It seems hard to separate David Mallett from remote Sebec, the central Maine town where the singer-songwriter was born and raised.
Mallett’s songs, typically recorded with a sparse accompaniment led by Mallett’s own acoustic guitar, are straightforward appraisals of rural values, stories of the people and the land. The title of his latest album, “Ambition,” comes off with more than a whiff of irony: Mallett is a man whose goal is not to become MTV famous or enormously wealthy, but to continue his modestly successful music career and build a small farm on his spread of Maine land. “I don’t need anything only to survive/All I want I got tonight,” he sings in “Whiskey Talkin,’ ” a tune from “Ambition.”
Mallett has wandered away from Sebec. He’s put in time in New York and California. He spent a decade, starting in the mid-’80s, in Nashville, eventually finding himself a fish out of water with his Northern accent and New England sensibilities. In 1995, he returned to the land from which he came, with the dream of raising sheep and logging timber in between weekend performances.
“Mine is more of a Northern voice,” said Mallett, who performs at the Aspen School District Theatre on Sunday, Oct. 15, in a concert presented by Aspen High School teacher Kirk Gregory’s humanities classes. Local singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan opens the show.
“And they’re not into Northern voices in Nashville, and they probably never will be. Nashville tends to make all the songwriters have this Southern thing. They want everyone to sound like they’re from Texas. I’m a Northerner, and I have a Northern thing in my accent and in my subject matter.”
Mallett is sincerely glad of his roots. Now approaching 50, Mallett can look back at the type of childhood that barely exists anymore in the States.
“I’ve always felt very lucky that I grew up with a good vision of how things were before the industrial revolution,” said Mallett. “I got a glimpse of what these old people lived like. It’s a true connection to something timeless, and an appreciation for a broad scope of stuff.”
One of the things that Mallet learned to appreciate early on, and in a way that he doesn’t see happening much these days, is music. Music was something to be shared by the family, something special. And music wasn’t divided between what his mother liked and what his father liked, and what his brother liked. It was all just music, all to be appreciated.
“We were so remote, if music came in, it came in through the same door,” said Mallett, who, by the age of 10, was singing with his brother at county fairs and grange halls throughout New England. “Old songs got as much play as what was on the radio. We weren’t as bombarded with pop music as most.”
It is more than an accent, or a way of phrasing things, or the stories he tells, that separates Mallett from Nashville’s way of making music. There’s is a difference in ideology about what music is for, how it should be used, what it is capable of. That ever-widening gap is what finally drove Mallett out of Nashville, despite his successes there.
“They’ve turned country music into fast food, to make it as palatable to as many people as possible with as little hassle as possible,” said Mallett of the collective powers of Music City, U.S.A. “But country music is something that has got to be defined by something other than marketing. It’s got to be connected to the roots.
“If you sell 10 million records, how on the edge can you be? You can’t have all that success and adoration and still make it really real.”
Mallett’s music would more comfortably be categorized as folk than country, but Mallett says that is mostly because the idea of country music has been distorted. “In my definition, I’ve always made country music. My country music is music that is about the country, and the working class. It’s not in the high rise.” Still, Mallett doesn’t mind being outside the current country mainstream. “There’s been a failure of country music to empower its listeners. It talks down to its listeners,” he said.
It is to Mallett’s credit that he can thumb his nose at Nashville without bitterness. Mallett has had his share of success, without bending to the mass music market. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Pete Seeger. One of his tunes, “The Garden Song,” has been recorded by a staggering 150 singers and counting; the song was one of the last major hits for John Denver in the late ’70s. The Bangor Daily News named Mallett one of the most memorable Mainers of the 20th century, putting the singer in the company of Stephen King, Andrew Wyeth and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
“Ambition,” released last year, marks Mallett’s 11th album of his own songs. A fan of many kinds of music – with a particular passion for the Beatles, whom he praises for their ability to make each of their songs totally unique – Mallett would love to record an album of all cover tunes. But it is performing live that Mallett finds the most satisfying way of conveying music to people.
“You move them more immediately when you play live. Records go through so many channels,” said Mallett, who typically flies to a region for two or three weekend concerts, then flies back to Maine to work on his farm and write songs, a pattern that adds up to 60 or 70 shows a year.
And as he gets older, Mallett has begun to think about more than traveling and performing. He says that if he had another life to live, he would be a musicologist, studying the connections between music forms and the cultures that created them. He has his farm to build. He has his children to raise, with hopes of turning at least some of their attention from electronica to the father’s more acoustic music.
“I’m still growing up,” said Mallett. “I’m pushing the big 5-0. I like the confidence that comes with maturity, especially in my work. Every time I play somewhere, I learn something.”
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