by Tom Redmond
An interview with Don McLean
A native of New Rochelle, NY, Don McLean is one of America’s most enduring singer-songwriters and is forever associated with his classic hits ‘American Pie’ and ‘Vincent (Starry Starry Night)’. Since first hitting the charts in 1971, Don has amassed over 40 gold and platinum records world-wide and, in 2004, was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. His songs have been recorded by artists from every musical genre, most notably Madonna’s No. 1 recording of ‘American Pie’ in 2000. Don McLean is immortalized as the subject of the Roberta Flack hit, ' Killing Me Softly With His Song'. This interview was conducted following Don McLean’s sold out performance at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach, VA.
TR: Do you know how Chet first came to know of you? Had he heard some of your music?
DM: I think he first had heard "And I Love You So" in the '70's, and he got that song to Perry Como. So he already liked my songwriting, and he got songs of mine to Eddy Arnold. Eddy Arnold later became a friend of mine.
"And I Love You So" had been kicking around since it broke into the charts off my first album "Tapestry" in 1970, and of course, it was a big surprise to me to be on the charts right from the start. I never dreamed I'd be on the charts.
What I found a lot was that the recording studio liked the way I sounded, and the songs worked, and so I immediately had some success, which was terrific.
"And I Love You So" got recorded by many, many people, and then it became a big hit in '75. It sold a million copies for Perry Como.
TR: Do you remember the first time you actually met Chet?
DM: It might have been when we did that performance of “Vincent” together on "The Ralph Emery Show" in the mid -80's.
At that time I had already done hit records with The Jordanaires, and of course I knew of Chet’s relationship with them. They worked on my songs "Crying", "Since I Don't Have You", and the re-release of "Castles in the Air" - all of which were chart records.
"Crying" was number one in many places around the world. And so I had already worked with them in the 70s. It was now 10 years later. I'd never personally met Chet, but of course he was always a very important figure and always spoken of reverentially by everybody.
Chet was thought of with tremendous respect. There were other well known producers that people were afraid of (I won't name who they are), but not Chet – he was loved and respected.
There also was a time we met at a place where everybody had lunch, and a fellow I knew named Dave Burgess introduced me to Chet Atkins. I believe that actually did come before the Ralph Emery show.
I remember him talking about his golf game, and he was joking about his name being similar to a television actor. He said, "Yeah, Claude Akins always gets my golf balls."
Then a bit later, Tony Migliore sent me a message he got from Chet saying nice things about a Christmas record that I'd done in 1990 and Chet just loved it. He said some wonderful things about me and it was great for me. You know, sometimes the critics like you, sometimes the critics hate you. I've never been “in the pocket” where they always liked me.
There were always things the critics said because I do different kinds of stuff. They never know where I'm coming from, and they did not like it.
But Chet understood me, and coming from him, validation was extremely reassuring. It really meant a lot.
Eventually I started to see him socially on occasion. When I came to Nashville, he would ask if I'd come over and visit, so I remember a couple of times we went over to his office, and then we sat and he was eating some lunch, and another time we went out to lunch.
I used to have a lot of fun talking with him about the Delmore Brothers, or Gene Autry. By the way, I think Gene Autry was a magnificent singer with a beautiful vibrato, and Chet would say, "Well yeah -- he always hit the notes”. That was often a big problem for a lot of singers, but not Gene Autry.
So we had some good conversations about people that most people don't often talk about. They don't know about the Delmore Brothers and they don't think of Gene Autry as a singer, you know? But Chet certainly did.
TR: You once said that you thought that Chet Atkins was an innovator and an "American tinkerer". What did you mean by a "tinkerer?"
DM: When I first came to Nashville, I was amazed at these guys I saw. They had this strange kind of genius where they would just tinker around with things. They’d have a guitar that they would just mess around with, and try different pickups and new kinds of sounds and if something appealed to them, they would try to control it and make a new kind of music with it. Les Paul was the same way and so was Chuck Berry. That tinkering is the way you move forward. If you just sit there and do what everybody's been doing, then you just stay where you are.
Bob Moore, the legendary bass player told me that once on a Marty Robbins session, they had an amplifier go bad. It was making a strange buzzing sound, and they liked it, so they went and figured out why it made that sound and they ended up developing the idea for the fuzz tone guitar. At least that is what I was told.
So that's how these innovators moved music forward -- in all sorts of big and little ways. In the studio where Chet was I'm sure hundreds of things were done to get certain sounds and make the records better. And it comes from this idea of just playing around with things. And of course Chet had a workshop at home where he had guitars all taken apart, and he had all kinds of different guitars, so this is what I mean by a tinkerer.