McLean plans world tour, release of digital collection and still finds time to work on his house
When I was in high school, my first car was a ’63 Chevy, which was a perfect cruisin’ car. More often than not Don McLean’s American Pie was part of our music rotation. Not only did we enjoy the song, it spoke to us on a personal level. We would have long, philosophical discussions about its meaning, and we were convinced that McLean was revealing the deepest mysteries of the universe. I spoke with Don this week about the upcoming 50th anniversary of this classic song.
I promised Don I wouldn’t ask him about what the song actually means – but he told me, “The thing about that song is it’s multifaceted. It was probably one of the best creations I’ve ever made. Every song of mine is different, I don’t do anything more than once. And I had a lot of fun with it, because when I created the concept, I enjoyed making it fun. And I think that, the fact that kids and families have sung it going along in the car without thinking much about it, is probably one of the best things about the song.”
I asked Don what he has planned to mark the occasion. “We’re planning a world tour, which is mostly booked, but we’re wondering what that’s going to look like,” he said. Most concerts and tours have been cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic, but Don is still hopeful. “I don’t feel sorry for myself because I’ve had 50 years of doing everything you could imagine. People are losing their jobs by the millions. This is awful, and so I’m fine with whatever happens.”
Like many musicians, Don is keeping busy during his quarantine, and the big news today is that he is releasing, along with Time Life, 11 albums and 173 tracks onto every streaming platform. The quarantine hasn’t kept Don down at all. “I’ve put out a couple videos on how to play the guitar the way I do it. Each day, we’re all trying to assess when this is going to lighten up so we can go back to some kind of normal. But it’s pushing me, I suppose, and everybody needs to be a little bit more creative about what they’re doing.”
The idea for the digital release actually came from his son. “My son Wyatt, about eight or nine months ago said ‘Dad, why don’t you have more albums available?’ And at the same time we were looking for a record company to put out an album of other peoples’ songs that I have in the can and I wanted to get out. It’s called Still Playin’ Favorites. So we went to Warner and Time-Life and we made a deal, and so that’s how that got started.” In addition to streaming, there is a plan in the works with Time-Life to release a box set of the 11 albums, plus a new album on CD.
“I never thought I would reach the heights that I have reached,” he told me. “I have reached those heights because a lot of different things happened that I didn’t engineer. My entire biography is a bunch of magical things that happened and have been happening. I am somebody who is very instinctive. You take a look at Paul Simon or James Taylor or Mick Jagger, these people, they are very smart and very intelligent businesspeople and they create a product that is flawless. That’s what they do. I am a rambler,” he told me. “I have a million ideas in my head, and every now and then I nail down something.”
That magic often comes from a musical influence, and for Don, it was Elvis Presley. “Elvis happened at that moment when I was 11 years old. Something about his physical beauty with the guitar appealed to me. It made me think that If I could play that guitar, because I could sing, I could take this a lot further than just singing in school choirs.” When he recorded “Crying” in 1978 with the Jordanaires, Elvis’ band and back-up singers, “It brought everything full circle,” he said.
The music business today is very different from the time Don McLean was first getting his start, but he says it’s still not impossible for a young musician to break into the business and be a big success. “I think if you look at Ed Sheeran, he found a way to use the Internet and he’s quite interesting. And he did the biggest tour last year, and I was lucky enough to perform with him in a benefit we had. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.”
When he’s not making music, Don loves to fix up his home, decorate rooms and buy antiques. “I’m an antique myself,” he said. “But I also like beautiful furniture, beautiful things.” For those of us who work from our home offices most of the time, it’s important. “It’s your home. Your refuge, and you want it to be a place where, every time you look at it, you want to enjoy it.”
Look for the release of Still Playin’ Favorites in the Fall, and the 2021 World Tour to mark the 50th anniversary of American Pie to follow.
Dan Blacharski is editor-in-chief of TheVivant.com.