Clip: Pat McLaughlin
Nashville veteran's 'Next' work may be his best
January 1, 2004
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
Singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin arrived in Nashville, Tenn., in 1978. He
had truthful melodies in his soul and lucky pennies in his shoes. In 1988,
McLaughlin was signed to Capitol Records and his self-titled debut earned
him critical comparisons to Van Morrison. A year later McLaughlin was
dropped by the label after an executive shuffle.
His confidence was as busted as a Harlan Howard song.
But McLaughlin never gave up. And now he is at the top of his game.
McLaughlin's "Next 5 Miles" (Cream Style Records) is the best album of his
career. And in the watershed event of his Nashville tenure, McLaughlin
played acoustic guitar on 50 tracks for Johnny Cash's final sessions, which
have yet to be released. McLaughlin appears with his Chicago band at 9:30
p.m. Friday at FitzGerald's in Berwyn. He opens with a solo set.
"I just wanted to act right with John," McLaughlin said earlier this week
from Nashville. "He wasn't real well. For me, it was as much about how to
just make his day easier. Of course, I wanted to play well, but you had to
know when to be where. He didn't like to work long so you had to be ready.
We must have done [Johnny Horton's] 'North to Alaska' five times on five
different days. We did a lot of covers you wouldn't expect. The last song
he did was for an album John Carter Cash is doing on the Carter Family.
That was two or three weeks prior to his death."
McLaughlin recorded with Cash in a span of two years at Cash's
Hendersonville home. McLaughlin lives about 90 miles away. "It was like
going to Kentucky to play a gig," he said. "It had an ethereal quality to
it. He ate a lot of celery with peanut butter. He was real sharing. I'd go
into his house and he always made sure everyone had plenty to eat."
McLaughlin joined Nashville guitarists Randy Scruggs, Marty Stuart and Mac
Wiseman on the sessions. The Cash-McLaughlin connection was made through
David Ferguson, Cash's Nashville engineer. Ferguson is a protege of former
Sun Records producer Jack Clement. Clement was one of Cash's best friends.
McLaughlin and Ferguson are friends.
More important, McLaughlin is also cut from the minimalist Clement cloth, a
perfect fitting for Cash's final work. (Cash's "When the Man Comes Around"
was recorded without a bass player.) Clement works off of primitive,
strumming rhythms and spacious arrangements. Producer Jim Rooney (John
Prine, Iris DeMent) also worked under Clement.
McLaughlin has learned how to adapt this evocative style in his own blues,
soul and country terrain. While growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, he was
listening to influences as diverse as Julie London and Lou Rawls. "That
loose [Clement School] strumming might be another way of saying the song,
the singer and performing are the most important thing," McLaughlin
explained. "It doesn't require a lot of flashy playing. If that was the
case with John, they didn't need me. I can't even play a solo."
The late Owen Bradley also befriended McLaughlin toward the end of his
life. In 1999, Bradley was producing Mandy Barnett's "I've Got a Right to
Cry" and he used two McLaughlin songs for the record. McLaughlin's
"Whispering Wind" was a hit single. "I got to hang with Owen," McLaughlin
said. "We ate at Cracker Barrel a couple of times. So it was two real
significant people who came into my life. That made me feel like a
The newfound panache can be heard in "Next 5 Miles." Expect McLaughlin and
his band to play the album's elegant McLaughlin-Prine composition "Just
Getting By" on Friday. "Prine wanted to use a lot of the shun sounds,"
McLaughlin said with a chuckle. "Execution, things like that. He said the
Rolling Stones had a lot of success with it. I had the melody. I was afraid
it was too much like [Debbie Reynolds' 1957 hit] 'Tammy,' but Prine said he
would never let that scare him away. He loves that song. And that is a
great song. 'Just Getting By' has a Beatle-esque sound the way my
[Nashville] musicians played on it.
"All the 'just getting by' and 'taking a walk' stuff is his. Its more
autobiographical for Prine than most things we've been involved in. Usually
he writes some situation about you. But I felt he was putting some of his
real experiences in the song, which is cool."
McLaughlin has been a member of Tiny Town, the offshoot band of the
Subdudes. He was an artist in residence with the Continental Drifters that
included Peter Holsapple (R.E.M., dbs), Vicki Peterson (Bangles) and Susan
Cowsill. On Friday he will be backed by seasoned players, including John
Rice (Jon Langford, Insiders, Sundowners) on guitar, Pat Brennan (Buzz
Kilman) on keyboards, Clem Hays (Michael McDermott) on bass and Angelo
Varias (Prine, Steve Goodman) on drums.
"The Chicago band is as good as any band I've played with," McLaughlin
said. "I can't describe how people play differently who have never been
around Nashville. Musicians who haven't gone to music centers like New
York, L.A. or Nashville are a little more rock 'n' roll. And these Chicago
guys are like guys I grew up with because they're Midwesterners. Their
humor is different. I'm around a lot of Southerners and Texans, stuff like
"The guy I know the most about is Angie because he played with Prine
(1978-82). He's got a cool style. You gotta run with what he's going to do.
He's not interested in getting a lot of instruction up there. And you can
tell Clem has been in every kind of band; he can play soul, rock, whatever.
I've thought about doing my next record with these guys, just getting out
of town and trying something new. Chicago has become a great situation for