Edwin McCain brings trio to the Wheeler Opera House
If You Go …
Who: Edwin McCain Trio
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m.
How much: $45
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
“I would love to tell you that I had some inkling,” McCain, who performs at the Wheeler Opera House today, said recently while driving to a recent private show in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “I just knew I liked the song.”
And he knew the pressure was on him to record a hit. His first studio album, 1995’s “Honor Among Thieves,” had been a commercial disappointment — selling about 200,000 copies (in the pre-Napster days when that was a disappointment). His label, Atlantic, had warned him that he would be dropped if his next album didn’t catch on.
Of course, “I’ll Be” became an iconic anthem of the late 1990s, an enduring wedding first-dance staple and a prom night slow jam, with heavy radio rotation, an appearance on “Dawson’s Creek” and, later, frequent renditions by contestants on “American Idol.”
“The song is just a hail Mary shot at the buzzer, and I’m as surprised it went in as anybody else,” he said, adding with a laugh: “The fact that it turned into what it did is a miracle and a blessing, and I’m grateful every day, because I’m unemployable beyond this. I have no other skills.”
The song shot the humble songwriter into superstardom. He quickly followed the album “Misguided Roses” and its single “I’ll Be” with 1999’s “Messenger” and its hit single “I Could Not Ask for More.” Suddenly, McCain was making the rounds on talk shows and world tours, with flowing locks and an adult contemporary heartthrob image.
“It changed everything,” he said. “I was wearing suits and all this stuff I wouldn’t wear. They said, ‘You dress like a farmer. You have a song on the radio. You can’t do that.’ So I said ‘OK’ and I got an expensive haircut. But after a few years, I realized that wasn’t a sustainable way to live.”
When the bright lights of stardom faded, McCain simply went back to doing what he’d always wanted to do — write songs and play shows. Over the years since, he’s kept up an aggressive touring schedule, maintained a faithful fan following and steadily released new music.
“I was happy to be back as an independent, doing my thing,” he said. “I just wasn’t made for the bigger thing. I know people that are and they love it and they’re built for the machine. I just wasn’t one of them.”
These days, McCain performs with his two longtime bandmates — saxophonist Craig Shields and guitarist Larry Chaney, who’ve been with him for 25 and 17 years, respectively — pulling from his 10 albums and, of course, playing his mega-hits.
“I’m lucky because I’ve got a bunch of records to pull from,” he said. “I jokingly say that we don’t make good records but we make lots of them — there’s bound to be something on one of them that you’ll like.”
His most recent release was the single “Phoenix” last year, which included a B-side re-recording of “I’ll Be.”
He’s currently in the early stages of an interesting collaborative project where he writes a bare-bones song and then brings it to a musician friend and allows them to shape it in their own way. McCain hopes to start releasing the resultant material later this year.
“It’s just acoustic guitar and vocals,” he said. “And I let them dress them up however they hear it, without giving them any input or influencing them.”
Among the artists on his wish list of collaborators for the project are Lyle Lovett, David Ryan Harris and Vince Gill, with whom McCain has performed in Aspen at Gill and Amy Grant’s annual fundraising gala for Challenge Aspen.
McCain’s good humor and charismatic stage presence have drawn him to some unexpected places. Last year, he hosted the Animal Planet reality TV program “Flipping Ships,” featuring restorations of rusted-out old boats. It was basically like “Pimp My Ride” on water, with McCain in the Xzibit role.
It played off of McCain’s personable demeamor and wit, which VH1 put to hilarious use in its “Remember the…” series, capturing his quips on the pop culture moments of the 1980s, ’90s and ’00s.
But after a season of hosting “Flipping Ships,” with a stressful 15-day turnaround on fixing up a boat, McCain decided to go back to touring full-time. For now, he’s hanging up his TV host hat.
“It created a good contrast to highlight how good I really have it as a musician,” he said, “because it’s way less stressful showing up and playing gigs.”
Back in 2013, while working on a proposed box set of archival recordings, singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge came across a group of songs that had been recorded in the late 1980s but never released.
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