MB meets Doug MacLeod
Winner of the 2014 Blues Music Awards for Acoustic Artist Of The Year and Acoustic Album Of The Year and the 2013 Blues Blast Music Award for Male Artist Of The Year, extraordinary singer, songwriter, storyteller and bluesman Doug MacLeod talks to Macallè Blues.
MB: Let's start from the basics. Every time I talk to some blues cat, no matter if he's a musician or just a blues lover, one of my biggest curiosity is always about the way he's discovered the blues. So Doug, how did you get to know and, I would say, love the blues? Did it happen by a family record collection, by friends, by chance or what else?
DML: I got to know the blues when my family moved to St. Louis MO. As I remember there were two am radio stations playing blues 24 hours a day except on Sundays from 12 am to 6 pm. They called it R&B. I started loving it when I realized it was speaking to me on a level that I couldn’t quite understand at the time. Now I know what that level is. It’s like I say in my concerts - “This is a music of overcoming adversity not subjecting to adversity”. It helped me overcome the abuse I had as a kid and a stutter that followed.
MB: Doug, that's been quite the same for me. I mean I discovered the blues by chance and thanks to television when I was about 11. At that time I didn't understand English, so there was no way for me to know what the singer was singing about, but something I would say "primitive" - don't know what it was - in the singing and in the music just struck me so deep and gave me chills running through my spine. That was pure emotion and emotions are so important in everyone's existence, expecially when you're growing up 'cause they forge and condition your life. Without the blues, I use to jokingly say that I may be working in a bank today; and I'm not - of course - and I won't be even here to talk to you.
DML: I know what you mean Giovanni. If music is honest, it will find it’s way to your soul. Like I say, I believe that songs like to live in souls. I don’t think there’s words in any language for it, but we all know when we’ve been touched by it. Kinda like love. We all know it, but try to describe and explain it? I remember being at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in Australia. I was done with my set and had a little time so I decided to hang out and hear some music. Well, this young African lady came up on stage and she said some thing like - I’m going to sing a song in my native language that I bet very few if any of you know and I’m going to sing it without my band. This song is about a woman who has just lost the man she loves -. Well, when she got done, there wasn’t a dry eye in that tent of 2,500 people and no one knew the words she was singing, but everyone knew the feeling!
MB:Well, my other curiosity has to do directly with you. You started your recording career, as electric guitarist, way back in the '80s; at that time, soul-blues oriented artists like Robert Cray or Joe Louis Walker were breakin' out as well as many others more blues-rock oriented artists. Even if with the same modern feel you had in your first recordings too, they all were playing electric. Then, you unplugged your guitar and turn to acoustic, long before acoustic blues was, so to say, rediscovered and back in style. That seemed to be such an unusual choice. How and why did you take that decision?
DML: Great question Giovanni. In late 60’s I was playing acoustic blues in coffeehouses around VA, and MD. So that was where I really began. I made the decision to return to my acoustic roots after around 1991. I felt I was not connecting with people like I wanted to. I felt at times the lyrics were lost or secondary to the music. I told my wife that I really wanted to get back to my roots as a singer/songwriter/blues musician and go solo. Without batting an eye she said, “Well go ahead then.” And that was that.
MB: So you already had a great previous experience in fronting an audience as a solo act; that seems to have been such a great gym at the time. Wasn't it? And is there some useful fronting "trick" you learned back then that you still use today?
DML: Playing solo is a great ‘gym’ as you say. It’s all on you. It sharpens your focus. What I’ve learned playing is that you, the entertainer, must give to the audience first with your whole heart, soul, and being. Some entertainers want the first give to come from the audience. I’ve know some like that. Even worked with some. But I think they got it backwards.
MB: In this context, another thing that set you apart from many other contemporary acoustic artists is your instrument: how and why did you get so devoted to the National steel guitar rather than just the acoustic one?
DML: I love the complexity of sound of a National. The strength of sound. I can hit the top of those guitars with my right hand for percussion and I don’t have to worry too much of hurting them. Where a Fender Strat is like a Porsche or should I say Ferrari, a National is like a Mack Truck. Guess I’m a truck driver…...
MB: You're a great songwriter, so let's talk a bit about songwriting. I've always thought that even the greatest acoustic luminaries such as Robert Johnson, Lightnin' Hopkins, Big Bill Broonzy to name a few, before being bluesmen were basically songwriters (Hopkins was even a true poet to me); or maybe I could say that they were storytellers that used to play in a blues form. Now, I discovered you in 1994 thanks to your "Come to Find " album and, since then, I had the same idea about you: do you think that the definition of songwriter would fit with you and do you feel as you've been inspired by them?
DML: Absolutely on all counts. I find it incredible that many people have a hard time accepting a blues man as a singer/songwriter when this music was founded by singer/songwriters! I’ve felt that the great blues songwriters were indeed poets. Saying a lot with a few words. They’ve inspired me from my early days to now and will continue to do so. I’m very honored to be thought of in the same breath with them.
MB: I totally agree, Doug. See, for example, I love so much the old italian songwriters and I always used to say that they were someway our own "bluesmen" and everybody looked at me as I was crazy! But I think that comparison makes sense in both of our cases.
DML: I agree and not because you’re doing this nice interview. I see blues in many countries outside of the US. I’m hearing good honest blues musicians out there too. It’s very important for the young blues musicians or any musician for that matter to claim their own voice. Be influenced by the ones who have gone before yes, but they must proclaim their own rarity. That way the music lives on and carries a respect for the ones who have gone before. As side here to prove a point. When I was playing electric, I was heavily influenced by B.B. King. Sounded a lot like him. One day, George ‘Harmonica’ Smith said to me, “Dubb, you sure sound like B.B. King! “. I said, ‘Thank you George.’ He came back with, ‘Dubb, that ain't a compliment.” Then he said, “Let’s put Dubb out there and let’s see what happens with Dubb”.
MB: Listen, because of your instrument, the slide style and your habit to often do some talking, both in your recordings and expecially in your live acts, Bukka White is another artist I think you can feel close to: can we say that?
DML: Well, bluesmen were and are storytellers. My first mentor you could say was an old country bluesman named Earnest Banks and one of the biggest bits of advice he gave me was- “Never write or sing about what you don’t know about.” Following that thought the songs have to come from stories of your life right? So why not tell the folks the story that inspired the song as well as the song?
MB: I confess Doug, I've never heard about Earnest Banks before, if not just reading your biographical notes: was he also a recording artists or just some kind of local musician it's happened to you to meet?
DML: Don’t feel too bad. Hardly no one ever heard of him unless you were from VA in the mid 60’s. He might have recorded under another name. They say he ran with Lemon Jefferson. But I met him in Toano VA. Don’t really know the true story. Do know that he had a helluva right hand tho.
MB: You are such a unique and prolific artist - and may this not sound like a compliment, but as a fact as it is - both musically and also lyrically. So, let's get a little deeper into the lyric aspect of your art. Your lyrics are both humorous and insightful, rich of those "wit and grace" we can find here and there in the blues tradition: how are generally your songs born? Do the lyrics come easily or do you feel much more like being a sculptor working hard to get the right word, the right phrase and the right final shape?
DML: They come when they want to. I don’t have any control over them 'til after they have arrived. And even then it’s not that much control really. They continue to speak to me as how they would like to be represented. Usually tho the song comes pretty much whole. Well, at least the idea/message. Then I have to refine the words and refine the feel for it.
MB: Sounds like you're kind of a medium to them and lyric/song something superior that reveals itself through you. It's like a magical, spiritual thing that has to do, I believe, with artistic expression in general. Don't you think? Have you ever had the chance to discuss and compare about this interesting aspect with other artists?
DML: Yeah, I’ve done songwriting workshops at Merlefest and The Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise. Each songwriter seems to have a different way of getting the songs, but one thing I’ve learned is common. If the song wakes you up at night and you say ‘What a line! I’ll never forget that one. I’ll just turn over and sleep some more and start writing tomorrow.” You will wake up, but the song has left and has said, “ I guess he didn’t want me, let’s see what Coco Montoya is doing tonight."
MB: As a storyteller, you used to be also a succesful columnist for Blues Revue Magazine; now that experience has ended up but I do believe the readers of that magazine would love to see you back there or somewhere else doing some kind of Doug's Back Porch once again. Did you miss that and do you think it's possible for us to see you back on page somewhere?
DML: Well maybe not in print per say, but I’m thinking very seriously about doing an audio book of me telling the stories. Just have to find the right venue to record for a couple of nights and invite some folks to join me.
MB: Before steppin' out on your own, you've played with a lot of great blues artists such as Pee Wee Crayton, Big Joe Turner, George "Harmonica" Smith, Big Mama Thorthon, etc. and I guess you've been asked a lot of times about them all; but, in your recordings, you've also had special guests just like Charlie Musselwhite or the late and great Carey Bell: was there some particular reason that led you to chose those two great yet different harpists?
DML: Both Charlie and Carey have and had very unique styles. I wanted their specific styles on those albums. Joe Harley the producer for those albums whole heartedly agreed. Since I worked with George "Harmonica" Smith I began a fan of fine harmonica players. Charlie and Carey? Two of the finest.
MB: In your acoustic recordings, you use to be backed by little combos, tipically just upright bass and drums or adding a little tasty piano as in your last cd. But on tour, you always travel alone and very light, with the baggage of a wise man: few things if not almost nothing. When I met you in fall 2008, you drove a rent car with just one bag and the guitar along with you. Traveling that way and being on stage all alone every night ought to be such a very enriching and emotional experience where everything depends just on you: how do you feel about that?
DML: It’s the way I’m most comfortable. I guess you could say I’m throwback to the early guys of this music. They travelled light too. In fact a whole lot lighter than me! I just need one suitcase and one guitar. I learned how to pack when I was in the Navy and my National guitar I call ‘Moon’ can pick and bottlenceck and is fine with all the tunings I play in. So, I don’t need no more than that. Plus like I say, “If you can travel light, you gonna’ be alright.”
MB: I've read that there's your portrait in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi: after all these years, that sounds to be such a honor and a great recognition, isn't it?
DML: That was from a photo shoot from Jeff Dunas for a book on blues. I’m not sure if I’m worthy of that, but I’m damn sure that I’m working on being worthy of that honor.
MB: Just one last thing: despite your long career, Italy is not a country you've toured that much. Now I know that you will tour Italy again in October after being here for, I think, the first time, in 2008. How do you feel about getting back here and is there any particular memory of your previous tour you'd like to share with us?
DML: I’m anxious to come back to Italy. So much history, so much culture. Favorite memory? How about eating some of the best food I’ve ever tasted and drinking some wonderful wine! I think I’d come back just for the wine and food!