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Working with Chet Atkins
An interview with Don McLean (cont.)

by Tom Redmond

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.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs
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.

Video: Chet Atkins and Don McLean perform Vincent

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.

American Pie
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 recognizes 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.

Concert in Hyde Park, UK - 1975
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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