“I just got extremely lucky. That’s all. Like when you get in the ring with a bad ass fighter
and you get a lucky punch and that’s what happened. . . . I’m not a commercial songwriter.”
—Don McLean to The Country Note
Yet he has one of the most popular songs in all genres of all time. So popular in fact that it 2017, “American Pie” was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry, which all together, includes less than 500 classical music compositions, live broadcast, and similar recordings. And on an overcast January day at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Nashville, we found out the inspiration behind the iconic song. While most people see it as a tribute to Buddy Holly and the “day the music died” when a plane crash killed Holly and two band members, McLean doesn’t like to go into specifics and references.
Instead, he had this to say: “it’s an allegory. . .a poem. . . a dream. It’s the idea that politics and music are parallel moving forward-that is my concept. And if you look now you’ve got Lady Gaga and Donald Trump. Whatever people like in show business terms, they seem to like in political terms.”
McLean’s entire writing style in fact is unique, especially by today’s standards. As a self proclaimed inventor that usually writes alone, McLean told us that none of his songs relate because his concept is different for each one. “It’s slow going. I don’t really run off a lot of Don McLean type songs because there is none. It’s also been extremely confusing for the public. They could never figure out what I was doing. Because the commercial rule is to have everything pretty much in the same zone. Now it’s gotten ridiculous. I can’t tell one song from the next—I hate to say it, but it’s true.” However, don’t take his honestly for negativity against all music. For he believes that there’s more good songwriting going in Nashville more than anywhere else and that gives him hope.
McLean has quite the fondness for Nashville and has had an extensive history with Music City over the years. His start in the New York clubs of the 60s eventually led him to Nashville in the late 70s to record two albums with Larry Butler. He had a hit with Roy Orbison’s “Crying” and re-recorded “Castles in the Air” which became a top 10 record. And for the last twenty years or so, his band has been based out of Nashville.
“In Nash, they know about harmony. You can still find a four part male harmony group that knows how to sing. And of course, really good acoustic guitar players. Nashville’s got everything.”
Working with the Nashville musicians over the years has garnered him close relationships with many in the business, including a friendship with Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Curator, Alan Stoker. Stoker’s father, Gordon was a member of The Jordanaires, a famous vocal quartet that provided backing vocals for Elvis, as well as other artists from the 50s to the 70s.
And it was the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that brought McLean to Nashville in the beginning of this year. A new exhibit has opened called Sing Me Back Home: A Journey Throughout Country Music which features memorabilia donated by McLean. Among the displays: a 1997 Don McLean Martin signature acoustic guitar that McLean used for the better part of 20 years on tour. It is one of only 71 constructed and according to McLean, has never even been out of the house till now. The other artifact is the never before seen manuscript of “Vincent” (Starry, Starry Night) which McLean wrote as a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh. The song was composed on about 15 pieces of colored legal paper, a practice still used by McLean today. He admitted that since the 60s, he has kept most of the scrap papers of his songs in a box, and now, for the next 6 months, you can see them for yourself if you’re visiting Nashville. And check out his new album coming out on BMG Records, entitled Botanical Gardens.
For someone not to be a “commercial” songwriter, Don McLean has proven that his “conception” based formula has been enough to earn him mega hits and even a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame where he was inducted by his friend Garth Brooks in 2004. Thirteen years later, just this past December, Garth paid tribute to McLean with his version of “American Pie” at one of his last World Tour shows at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. And seeing as The Country Note attended that show, we just had to show Mr. Mclean the clip, which you can watch here.
For the full interview with Don McLean, click here.
Be sure and take advantage of the Don McLean display at the Hall of Fame daily from 9 am-5pm. To purchase tickets and learn more about the exhibits, publications, and educational programs, you can visit www.countrymusichalloffame.org or call (615) 416-2001.