Duff McKagan's Quest for 'Tenderness'

Duff McKagan examines the ties that bind us on his acoustic, country-inflected solo album.
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Duff McKagan has spent the past few years traveling the world with Guns N’ Roses on the band’s massive — and massively successful — Not in This Lifetime tour. The jaunt, which reunites the core Guns trio of Axl Rose, Slash and McKagan for the first time in more than two decades, has put the bassist on some of the largest stages and in front of some of the biggest crowds of his 30-plus year career. And while that’s been a thrill ride in and of itself, as McKagan tells it, the time in between the shows has often proved as impactful as the performances themselves.

“When Guns was out, we would only perform every third day, because we were playing huge places and we have a huge production that has to be set up,” McKagan explains. “So on the days between shows, I would go and see America and all these different parts of the world. Basically, I’d do nerdy tourist stuff.

“But because I would do that, I would also get to talk to people. And no matter where I was in the world, I began to realize that we all have so much more in common than we have things that separate us. And I wanted to explore that idea.”

Initially, McKagan thought he would examine that idea in book form. “I wanted to write about what I’ve witnessed traveling this planet for the past two and a half years,” he says, “and about how history informs the future, and how things right now — which is inarguably one of the most interesting times in our history — will pass and we’ll move on. And we’ll do it together.” Indeed, McKagan did begin writing what he calls “little vignettes,” but those literary sketches eventually morphed into lyrics, and those lyrics into songs — which is how Tenderness (Universal Music), his new solo album, came into being.

“I have a Fender Paramount acoustic guitar that’s easy to cart around,” he explains. “And when this thing started to take form as songs and not as a book, I would have it with me and I would just play. I’d get the guitar out first thing when I got to the hotel room, or at night after a show. I’d have three chords and a melody and a wealth of words, and I’d record it all on GarageBand. Then I’d wake up in the morning, drink my coffee and revisit what I had done.”

The first song McKagan wrote, he recalls, was a ragged, country-tinged ballad titled “It’s Not Too Late,” which includes the lines “Turn off the screen / take a little stand / take a long walk / and meet your fellow man.” As for the song’s decidedly un–Guns N’ Roses–like sound, he says, “I wasn’t trying to go in any direction at all, really. If anything, I was probably listening to a Mark Lanegan record. I usually listen to pretty chill music after we play a show. And I had my acoustic, and I put these words to these three chords, and it seemed to work. And from there I started writing the album.”

The record he wrote is miles away from the type of hard rock McKagan is known for playing with Guns N’ Roses or Velvet Revolver, or the more gritty and punk sounds he immersed himself in as a teenager in Seattle or with his own 2000s-era solo band, Loaded. Rather, these are intimate, stripped-down compositions, centered around McKagan’s strummed acoustic guitar and raw vocals, that run the gamut from the piano-based title track to the Rolling Stones–like “Chip Away,” a call to strength in the face of social and cultural injustice. Other standouts include the pedal steel–inflected “Last September,” which tells the story of an abusive relationship, and the haunting “Parkland,” which captures the dichotomous feelings of shock and numbness that characterize the American reaction to school shootings and other acts of mass violence.

To be sure, these are big-picture songs that focus on topics affecting all people. But McKagan also had a more personal reason for writing and recording them. “I have two daughters, and I wanted to get some of these songs out if for no other reason than to show them that I’m saying something right now,” he says. “And hopefully, maybe some of these songs will get through to other people and get them thinking too.”

When it came to “getting these songs out,” McKagan turned to a friend who also became an essential collaborator on Tenderness: Shooter Jennings. “I’ve known Shooter since about 2001, when he moved to L.A.,” McKagan recalls. “For a couple of years he was doing the rock thing with his band, Stargunn, but then he kind of went back to his roots in the country world. But he always hung out with all of us.” He laughs. “Actually, I think Shooter hangs out with everybody. He’s one of those guys, you know?

“So Shooter heard the songs — basically my crappy GarageBand recordings of just my acoustic guitar and vocal — and he was super down with it. And when I got back from a leg of the Guns tour, we met up and started working.”

Together, they fleshed out arrangements, adding strings, horns, keyboards and other instrumentation, and discussed records that nailed the vibe they were interested in. That includes efforts like Lanegan’s Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, Paul McCartney’s McCartney II and Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages. And while pedal steel, slide guitar, fiddle and other country signifiers are heard in the songs, McKagan admits “my references are not country, because I’m just not steeped in that sound. The most country I get is, like, Johnny Thunders’ acoustic stuff, or the Rolling Stones. But Shooter is just great at that sort of thing.”

In addition to producing Tenderness, Jennings and his solo band served as McKagan’s backing musicians on the recording. “His band is just so talented,” McKagan says. “They play to the subject matter of the song. It was one of the most amazing and easy musical experiences I’ve ever had, because I’ve never been in a thing where you have the leader of the band and the rest of the band just plays to you. I’m used to, you know, big rock bands where we just throw down. This was a completely different thing.”

Perhaps at this point it’s worth noting that when McKagan throws down in his big rock band, he does it, of course, with a bass. But he’s quick to point out that the guitar was actually his first instrument. “When I was in sixth grade, my brother showed me G, A and D, and I was off. I mean, if you were playing an AC/DC song, that was all you needed.” He laughs. “And I don’t know, maybe an E.

“So I’ve had a relationship with the guitar for a long time, and I’ve also played guitar in some of my bands, like Neurotic Outsiders and Loaded. And all the songs I’ve written, I’ve written on guitar — everything from early Guns onward.”

When it came to his playing on Tenderness, McKagan had several guitars at his disposal. In addition to the Fender Paramount he used to compose much of the material, he also employed the Guild acoustic he played on Guns N’ Roses “Patience” in 1988, as well as a Harmony Buck Owens American. Additionally, he has lately been making use of a 1973 Gibson Hummingbird that Slash bought him earlier this year for his 55th birthday.

McKagan also has a stable of electric guitars, but opted not to use them this time out. “I think the subject matter of the songs called for the acoustic,” he says. But there was another reason not to crank up the amps. “I felt like I didn’t need to make a big rock record right now,” he says. “It was just like, Man, let’s do something different.”

As for whether he’s concerned about how this different music will be received by longtime fans?

“I don’t care if people say, ‘What the f*ck is Duff doing? This isn’t rock!’” McKagan contends. “That’s the least of my worries. I’m just trying to do something, and in the process I’m showing you another side of music that I like. And it’s authentic. At the end of the day, that’s all I can really do.”