Edwin McCain gets ‘Lost in America’
November 28, 2006
“Lost in America,” the latest CD by Edwin McCain, is a bit of an extreme effort for the South Carolina singer-songwriter. With a band featuring two electric guitars providing the backing, “Lost in America” is more a full-on rock record than the radio-ready CDs McCain made in the 1990s, or mellower fare like 2002’s “The Austin Sessions.”The 36-year-old, longhaired McCain credits the album’s “guitar-driven, rock tone” for leading him to his current approach to live performances. His live shows over the past years have evolved into full rock ‘n’ roll, with the two electric guitarists and a Hammond B3 organist.”It’s more indicative of what our live shows are like,” said McCain, by phone from his home in Greenville, S.C. “The albums we did with Atlantic [Records] were overproduced, with string sections, lots and lots of overdubs. And while they were interesting albums, they weren’t indicative of what we do live. This one and the last one, ‘Scream & Whisper,’ are closer to what we do live as a band.”When McCain performs tomorrow night at the Wheeler Opera House, it will be without the full band. Instead, McCain and fellow singer-songwriter Maia Sharp will perform in the round, taking turns playing songs with nothing more than their voices, acoustic guitars, and the accompaniment of horn-player/keyboardist Craig Shields, a member of McCain’s band.”This tour, we’re doing it in the round, conversational. What it would be like if we were sitting around in the living room playing songs,” said McCain. “There will be interaction with the crowd. Instead of presenting a show, we’ll present a real relaxed, informal atmosphere.”Interestingly, what McCain is about as an artist, or at least how he sees himself, might be closer to the acoustic guitar-strumming singer playing intimate rooms for attentive audiences than the rocker. A decade ago McCain made his first appearance at the Wheeler, and claimed then, from the stage, that it was the high point of his career to that moment.”Especially then, to be able to go into a seated theater was such a treat for me,” said McCain, who recalled the experience clearly. “And it still is. It was the first time I’d been in a venue that beautiful, with an audience that kind. To get out of the bars and into a seated theater to share an evening of music – that’s what you spend your whole life working toward.”
Prior to that, McCain had known success. “Honor Among Thieves,” his 1995, major-label debut, put him on the map. The follow-up album, 1998’s “Misguided Roses,” was a major hit, as was the single, “I’ll Be.” But performing during those days, as something of a pop star, could be a deflating experience.”After our commercial success, and radio, I was let down by the fact that people were wanting to hear one song,” he said. “That’s not what I set out to do.”McCain has a clear vision of what he does want to achieve, and it sounds more like swapping songs on acoustic instruments with other singer-songwriters. He does, in fact, indulge that side of himself: Each year, he and Kevin Kinney, of the Georgia band Drivin n Cryin, do their Pied Pirates tour, much in the mold of McCain’s current tour with Sharp. (McCain and Kinney always bring a third singer-songwriter with them on the tours; past guests have included Gov’t Mule’s Warren Haynes and Gibb Droll.)As a teenager, McCain worshipped David Wilcox, a folk-style singer and guitarist who generally performed solo. McCain still holds onto that idea of what a solitary musician can communicate to an audience.”I saw a bunch of David Wilcox shows and it was so cool to see him share his sense of possibility, his vision,” said McCain. “That’s what a singer does, shares his sense of possibility, and that’s what I was feeling that night [at the Wheeler]. It’s great when you connect. That’s the whole point, the fellowship of art, music, poetry, writing, dance.”David Wilcox says a song is like a headlight: It illuminates the road ahead, and shows you what the potentials are.”McCain’s earliest grounding in artistic expression came not from rock ‘n’ roll, but from old-timey music. He started singing as a kid in a church choir and got a guitar at 10. But his earliest efforts at song-writing stemmed from his relationship with an uncle, a serious student of eastern Appalachian folk music that predates even bluegrass.
The songs his uncle taught him were like “an oral history of their lives,” said McCain. “Like uncovering diaries of people’s lives.” McCain notes that his sound is a long distance from those roots but “the core direction is still there – storytelling, a journey. They didn’t make things up; it was from their lives. And I make songs from my own experience.”The songs may come from his own life, but are not necessarily written from his perspective. The title track of “Lost in America,” for instance, is a rather bitter take on the shallowness of contemporary America: “We got the cars, the girls, the money, the drugs / To get you out of your rut,” goes the chorus. The song, co-written with Billy Chapin and Stan Lynch, doesn’t exactly reflect McCain’s take on the U.S.A. Instead, it’s his looking through the eyes of a person he met in a bar, a guy who had made tons of money and laid out his plan to find a beach and stay drunk.”It’s written from his point of view,” said McCain. “It’s written as much for my desire to write a Randy Newman-style song.”Does Randy Newman stand behind every character he performs in his songs? I don’t think so. He portrays these despicable, loathsome, lecherous fellows.”McCain, though, identifies with the narrator of “Lost in America.” “I had mixed feelings about him,” he said. “He was kind of fun. But there’s also a nod to excess in there. And I point that out as one who’s experienced excess.””Lost in America” is hardly inconsistent with the themes of the album as a whole. “It’s a little darker,” said McCain. “With everything going on during the process of writing the album – Katrina, the war in Iraq – there’s a lot of uncertainty going on.”
McCain’s song-writing approach received a shakeup not long ago, courtesy of Maia Sharp. The Los Angeles-based singer and songwriter, in addition to releasing CDs of her own, has become a songwriter to the stars, her work having been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Cher, Kathy Mattea, the Dixie Chicks and Art Garfunkel. McCain heard of Sharp through Shields, his band member, and met her through Garth Brooks’ manager, who has a hand in publishing her songs. McCain needed to hear only one song – “Crimes of the Witness,” the first song from Sharp’s eponymous, 2002 album – to be impressed.”It’s that perfect song, that song-writing moment of very well-crafted lyrics with very complicated music. Very well put together. And her voice is butter,” said McCain.McCain hasn’t only been enjoying the music from a distance. McCain and Sharp have teamed to co-write numerous songs, including three on “Lost in America,” and one, “Hold Out a Hand,” released as a download and benefiting victims of Katrina.”She’s taught me more about song-writing,” said McCain. “She’s taught me how to grind. If I wasn’t inspired, I didn’t worry about it. She taught me to rewrite the songs, make it the best song it can be. “She told me, if you don’t make a song the best it can be, you’re disrespecting other songwriters, who would put everything into it.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.