The musician as American as ‘American Pie’
PBS documentary will follow career of famed singer/songwriter Don McLean
New York native Don McLean has been playing his unique blend of folk, pop and rock for more than 40 years, and has written 300-plus songs — including classics “Vincent” and “American Pie.” The documentary “Don McLean: American Troubadour,” which chronicles his life, will air in Madison this weekend.
With the “Downton Abbey” season finale more than a week past, viewers of the Public Broadcasting Service will be searching for high-brow entertainment to fill the void left by the Crawley family and all its scandals. Singer songwriter Don McLean — most known for writing the complex and timeless “American Pie” in the 1960s — couldn’t be further from the hit show, topically. But the documentary set to air on PBS this month, “Don McLean: American Troubadour” is sure to draw in fans who tuned into McLean’s music in its heyday, as well as a younger audience seeking to learn more about a time as tumultuous as, if not more than, 20th century Yorkshire, England.
McLean said in an interview with The Badger Herald <http://badgerherald.com/wiki/The_Badger_Herald> he feels the word troubadour references how he, like a traveling minstrel, managed to blend traditional, romantic folk sounds with modern pop and rock music. When the documentary premieres on Wisconsin Public Television Saturday night at 9 p.m., University of Wisconsin students might be tripping over more than the title’s meaning, though. McLean’s breadth of work, which began more than four decades ago and contains more than 300 songs, has the magnitude to alienate a generation unfamiliar with his early cowpoke-influenced melodies, but then draws them back with to the thickest moments of rock and roll.
What potential viewers should keep in mind is McLean is an American icon. And though to this day he still sings about “the day the music died,” it remains true that to be iconic in music is — nearly always — to be timeless.
“It’s not like doing the same thing over and over when you’re an artist. You interpret the song,” McLean said. “So each night, each audience, each place that you go you might sing a song you are very famous for, but the song has to be worthy to begin with … there’s a dynamic to it that does not exist with a bad piece of music.
“[American Pie] seems to be a song that no one has discarded yet, so it must mean something to people for a lot of different reasons.”
The repertoire of Jim Brown, the documentary’s director and producer, includes TV documentaries on Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, and he has won four Emmys for his work. “Troubadour” reminisces on McLean’s upbringing: how his interest in music far outweighed anything he was doing in school, and why he took up the guitar as a way to pursue a career in what he loved.
When asked why the guitar has become the quintessential instrument in American music, McLean said the electric guitar’s ability to sustain notes has allowed it to serve the same purpose that a horn section once was for an orchestra. In regard to the acoustic guitar — his preferred accompaniment — he proffered yet another observation.
“You can either be extremely competent, like a classical guitarist, or you can be a very poor [acoustic] guitar player like Woody Guthrie was and still play guitar and sing songs,” he said. “You can’t do that with a piano … it’s absolutely unforgiving.”
McLean said this has allowed for his songs like “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” which is simply his voice and a few chords on acoustic guitar, to record well. “Troubadour” shows a few examples of this, by including footage of 17 live performances mixed in with detailed biographical storytelling and interviews with McLean at his 300-acre home in Maine.
The documentary’s broadcast this weekend comes sandwiched between two notable events in McLean’s life — being recognized by the BBC’s Folk Lifetime Achievement award in February and an international tour that begins in October. This upswing in publicity is uncommon for McLean, since he has gained notoriety over the years for being a “recluse.”
“Maybe it’s the Scot in me, but I’d rather think and do things without people yapping at me,” he said good-humoredly, and added that the lifestyle of a monk would have appealed to him if not for his wife and two children. “But the wonderful thing about being a singer and a songwriter, and a musician and a performer, and all the things I have been the last 40 years, is that I make my own schedule up. … Sometimes you need time to recover from things, or to make plans for the next thing you want to do, so in that sense solitude is extremely important.”
McLean’s music has made him a staple in American pop culture, and has even attracted the attention of rappers Tupac and Drake — the latter of whom released a track on the charts now called “Do it Wrong,” which made use of two McLean song samples that he said were “esoteric” until dug up by Drake. The artist pairing may seem unlikely, but McLean said it is these new perspectives of himself and his music that he hopes viewers will take away from “Troubadour.”
“Enjoy some of my music through the years; get a chance to see what I’m really like, how I live, where this stuff comes from,” he said. “[Get to know] what kind of mind I have.”
Don McLean: American Troubadour will premiere on Wisconsin Public Television on Saturday, March 3 at 9 p.m.