Don McLean crosses borders with his music. What makes him so substantial as an artist is his familiarity and comfort with a variety of styles. He started as a folk musician (sailing with Pete Seeger on the Hudson), but “American Pie”—which thrusted him permanently in the spotlight—is mainly a rock song. Coupled with this hit was “Vincent”—a romantic ballad that stunned audiences with its pure poetry.
During the fuss surrounding these songs, McLean released an eponymous album adorned with a black and white photograph on the cover. The winter scene depicted unfortunately reflected the album’s lack of commercial appeal. On this release McLean continued writing in a romantic vernacular with the lovely “If We Try”, “Birthday Song”, and “Oh My What a Shame.”
With “Bronco Bill’s Lament” he paid tribute to a show business cowboy: “I could have been most anything/I put my mind to be/but a cowboy’s life was the only life for me.” The song is a longing for a simpler time, when a handshake sealed an understanding and there were no lawyers “who could pull a fountain pen/and put you where they choose/with the language that they use/and enslave you till you work your youth away.” Coming on the heels of a poem about Hopalong Cassidy that McLean wrote in his liner notes on the American Pie album, the song translated well to the time of its release (during the height of Watergate and continuing revelations of Nixon’s paranoia).
How fitting to recall the chastity and moral purity of movie/television cowboys at this time. Don McLean was born in 1945, and as a child he was deeply influenced by these cinematic heroes. Coming of age with television, this young boy in New Rochelle dreamed of being atop his horse, guitar in hand, and silver spurs a-jinglin’. It’s a peaceful, powerful dream—fueled by a soundtrack provided by Crosby, Autry, Sons of the Pioneers, and so many more.
The cowboy is a loner and—most important to McLean—an individual, but in the dawning TV age it’s impossible to stay on your saddle, given the hyperintense pressure of the mass audience. (McLean hits this theme directly when he sings about the fate of George Reeves in 1987’s “Superman’s Ghost.”)
McLean’s follow-up guaranteed that he’d remain outside mainstream commercial boundaries. 1973’s Playin’ Favorites back cover shows him in a rocker with a banjo—take that rock audiences! It’s a terrific collection of songs from the traditional (“Bill Cheatham = Old Joe Clark” and the hauntingly gorgeous “Mountains O’Mourne”) to songs associated with some of McLean’s idols—Buddy Holly (“Everyday”), Hank Williams (“Lovesick Blues”), and Roy Rogers (“Happy Trails”).
With this release McLean shows the breadth of his musical capability. Now he’d played folk, rock, and country. He’d displayed great skill with romantic balladry, and even a penchant for old novelty numbers like Ivor Novello’s “On the Amazon.” (This New Rochelle native was no stranger to the cabaret music emanating from the Big Apple.)
By 1973 his major themes were established. I’d write more about Don McLean in future blog. Give him a try—or revisit him once more.