Asheville Spotlight: Introducing Brian McGee
The place is a dive. No doubt about it. Thick black slabs are peeling off the ceiling like a rotted banana. A drawing on the stage, tacked to a stack of something, spells the word “Poop” in giant blue crayon letters, using the two o’s as eyes for a smiley face. Four punk rockers and their five or seven friends are bogarting the pool table, and that’s pretty much the crowd.
I’m in the back by the sound guy, on a wobbly stool, with my iPhone and a bottle of Yuengling, a table to myself.
I’ve come here – two-plus hours to Columbia, SC – with Brian McGee, who’s just taken the stage and is talking sideways through the microphone in an attempt to engage the folks around the pool table, which is in the other room, to his left.
Later he’ll tell me it all feels familiar enough. The bar, the peeling ceiling, the punk rock band that went on after him, the drunk and joking Scotsman who wants to start a fight. Indeed, McGee’s been making music in some form or other for the past two decades.
It started with the decision to pick up guitar when he was a pre-teen. Like most songwriters my age, the grunge era did it to him. The music came calling through a skinny, guitar-wielding poet from Seattle. By the end of high school, McGee was playing in a punk rock band called Plow United, in his hometown of Philadelphia. Through handshake deals with a buddy’s label, their record was picked up for distribution in Europe and Japan. Some Japanese magazine, whose coverage included spotlighting bands like Social Distortion, brought them to New York for a photo shoot and a feature story. So many possibilities lay ahead. But, he tells me, “then everything went to shit.”
After six years together, the band split. These things happen.
In his mid-20s, he wandered into some acoustic guitar shop just outside of Philly and found himself in a room of banjos. He picked one up and fucked around with it. Next thing he knew, he was tucking a cardboard banjo case under his arm and heading to some guy’s shop to take lessons. The guy made him buy fingerpicks and taught him Scruggs style banjo picking, gave him a CD full of bluegrass essentials. There went punk rock.
Now, about a decade after leaping face first into acoustic music, his songs fit somewhere between Mellencamp and Old Crow Medicine Show. You can hear the Pogues in there (for a time they were the only banjo-picking band in his collection), sometimes something even darker. When I heckle him about putting his music on the soundtrack for True Blood, I’m only half-kidding. It would fit there quite nicely.
The punk rocker is still below the surface, though, accessible for nights like this, in this kind of company.
He opens with a tune called “Hell Is Open All Night,” which is enough to make the leather-and-spikes-bedecked kids at the pool table gather in a tiny clump in front of the stage. Someone snaps a couple of photos on their cell phone. The whole thing is over in 30 minutes. The guy who books the place isn’t even here, but his roommate is on the sound board. The set McGee just played was meant to be a sort of audition, to see if he was worthy of an actual gig on a night when an actual audience might show up.
He’s been in Asheville five years, and, like most songwriters in most towns, is trying to figure out how to make it all happen. A year or so of unemployment income has bought him enough time to finish a full-length album, hit the road for some tours, open for folks like Sam Bush and Justin Townes Earle, and organize his mind around this singer-songwriter thing. That album – The Taking or the Leaving – was recorded at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville, a joint known to have churned out discs from Band of Horses, the Avett Brothers, and Smashing Pumpkins. He brought in everybodyfields’ Sam Quinn, Mary Ellen Bush of local band Menage, and the Honeycutters’ Amanda Platt to round out the band. Together, they delivered a collection of songs which barks at life’s subtle and snarling difficulties. The songs on it jump around that sweet space where country and punk rock share a common ancestry. It almost doesn’t make sense that there aren’t more people in the room when he plays a show, but so goes the slow slog of building a career in the 21st Century music industry.
McGee has a solid head about it, though. That he just drove two hours to play to nobody, is part of the job. A necessary diversion, and anyway it’s not like he has to get up and work tomorrow. He has layoffs and the economy to thank for that, may as well make the best of it. If it gets him into a new town with a new crowd to woo, it’ll be time well spent.