by Michael Buffalo Smith
These days, Edwin McCain is busier than ever, which is somewhat odd considering he just quit the major label Atlantic Records to sign with a small Tennessee indie called ATC Records. In fact, he is so busy that he had to conduct our phone interview from California, although he and his wife live right in the heart of Greenville, South Carolina, not five miles from the GRITZ office.
The great thing about being on an indie label, according to McCain, is being in control of his own life and destiny. “I’m kind of back in control instead of being the puppet figurehead. For so long it was basically: wear this, cut your hair this way, do this, say that. I went along with it because I thought, “Hey, they’re the record company. They know what they’re doing.”
We spoke to Edwin about his new DVD, upcoming new CD and life in the South.
Is it true that you were born in Greenville?
Yeah, that’s correct. I was born and adopted in Greenville. My dad is an amazing guy. He is a pediatrician in town and I was adopted into an incredible family. I am very lucky. That is how I feel about it. I am just very fortunate.
Did you attend school at Christ Church Episcopal?
Yeah, at Christ Church School.
I understand your dad does some music at that church. Did you ever get involved in that?
Sure, that is kind of how I started out. By singing in the church choir. Bob Powell over at the church taught us all how to sing, and then I ended up playing guitar some with dad at Chapel and then I got into a band at school during my high school days.
When you first became interested in writing and playing music?
When I first got really interested in writing and playing I used to hang out with a guy named Steven Gayle, who is still in Greenville some and is a great musician. He had a small studio in his house and he taught me a lot about music. He was way into Joco Pastorius and Weather Report and lots of stuff, and some of the music that I was into like Earth, Wind, and Fire, and lots of the Motown sounds. He turned me onto a lot of the interesting music that I did not know about and he was always writing music, and sitting around playing. I was so enthralled with it because I had listened to a guy named David Wilcox who has had lots of amazing records and is a real poet and master with words. Then my friend, Steven Gayle would let me work on songwriting and we really hit it off and that is kind of how I got started.
Who would you say were your major musical influences early on, besides David?
Oh, let me see. Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Spencer Davis Group, Earth, Wind, and Fire, obviously. Like every kid I went through my Van Halen phase. (laughs)
Looking at the slide show on the DVD, all those shots of you sticking out your tongue, I thought you may have gone through a KISS phase too.
Oh, definitely KISS - and Boston, Queen, all the standard rock and roll answers that I think everyone my age went through.
When you started playing out did you play solo or with a band?
I started out solo.
Did you play around Greenville?
I played in a band in Greenville and then when I went off to college I restarted my musical career as a solo artist.
Where did you go to college?
I was at the University of South Carolina for a minute, and then I went to the College of Charleston. It’s a great place.
I read somewhere that you played quite a bit at Hilton Head. Is that true?
Right, I had met a guy named Shannon Tanner in Colorado that played in Hilton Head in the summers, and Vail in the winters. He was such a great musician and I was so into what he was doing. He was up there doing mostly cover songs and I thought it was such a cool job. Then dad asked Shannon out to dinner with us to talk me out of playing music for a living. I remember we went to dinner and the more he talked the more I was sold on playing music for a living. He took me under his wing and I began playing in Hilton Head for a summer and then went to Vail in the winter and had a great time doing it.
Are you playing out solo now or with a band?
It’s three acoustic guitars and saxophone.
I have really enjoyed the advance copy of the new album and the DVD was very good.
Well, thank you.
I know that you play acoustic guitar but do you also play lead guitar.
No, not at all. I played by myself for so long it never occurred to me to play lead. And I was so involved with the songwriting aspect. I am not a lead player at all.
On the DVD I enjoyed the humor of it. It was really funny doing that Monty Python and the Holy Grail thing.
I don’t even know where that came from.(Laughs)
Are you a big movie fan?
Oh yeah, there is a lot of down time in this industry so you end up going to lots of movies.
What are some of you favorite films?
I think one of my favorites is Dangerous Liasons, that film with John Malkovich; and Wild at Heart, by David Lynch; all of that Raising Arizona stuff and all of the Monty Python stuff. You can’t go wrong there. There is another movie that our guitar player turned me onto, I can’t think of who wrote it but it is a movie called, Big Night. The guy that plays on that television show named Monk, he is an amazing actor.
With all of the albums that you have done what would you say would be the one that you are most proud of?
It is hard to say, I always like the most current record and I am probably most proud of Far From Over. And the acoustic album we just made, but I think that Far From Over had a lot of depth as far as writing went. I dug in pretty hard and dug up some of my own personal life and was not afraid to put it on the album. I am proud of that album.
Of all the songs that you have written, do you have a favorite song that means more to you than the others?
Well, obviously “See Off This Mountain” would have to be the one that sticks out in my mind, and I wrote that about my Grandmother. She passed away while I was out on the road. I have been very blessed to have this amazing family and extended family and a nurturing place to grow up in, in Brevard, North Carolina. We have a house up there and we just got along so well, and that was part of my whole existence and that was a tribute to her and all my extended family. It is a tribute to all of them.
On the new album is a song called “No Choice” and I got hooked on that on the DVD and then I saw it was on the new album.
That’s a Buddy Mudlong song. I was in Nashville doing some songwriting and got introduced to Bob Doyle who is Garth Brooks’ manager. Bob played me the song and I fell in love with it and felt like it needed to be out there and knew I would love to record it. I wanted people to hear this idea, and it is very true of all artists, musicians, and we just decided to put it on the record and it has been going over very well. People seem to like it.
Tell me about Darius and Hootie and the Blowfish and what role they played in your career.
Well, obviously we were blessed to have them as friends, early on. I definitely thank Mark Bryan and Darius for giving us the opportunity to be opening up for them at a time when the Atlantic Records people were hanging around. They decided to sign us too, and their endorsement of us gave us a leg up in those days. I can’t say enough about Darius and all the help he has given me. They are life long friends, the kind you have forever.
What are those guys up to? Do they have an album coming out?
Yeah, they have a new album coming out in February.
Great. One of the guys I really like that you are obviously friends with is Warren Haynes. I know that you have been involved in his Christmas shows each year.
I started playing the Christmas jams the very first year. Warren and I became friends from doing a tour with the Allman Brothers. I was a huge fan of his first record, Tales of Ordinary Madness. I felt like he was unbelievable. We actually went out and did some acoustic shows together with Kevn Kinney and played some shows in the round and had such a good time - and everyone played on everyone else’s stuff and it was so much fun. We really enjoyed ourselves. Warren has been including me in the Christmas jams yearly and I always look forward to seeing him and hanging out.
I also wanted to ask you about Allen Woody. Did you know him well?
I knew him well enough to call him a friend, and was very saddened and blown away when he died. I wrote “Dragons” on Far From Over, that was based around him, and it is just sad. This is a tough lifestyle to live in, and there are many pitfalls. Unfortunately, he got caught up in it, and I really feel for his family.
Let me ask you about songwriting. It seems to be your first love, because you put so much of your heart into it. When you are writing songs do you write melody first , and then lyrics or is it different everytime?
It’s different everytime.
Do you ever come up with a title first?
Sure. Sometimes I come up with titles, verses, lyrics, choruses, it just depends.
Do you write things mostly from personal experience or from fantasy?
Mostly from personal experience.
What do you think makes a song great?
Wow, I think what you strive for is honesty and emotion and hopefully a good melody, then if you can get close to all three of those things then I think you have a good song.
What made you decide to leave Atlantic Records?
I think in all situations, especially with a record company, they are kind of like relationships, and they run their courses and sometimes it is time to break up and go onto the next one. I think in my case, the time I spent with them was a lot of fun and I enjoyed my rocket ride with them. They are not the type of company that understands what my intentions are. They were interested in having me become a wildly famous pop star type thing and I think that the people that listen to what I do are not interested in seeing me that way. I have had some trepidation towards the plasticene sort of stuff that goes along with it. I was not that willing to play ball. I am happy with the way things are now and having such a great time playing the music. I have been happy having all the people coming out to see the shows on the road and people are interested in the music rather than the hype.
On the new DVD that you have out called Mile Marker, it says that some of that is taken from the Acoustic Highway and I don’t know if I have ever seen that show.
We have only shot the pilot and we are pitching it to HBO right now and working on how to take it to the next level. we are taking it to all different cities and sharing with the songwriters in their natural elements and showing off and goofing off and cutting up a little bit.
I can’t say enough good about the DVD. When does the new album come out?
It comes out in February.
Where did you come up with the idea to do The Austin Sessions?
I couldn’t do an acoustic album for Atlantic. They always wanted a big pop record. I am real happy about being able to put some of these songs on the record. A lot of the people that listen to what we do, I hate to call them fans, more like friends of the music, they wanted to hear versions of those songs. And it was something I wanted to do as a thank you to all the people that have been supporting us over the years.
I keep thinking that song “No Choice” I spoke of earlier would be a good radio song. That one gets my vote.
It will probably be the second one on the radio, the first pick is being re-recorded and is a song called “I Want It All.”
I also read about you doing something on the radio called Inside Music with Edwin McCain - what is that about?
That is a syndicated radio spot that we have been selling to radio stations to help me keep my name out there and earn a little extra scratch. (Laughs)
(Laughs). Alright. If I asked you to tell me some of your feelings about the state of South Carolina.
I don’t think that my recollection of South Carolina is any different from other people’s. I had my summers at the beach in South Carolina, and am a fortunate son of South Carolina. I am proud to be from South Carolina. I think that we typically get a bad rap because on TV there is always someone on there from S.C. that has covered everything that they own with bottle caps, and I think if you look at it now, Greenville is one of the third largest growing cities in the region and is a testament to the area we live in for sure.
It seems like you do a lot of benefit shows, is that true?
I am constantly involved in benefit shows almost to the point where it is getting a little difficult. Once it is widely known that you do benefits people just come out of the woodwork.
Have there been any charities that are close to your heart that you are involved in?
I have done lots with the American Cancer Society; Pediatric Aids; The Ameristreet Foundation, that is low income housing that we started in Charleston. I have also done work with Junior Golf; Project Host and Soup Kitchen of Greenville; and I just did a thing for the Spartanburg County Regional Health Center for congestive heart failure, and just recently did something for Muscular Dystrophy Association. I am sure if you gave me another hour I could come up with more. I do an annual show for the Burn Center in Augusta, Georgia. I play and then hang out at the center and play for the kids. I do lots of private stuff and get lots of phone calls.
Helping others, man. That is one of the most important things that we can do.
It is one of the biggest benefits of the job, that is for sure.
What is coming up for you in the near future?
I am going to come home and have a happy Thanksgiving, get some sleep. I am back on the road in December and starting back hard from February into the summer. I will be out on the road and work hard and try to accomplish the goal of entrenching ourselves into the music scene for the next 10 years so we can do what we love to do.