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83-AND-HOLDING: TOMMY MCLAIN, HIGH PRIEST OF THE LOWLANDS



MUSIC’S ODD COUPLE, Tommy McLain and CC Adcock – white-haired, white bearded singer/multi-instrumentalist with some great cowboy boots and a way with hat; decades-younger guitarist/producer with a rich dark head of hair under his grey hoodie and some tortoise-shell shades – are sitting in a decidedly Bohemian room at The Old Clubhouse in Lafayette.


That’s Louisiana, about two hours west of New Orleans, on the way to Texas. Cajun country. Music and food and drink and party country, cher. A quiet night ahead?


“Maybe somebody’s going to barbecue and we’ll pick up some pizza pie,” says Adcock as McLain exclaims joyfully. “Maybe somebody will roll a few jazz cigarettes … I don’t know what’s going on.”


McLain, who describes himself as “83 and holding, brother”, and tends to refer to Adcock as Charles, is in bouncing good humour, and not just because he’s again about to tour Australia – last time when the two were part of the so-called Louisiana supergroup, Lil Band O Gold; this time as a lean “swamp pop” duo – a tour a bit further west than he’s travelled for the bulk of a long career that had its first high point in 1966 with a trans-Atlantic hit, a more Memphis or New Orleans than Nashville, cover of Don Gibson’s Sweet Dreams.



At this rate McLain, whose voice can still sound equal parts morning church and late night bar, soulfully vulnerable and country roots lived in, may only have 20 or 25 years left in the business. Any prospect he might slow down sometime in the next decade or two?


“I probably got five,” McLain laughs. “No, no, I’m not going to [slow down], I’m just going to do it as it is. I’ve got nothing else to do. You see, I’ve done been through a marriage, all my kids are grown, my grandkids are getting grown, there’s no one to care for me no more. They don’t miss me when I’m gone …”


He grins and says “no, it ain’t like that. I’m free as a bird. I can come and go as I please, without worrying someone. For the first time in my life, since I was 10 years old, I can do what I want to do at my own choosing. It’s gets simple when you get older, if I am explaining that right.”


So for someone occasionally trying to corral him, like Adcock, who self mockingly describes himself as “a senior helper, just here to push the wheelchair” and produced the most recent McLain album, I Ran Down Every Dream (his first solo album in 40 years) does it make for a good or tricky situation in the studio working with a man who can say I’ll do what I want when I want?


(Tommy McLain and CC Adcock keep it swinging)


“He’ll do what I damn well tell him or he won’t eat supper tonight,” Adcock declares. “No, Tom is always ready to sing a song. As long as it’s music, he is up for it. I’ve made a living and I have been so grateful to play with so many of my heroes in life. I was a member of the lucky sperm club: born and raised in Louisiana at the right time where I could hang out with all of my heroes and all my favourite people on records. But Tommy is the most gracious out of all of them: he really does have a spirituality about him that makes him a great creator. He is never ornery or bitching, he just wants to go and make music.”



McLain jumps in. “You can’t do that in music brother. It’s building a house: you’ve gotta get the foundation. ‘I got this song Charles, I’ve got the foundation, what you think we ought to put on the roof?’ Then sometimes I’ll sit down and just write a whole damn song, melody and all. I don’t call that shot, but I get chills when I do it. You know you got it when you start getting chills and a little tear in your eye or a smile on your lip. You know you got something don’t you? You can’t just call that up, and when that hits, brother, you’re damn near heaven, I’m gonna tell you that.”


(I briefly interrupt the sermon to point out that McLain sees himself on a righteous, if not outright holy path that stretches beyond the writing. But now, back to our preacher today.)


“It’s a love affair. When you get into music you take your love affair and you give that to the theatrical audience that you got sitting out there: all the lawyers, doctors and the Indian chiefs, those who don’t have nothing, they’re all sitting out there listening to you tell your story. But when you finish your story you put it right in their brain. It leaves me a ghost in that audience,” McLain says. “I couldn’t live this again, all these songs that I’m writing; I lived this before. I’m talking about women, drinking, drugs, everything, everything at once. Charles said, hey, you give a mouse a cookie, he damn sure gonna come back for a glass of milk.”


Adcock, long familiar with the rhythms, has been relaxed through the sermon, without even one “hallelujah brother”. But now says “When it comes to music, Tommy is always ready for work but I wouldn’t have him do my taxes. I wouldn’t ask him to clean up the house.”


Though he might have him say a prayer. McLain is a Catholic who recites the rosary every day and ends every show declaring “I work for the Virgin Mary”, impressive considering his father was a Baptist minister. “I didn’t prefer that kind of religion; I wanted Catholicism.”



As Adcock sagely points out (and this lapsed Catholic can confirm) “Catholicism lets you party a little bit more, lets you rock ‘n’ roll, lets you have a glass of wine in church, forgive your sins, start with a clean slate and so on.


“So Tommy goes out in the bar rooms and converts them.”


The conversions have been going on for many years, again on both sides of the Atlantic with confirmed fans such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello (who co-wrote and duets on the album’s title track) ready to sing McLain’s praises. But the most devoted convert is sitting right next to the man, bantering and laughing, the pair less like an old married couple and more like an old vaudeville team just waiting for an audience.


“I used to go hear Tommy when I was in high school, in the ‘80s,” Adcock says, to which McLain answers “we’ve been sleeping on the floor with each other in damn hotel rooms. We got no money, we got to sleep on the floor, and I got up on the wrong side of the floor this morning.” While I’m giggling, Adcock shakes his head and says to his companion “your comedy is horrible”.


McLean’s earlier mention of being able to do do what he wants when he wants reminds me of a comment he once made that when he was young “I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground, I wanted to fly”. What made him so restless, so busy?


“You’re taking me back to when I was five or six years old, Jesus. I dreamed I could fly and nobody could get me,” he says. “That’s what I dreamed.of when I was little. It was scary but nobody could get me.”


“They used to put him on boxes and make him dance,” says Adcock.


“Yeah, music, always music, and moving,” McLain says. “Moving to heaven, that’s what I’m doing, packing and unpacking every day.”


How’s his dancing these days? Still got some moves?


“Ah, no, can’t do that too much no more. I’ve got a sciatica nerve. I can move around, but I can’t dance in front of the band like I used to.”



It’s left to Adcock to recall some of those moves. “My favourite is when he casts out his fishing line and reels someone in.”


McLain approves: “Catch a fish with love, brother. And it looks good.”


Adcock smiles: “Man’s father never took him fishing.”


Those tours McLain did back in his youthful 20s, 40s and 50s were non-stop, a new town every night, a new tour every few weeks – did it feel like work or was he having too much fun to think about it?


“You got something good, you want to share it,” he says. “You got a nice cake in front of you, you gonna sit there and eat that sucker by yourself or are you gonna say, hey man you gotta taste this? See when I write a song, I gotta get the audience, to see what that audience gonna say about what I wrote, let me see how they gonna take that, let me see if I am gonna offend anybody, let me see if I make somebody happy, make somebody sad. Do all that at once, then I’m in my plan, that’s what I do.”


Cake metaphors aside, what lodges in people’s memories with Tommy McLain is the lingering effect of the sound of a man Costello calls “one of the great great unsung heroes of American vocalising", and Adcock thinks he has seen the secret ingredient.


“As a producer I can tell you, having worked with some great singers in my life, the best ones, Tommy encapsulates that skill. He has to put himself in the song and someone else writes him a song, like Elvis Costello wrote him a song, he’s gotta study the lyrics and learn, not how to sing it but where it comes from,” says Adcock. “He has to see the story, he has to see the movie – he is very cinematic – and that emotion comes out, and when he is doing a vocal he is living it, not just reading words off a page or working the note.”


Of course, that’s how Frank Sinatra worked, immersing himself in the lyrics first of all, to understand how he should sing.


“Thank you, sir,” says McLain. That’s nice of you to say that. Wow. I feel that whole emotional thing: if somebody in that audience is gonna cry, I’m gonna cry. It happens every time, a little tear comes to my eye.”



Tommy McLain, featuring CC Adcock play: The Great Club, Marrickville, May 17; Brunswick Ballroom, May 24; Memo Music Hall, St Kilda, May 26; Archie’s Creek Hotel, May 27; Blues On Broadbeach Festival, May 18-21


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