until they become sated, and before you know it, they’re tired of hearing you.”
Fortunately, McCain’s down-home persona and laid-back, strummed-rock sound have since found a more comfortable fit with an independent label. For Lost In America, McCain and his kick-ass band (including 6-string wizard Larry Chaney) hooked up with Vanguard Records. The result is a rockin’ groove, as well as another fine collection of twisted tales, hazy reminiscing, and bitter truths. And yes, a couple of gorgeous love songs.
Lost In America seems to have a more aggressive attitude than some of your past records.
It is a bit of a departure for us. Not that we’re begrudging the successes we’ve had with ballads or pop, but I think that’s only one dimension of what we do, and it was becoming our identity. So we decided to move a bit closer to how we sound live.
You recorded this album in your own studio, correct?
Yeah, I built a studio in Greenville. As you know, the digital
revolution has made it possible to have a world-class studio for a fraction of what it cost ten years ago. So we built a great room that lets us track together as a band. Being a live band, it makes a lot more sense for us to record as an ensemble, rather than layer one instrument at a time.
So you prefer tracking live?
Oh yeah. Just about everything you’ve ever heard from James Brown was one take. When everybody knows whatever they play on this take is going to be on the record, it brings your game up a notch. And I played the role of tempo police. I pushed everybody, keeping tempos even uncomfortably high. In the past, tempos that felt comfortable in the studio seemed dreadfully slow once they got out into the world.
What acoustic guitars did you use on this disc?
I have a 1957 National non-resonator acoustic. In ’57, Gibson made the body and National made the neck. It’s a really interesting guitar with a cool tone. We put a bridge truss on it, which has a
little rod that runs inside the guitar and connects to the tailblock. It makes an acoustic guitar just ring and ring and ring—it’s beautiful. I also used a big jumbo Yamaha for a lot of stuff, as well as a cedar-topped Ibanez AW1050.
How do you get your preferred acoustic sound?
It depends what the song calls for. The Yamaha jumbo has a big, round, clean, full range. The National has a more of a honky, midrange tone. We’ve got a 12-string Taylor, which we used a lot, and also a 12-string Danelectro electric. If I was recording solo acoustic, I’d probably use the J-body Yamaha, because it has such a pretty sound. But if you want an interesting intro to a song, the National works real well.
How do you mic your acoustic guitars?
With two condensers: a large-diaphragm near the soundhole and a smaller mic midway up the neck. I like them about a foot away from the guitar.
With the three guitarists in the band, how do you build the arrangements you’ll perform live?
It’s based around what we play on the records. Before we made this one, we agreed, “Let’s not make a record we can’t play live.” We’ve made huge sounding records in the past, only to ask ourselves, “How are we going to cover this onstage?” It’s kind of silly. I’ve found if you’re only going to get one part on a song, you play what’s best for it. You don’t have a chance to go back and noodle all these other parts. So it’s a leaner, more efficient approach to arranging.
How did you come up with “I’ll Be”—a song VH-1 named “one of the greatest love songs of all time”–and in a broader sense, how do you approach songwriting?
I understand how “I’ll Be,” ended up in so many weddings, but the personal place I was in when I wrote it was pretty dark. The song itself pulled me out of a hole. But it’s hard to take credit when you’re talking about songs, because I feel like there’s a bit of a lightning-to-lightning rod thing going on. As a songwriter, you try to find a turn of phrase or a situation that inspires you, but it’s all about the energy everybody’s creating. So it’s kind of like giving the lightning rod credit for the lightning. I’ll take credit that I got myself out into the field under a stormy cloud, but as far as the rest of it goes, it’s a mystery to me.
I’ve since learned from [songwriter] Maia Sharp how to grind a little bit. Maia has become a pretty steady writing partner with me, and she writes with Bonnie Raitt too. It used to be if the song didn’t just pop out, then I wasn’t interested, but Maia taught me how to lock down in a room with no phone and no distractions, get an idea, and then beat it out of yourself —12 hours at a time, whether you want to do it or not. And sometimes two days of that, just on one song. Her father, Randy Sharp, taught her just like she taught me. The theory behind it is, if you don’t write the song as well as it can be written, then it’s disrespectful to the other songwriters who could have had a chance. I’d never thought of it like that, but ever since, I’ve looked at songwriting much differently. I give her all the credit, because I was the laziest songwriter on earth.
The way I look at songwriting, you try to find a poetic way of saying something universal. And if it’s your way of saying something universal, you’re coming at the theme from a very odd angle. There’s a moment in the listener’s experience where they go, “A-ha! Now I know what he’s talking about.” Their discovery process enrolls them in the song, so they become active participants. That’s what endears songs to people. Once they become an active participant in discovering the meaning of a song, then it’s real to them. Then they’ve got part of themselves in the song, and they’re riding with you in the story.