Don McLean is an American Original

Although best known for penning the iconic folk-rock anthem “American Pie,” Don McLean’s career-spanning retrospective DVD/CD Rearview Mirror [Hyena] shows him to be an artist of tremendous range. “This collection really represents the integrated scope of what I do,” says the legendary singer/songwriter/guitarist. “Audiences and critics try to put me in a box, but I’ve always been open to different styles.” This is certainly true. Alongside “American Pie” and other signature favorites, such as “Vincent” and “Wonderful Baby,” Rearview Mirror finds McLean tackling Sinatra standards, singing Christmas carols with the Jordanaires, and reviving traditional country and western ballads.

Rearview Mirror certainly covers a lot of stylistic ground.
I enjoy unusual segues and love the challenge of making them work. I think it’s compelling to hear Roy Rogers’ “My Saddle Pals and I” into “And I Love You So,” or my new country-rock song “Run Diana Run” followed by “You’ve Got to Share,” a children’s song my daughter wrote.

What first inspired you to write your own songs?
When I started out, being a songwriter meant being Irving Berlin. Then the ’60s folk revolution happened and I realized you didn’t need to be a conservatory-trained musician. All you needed was three cowboy chords and an educated thumb. People tend to forget how empowering the folk scene was. Before that, the idea of writing my own songs would never have even occurred to me.

What artists were you listening to then?
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were influential, of course. I worked with Josh White for a while, and was particularly inspired by the way he created complete arrangements on guitar, as if it was his own little ensemble. I also liked flamenco guitarists Manitas de Plata and Carlos Montoya. Songs like “Vincent” and “Empty Chairs” are really slowed-down versions of flamenco. I developed my own four-fingered claw style to draw as much tone and texture out of the guitar as possible.

Despite the folk influence, many of your songs go beyond simple progressions. Did you study music formally at some point?
No. I don’t read or write music and have to rely solely on my ear. I hear melodies in my head and sing them into a tape recorder. Sometimes I can’t even figure out how to play what I’m hearing on guitar. There’s a song on my album Prime Time [Arista] called “The Statue” that I have no idea how to play. The arrangement was done by Kenny Asher based on my melody.

Which versions of your songs by other artists are your favorites?
I liked Fred Astaire’s “Wonderful Baby” and Perry Como’s “And I Love You So.” I really loved Madonna’s version of “American Pie.” She got a lot of flack for that, but she gets flack for everything. People resent the fact that she’s a successful woman. She takes so much abuse but always comes out on top, so more power to her.

In the ’70s, you were part of the burgeoning self-contained singer/songwriter scene. Now the focus is on cut-and-paste digital production and finding the next American Idol. Is the traditional singer/songwriter dead?
I hope not. I look at it like this: My wife is a black and white photography purist, but they’ve taken away her chemicals, paper, and film and replaced them with digital processing. The manufacturers could easily take acoustic instruments away from us too someday. They could decide it’s more cost effective to offer digitally sampled acoustic sounds on an electric. It’s scary to think about, but it’s not inconceivable. The wonderful thing about an acoustic guitar is that you don’t need a nuclear power plant or digital interface to fire it up. You can just stand on the street corner and do you thing. I think it’s important to keep that tradition alive, or we could easily lose it.