“A long, long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while.”
~ American Pie, Don McLean
For going on 50 years, American music legend Don McLean has done just that, bringing people to their feet and putting smiles on their face. This Saturday, July 29, McLean will bring his repertoire of classics to Fayetteville’s Southern Ground Amphitheater.
By any measure, “American Pie” is an iconic piece of the country’s songbook, and with its timeless appeal, McLean has carved out an enduring career as a respected singer-songwriter rambling the world with his music. The song reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1972, and the accolades haven’t stopped rolling to this day. In 2001, it was voted number 5 in the Recording Industry Association of America’s 365 Songs of the Century. McLean’s original working manuscript for the song sold for $1.2 million in 2015, the third highest auction price ever for an American literary manuscript. Earlier this year, the song received the “aural treasure” designation by the Library of Congress.
“It could’ve been a piece of junk that nobody cared about, or it could have meant something. It could have gone the way of a lot of songs that come and go,” he says. “It grew. It kept growing, and it kept staying, and I kept staying. It’s one of the hardest things that anybody can do.”
Though any artist would be proud to call “American Pie” theirs, McLean’s catalog is far deeper. The “American Pie” album also berthed the beloved “Vincent,” about the famed painter Van Gogh. He scored other hits, including “Castles in the Air,” “And I Love You So.”
What he truly excels at is telling stories with his music, be it the tale of a tortured artist, a forgotten soul, or a growing restlessness with city life.
“What really matters is character development,” he says, citing classic movies like John Wayne’s “The Searchers” that draw you in with its people. “What matters are their characters and their relationships with one another and the story. You can’t just have the thunder and the lightning, you’ve got to have the rain and the reason all of this is happening.
“In order to make people feel things you have to have a story of some sort.”
His catalog has touched many across a variety of genres. One of his live performances was the inspiration for the classic song “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” His cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” was an international number one, catching the eye of Orbison, who re-recorded it himself incorporating elements of McLean’s version and calling McLean’s voice one of the great instruments of the 20th century. Brian Wilson, the creative engine behind the Beach Boys, said of him, “McLean’s voice could cut through steel – he is a very pure singer, and he’s up there with the best of them.” Tupac Shakur considered “Vincent” an inspiration, and Drake incorporated some of his lyrics on a recent album.
“I’m not looking for honors, but it’s a nice thing to know it’s possible.”
McLean is thankful for the blessings a life of music has bestowed on him. Music is what always spoke to his soul.
“I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted a life of excitement and romance,” he says. “I was so excited about where music would lead me, and it led me around the world over and over.”
It clicked one night how much his fortune had changed. His father earned $15,000 a year, and that was a respectable wage, but with a recording contract came more.
“My manager said I’ve got a job for you that pays $1,000 to sing for an hour. I couldn’t believe it,” he remembers. “I didn’t set out to be famous. My expectations were very low. If I could have worked in coffee houses or little parties and made enough money working hard every night to pay for a little house somewhere on a lake, I think I would’ve been perfectly happy.”
As modern music moves farther away from the craft of a singer-songwriter, it gravitates towards what he calls “music-ish.”
“The one thing I don’t hear is I don’t hear songs, or what I call songs,” he says, humming the tune to “Girl from Ipanema.” “Today, they’re song-like, but they’re not really songs. They’re some form of instant song like SPAM.”
The drive is there to keep creating his music. His got another album, “Botanical Gardens,” that he’s been sitting on and he hopes to release soon. A divorce stopped its progress, but he’s moving forward now.
“I try to see the good things,” he says. “I’m leading a brand new life now, and I love it.”
He’s back out on the road that he’s always loved.
“I’m a rambler. I’ve rambled all my life since I was in my teens.”
The road keeps his blood pumping.
“I could sit around and become and old pain in the ass, fixing the roof and getting something done with the deck. I do all that, but I need to move around,” he says, but a Vegas residency wouldn’t cut it for him. “I can’t do more than two nights in one place or I’ll go crazy. I love to get around. It gets in your blood.”
He always stayed true to himself, playing the music that spoke to him, not to record executives.
“If you want to be artist, you’ve got to be able to look in the mirror and say I did the right thing,” he says, recounting turning down legendary producer Clive Davis’s offer to record a purely pop album. “If you’ve got money and you’ve done the wrong thing, it isn’t worth a thing.”
Saturday’s concert is the fourth of five in the 2017 Summer Concert Series at Zac Brown’s Southern Ground Amphitheater, which is owned by the Fayetteville Downtown Development Authority and managed by the Main Street Tourism Association. The fifth concert in the series will feature John Kay & Steppenwolf on Saturday, Aug. 12. The Eagles tribute band Hotel California is scheduled to perform at the amphitheater on Saturday, Sept. 2, and is produced by The Bear FM.
Learn more about these and other events by visiting southerngroundamp.com.