Feature of the Year: Don McLean, Sask Artists Talk American Pie Album
Updated: May 18
by Scott Roos
*photo courtesy of Don McLean
It's indeed hard to believe that it's going on 50 years since legendary New York folkster Don McLean gently eased his sophomore full length, aptly titled American Pie after the song of the same name, into the turgid waters of the music industry of the 1970's. It's hyperbole to say that a lot has changed in five decades. Technology is much much faster to be sure and the world is much smaller as a result but, in terms of socio-political context, American Pie in its entirety, is as fresh as the day it was released. In fact, the best adage to use to describe the relevancy of the record is to say, "the more things change, the more they stay the same".
"It was meant to be a total listening experience right through from 'American Pie' to 'Babylon' and it is and was to millions of people. However, they carve out the single and talk about it incessantly but really the album is the full trip," said McLean in a recent conversation with NSMZ.
The single, the proverbial elephant in the room of course, is the title track to the album. It would be hard pressed to call the track an "albatross" as McLean went on to record many successful hits throughout his storied career. That being said, the tremendous momentum that the song has had since its release is something not lost on McLean.
"I'm gonna say this that I am completely embracing (the) 'American Pie' (song) on this 50th anniversary for various reasons: it's historical significance, longevity, it's important to people which is why it's the 5th greatest song of the 20th century. It's a trademark aspect because we want to take the brand "American Pie" and stamp it all over the place and make it bigger than the song but coming from the song. It's really a very positive thing," explained McLean.
As part of the 50th, McLean has teamed up with all-vocal Country entertainers Home Free for a very special a cappella rerecording of the song. Released on January 29 this collaboration also features an official music video which came out February 3rd, aka “the day the music died” -- the day Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. Richardson died tragically in an Iowa plane crash -- 62 years ago which serves as the subject material for the song. It's a fresh take. A unique take. It's a timely release. And, with this latest version, it serves to continue to assert itself as one of the most memorable songs in the pantheon of popular music.
"In terms of the albatrossness of it," McLean continues, "it is the biggest tree in the (Don McLean) forest for sure and perhaps it blocks out some sunlight for some of the others. But it's still mine. It's one thing if you're (acting) in a great movie and you don't own the script and you don't own the movie and you're just in the film but I own everything... I am synonymous with the song. Everybody knows 'Castles In the Air' and 'I Love You So' and 'Vincent' and millions of people know all the songs on the American Pie album and other albums in the 1970's so it's in some sense weighted very heavily but in another sense it brings millions of people to my music so it's a two edged sword in that sense."
Of course, with COVID19 not only has it given pause to McLean and allowed him time to reflect but it's also gotten him back into writing. He's got an album's worth of brand new material waiting to be heard. At the time of our conversation, McLean was planning on recording these new tracks back in February.
"All of the sudden I've turned around about two months ago and I've a whole album of new songs written. It's going to come out this year. I had some stuff that I was working on with my guitar player and I finished those and then I added about seven more songs to those and so we got like a dozen things and there's some really nice stuff in there. So yes who knows what's gonna happen," muses McLean.
There's also been numerous other projects that McLean has been able to undertake due to the time away from touring and performing - a covers album, a Broadway show, a documentary movie, increased interaction with fans on his Youtube channel, and a children's book to name a but a few.
"I had the most productive year since I've been home that I've had in decades. I've been just having a good time getting a lot of loose ends tied up," says McLean.
All this aside, here at NSMZ we thought it would be fun to chat with McLean about ALL the tracks on the American Pie album and also hear from a swath of artists from around Saskatchewan, many of which had never heard much of Mclean's music before. It makes for a bit of a "blow by blow" commentary on a record that features a plethora of great songs that are often overlooked because of the immense popularity of the title track.
Track one - "American Pie"
(editor's note: we talked a lot about this track above so have only included comments from the Saskatchewan artist here)
"As kids, my brother and I used to sing the song; 'American Pie' in its entirety whenever we had a laborious farm-kid task – hilling potatoes, picking green beans, looking for the gas cap for the swather in the field… it passed a lot of time."
- Belle Plaine (singer-songwriter)
Track two - "Till Tomorrow"
"There's actually a documentary called Till Tomorrow which is about me. It was made for Swedish television and you can see me in 1969 very young and singing, sweating and doing a lot of songs actually in front of Columbia University. There was a bomb scare at that show. It's on Youtube. You can see it. Guy comes up and stops me right in the middle of a song 'We've got a bomb in the room. Anybody see anything under their seat that doesn't look right?' Everybody looked around, didn't see anything that didn't look right so we went on with the show."
"Don Maclean’s 'Till Tomorrow' brings thoughts of rain, thunder, the sun peeking over the clouds and a feeling of a relentless inability to give up on love. It does not take long to realize that Don (or whoever the character is in the story) is in love. Such a love that comes with chains. I had somebody tell me once that being in a relationship is the hardest thing you will ever do in your life, but the most rewarding and I get that feeling from this song. You fight, you make up, you hope it does not happen again even though you know it probably will, but the sun always feels better after a storm. What isn’t clear to me is whether or not Don is writing from a place of hard earned experience or from a place of idealistic naivety."
- Forrest Eaglespeaker (The North Sound)
Track 3 - "Vincent"
"I had everything that I was doing on my guitar (for the album). We had a big argument about guitar playing. (Producer Ed Freeman) said 'I don't want you to play.' I said 'what are you crazy? I'm playing.' So Vincent is just me playing the guitar. That's all it is is just me and the guitar playing that song with some very sparse additions in the bridge and at the end which is strange. But I had to play. Throughout that whole album I am playing the guitar. Everything."
- Don McLean
"As a visual artist as well as a musician myself, McLean’s 'Vincent' shows such a respectful tenderness for the artist, for the soul of a painter. So much of Van Gogh’s story is overshadowed by his perceived madness, the ear cutting and his abysmal commercial success during his lifetime. Mclean’s voice reminds us to focus on the beauty of Vincent’s life work and his importance as a visionary."
Track 4 - "Crossroads"
"(The Piano) was performed by a guy named Warren Bernhardt who's a phenomenal piano player. My producer Ed Freeman was very good at finding musicians - especially piano players. I would say that on the American Pie album there were probably six different piano players at least. Maybe seven or eight. So he just loved to use piano players. I was always meeting new ones that had a different feel."
- Don McLean
"'Crossroads' reminds me that where I stand today is but a marker of where I have been. The choices I have made, and the choices that were made by the universe on my behalf before I was born, bring me to this moment. For each of us, there will be times that we find our feet at a crossroads. And it is often at these times songs such as this one help us process the emotions that come from change and transition. From the first notes of the piano to the simple but clear melody lines and lyrics, this is a song that speaks to the heart."
- Dara Schindelka (singer-songwriter)
Track 5 - "Winterwood"
"We rehearsed that song. We rehearsed a lot in a place called 'Dick Cutler's Studio' and it was this spunky studio because of where it was. But those tapes were good. I think the rehearsal tape at Dick Cutler's studio on 'Winterwood' was better the record. It was looser. I liked it a lot. A lot of times you'll have that. What you wanna do as a performer and as a recording artist is try to keep the looseness and the swinging aspect and the 'I don't give a rat's ass about it' feeling because when you get in the studio, you get tense and you get worried and you start thinking that this is costing a lot of money and all this other stuff and then you're not gonna sing great. You have to have this 'devil may care' attitude."
- Don McLean
"Don Mclean's 'Winterwood' captures my own bittersweet experience in COVID19. The way we've all come to a new appreciation of the things we loved in their absence. Experiencing the now very real, living statement: "absence makes the heart grow fonder". We could all insert a variety of own losses into 'Winterwood'. We've filled these empty cracks in our lives in a variety of ways. I have found solace in the same way as many people living on the edge of wilderness and urban life; outside amongst the trees and bird songs. I imagine Don walking on paths beneath green canopies similar to those we all love and cherish around northern Saskatchewan, thinking of his dear love, and with each step experiencing greater gratitude for all she is to him. 'Winterwood' is a must listen to anyone heading out under trees in search of clarity in these wild and unprecedented times."
- Kayleigh Skomorowski (singer-songwriter)
"From the first acoustic guitar intro note and his soothing vocal, this song is pure, and captures beauty, life and nature. The seemingly effortless metaphoric lyrics, are crafted to inspire comforting visions of deep and good love that we as humans hope for in this life.”
- Heidi Munro (Munro & Patrick)
Track 6 - "Empty Chairs"
The funny thing about that song is it's similar in structure to VINCENT. The funny thing is Van Gogh did a painting of an empty chair and I didn't realize it until someone told me that. It must have been in my subconscious because I was always looking at art and reading (in those days)." -Don McLean
"One can’t help but be captivated by the simplicity and beauty of a song like this. The moment I began listening, it was almost as if a warm blanket of emotion was wrapped me. Don McLean has a way of inviting you in to a moment and for me this song took me to a deeper “innerstanding” of grief and loss."
-Amanda Hagel (singer-songwriter)
Track 7 - "Everybody Loves Me"
"I was having fun with a lot of stuff on the record and that was sort of a Dylan-esque attempt to make fun of either Nixon of LBJ or both of them together. The kind of people they were. Probably Nixon. He had this incredible power and vindictiveness..." -Don McLean
"Sarcasm is my 2nd language and I am a fan of political/social commentary through art, so I really dig this song….. He sums up America’s foreign policy, Military-Industrial complex and religious justification perfectly and ironically with the tongue in cheek lyrics set to a light, happy go-lucky groove." -JJ Voss (singer-songwriter)
Track 8 - "Sister Fatima"
"I was going into the subway and I don't like the subway. I never did. But for some reason I was taking the subway with somebody and there was this flyer that was on the wet ground. It had rained and it was sort of glued to the ground and I picked it up and it said 'sister fatima will cure this and that' and oh god I loved it so I put it in my pocket and wrote the song from that."
- Don McLean
"This song tells a story that reminds me of a place I have only heard of; the home of the miracle of the sun. Even though McLean had not been to Fatima when he wrote the song, he captured the enchantment of a place of great healing and power for millions. The story peacefully rocks back and forth, my attention captivated with words most of us can relate to 'My searching and wandering went on without end, My future was dim, my spirit was crushed'. But how could he sing those distressing words so effortlessly and sweetly? I needed to learn the end to this story, and in one breath. McLean gave my questioning heart hope, 'In one sacred moment my questions were hushed.'"
- Janice Trudel (The Trudel Family)
Track 9 - "The Grave"
"The grave was a dream that I had. I wake up a lot of mornings with a song happening in my head. This is a reason why I like cell phones. It's right there. I can sing the part right into the phone when I wake up. (I have woken up with a song in my head) so many times I can't tell you. So that's what happened with 'The Grave'. I realized that all those bunkers and ditches that they dig really are digging their own graves. They get killed in there and then they get buried in them. I hate war. I am as anti war now as I was when I was a teenager. The most barbaric expression of human behaviour anybody can even imagine." -Don McLean
(Editor's note: Don Also spoke earlier in our conversation about the modern advantage of writing with a cell phone in hand or nearby. In light of the quote above, I thought it fit well here.)
"You have to be a songwriter first in order to make make it easier. Melodies come very easy to me. I can write melodies to anything I would want and they're good melodies and you can see that by what I've done in my life. And I also like poetry and I like lyric writing and so I happen to have a gift in those two areas. The thing that makes a song great is that sometimes you have a momentary musical idea in your head and in the old days you'd have to run to get the tape recorder. Rummage around and then you'd have to find batteries and you're cursing yourself because you forget yourself you know. And then you get it down and it's not quite what you immediately remembered. With a phone right away I put it on the phone and then I can go over to another spot and start to a lyric idea down. So in my case, since I already know how to write songs, it's really helpful." -Don McLean
"McLean paints a vivid picture with beautiful imagery as he details of the horrors of war.
The strength of the lyricism in this tale is closely paralleled by the powerful instrumentation in the music. There is a great dynamic to this piece from the acapella opening, which emphasizes the seriousness of the track, to the buildup and crescendo at the burial of the soldier. Following is a guitar melody that is heartbreaking to say the least. In the song’s conclusion Mclean repeats the opening verse which emphasizes the incredible sadness of this tale. 'The Grave' gives voice to so many fallen brothers and sisters. It is a timeless song about those who have met an untimely end."
- Wade Fehr (singer-songwriter)
Track 10 - "Babylon"
"'Babylon' has been used as the Green Party theme in Germany and it's also been in a number of television shows. It's a song brought to me by Lee Hayes. So I changed some things and copywrote the arrangement in his name and my name. Hayes was brilliant. He was a member of the Weavers and they would have done that song beautifully. I can't even imagine how beautiful it would have been." -Don McLean
"Having never listened to Don McLean before, I had no idea what to expect when I pushed play on 'Babylon'. Hauntingly beautiful, it begins with banjo instrumentation and one lead vocal. It then captivatingly transitions into a layered vocal choir which draws you into an experience which is hard to describe. It is as though you are being bathed in love and light, with a bit of unease and unrest all at the same time. This song has the perfect balance between inner reflection and an uplifting collective experience for the listener."
Eliza Mary Doyle (singer-songwriter, music educator, activist)
Now that you have a fresh perspective on the American Pie full length, be sure to give it another listen. Also check out all the Saskatchewan artists on their social media and websites!