Pat McLaughlin – Stop making sense
Four Corners is a single point in America where the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. Pat McLaughlin’s music is similarly a convergence point, where R&B, country, pop, and rock ‘n’ roll conjoin.
One of the world’s most soulful singers, McLaughlin comes by these influences honestly. A child of the ’60s, he was exposed to that period’s eclectic pop radio as well as the record collections of his parents and siblings. Though reared in the largely rural state of Iowa, he developed funk chops at an early age. “I had a fairly serious high school cover band — primarily an R&B/Motown sort of band.” he says. “I was playing guitar and singing — pretty much the same thing I’m doing now,” he adds with a laugh.
His country credentials were acquired in, of all places, Massachusetts. “I ended up in Boston in the mid-’70s and got a gig at the Plough & Stars. I had some songs of my own, then filled up the rest of the evening with country songs because people who go to Irish bars like it if you don’t know any Irish songs. They just want drinking music.”
The end of the 1970s found him in Nashville. “The girl I was living with was a painter who wanted to get to New York, and I didn’t,” he explains. “I decided I would go to Nashville because of the music business. There were non-traditional country people around town, which was really what I was — I wasn’t trying to be a Gene Watson, you know? There were a lot of people coming to Nashville that were folk or blues oriented. We didn’t have triple-A [adult-album-alternative radio format] back then yet, but everyone knew what alternative was.”
It was there that Los Lobos instrumentalist Steve Berlin discovered McLaughlin and lured him out to Los Angeles. A bidding war among record labels ensued. “I don’t know if you are familiar with that phenomenon, but it is something you only experience once,” he says with amusement. “I went with Capitol because of the recognizable logo — that will tell you how much I was thinking about it.”
Capitol put him together with the not-yet-famous team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, resulting in a masterpiece. Pat McLaughlin, released in 1988, captured the oft-attempted but rarely achieved “live feel,” adding just enough studio sheen to make the audio experience equal the visceral one.
A second record, Get Out And Stay Out, repeated the magic, but a combination of poor sales of the first record and a Capitol regime change led to the album being shelved before release. “Mitchell wasn’t into chasing their approval, and I jumped into his camp because I wanted to go home anyway.” (Dos Records, a now-defunct arm of Texas indie label Antone’s, eventually licensed it in 1995 after issuing McLaughlin’s Unglued album in ’94.)
Back in Nashville, McLaughlin established himself as a songwriter with cuts by the Continental Drifters, Nanci Griffith, Alan Jackson, Taj Mahal, Delbert McClinton, Tim O’Brien, John Prine, Tanya Tucker, Steve Wariner and Trisha Yearwood — many of whom are pretty fair songwriters themselves.
McLaughlin eventually went the self-release route, rounding up a bunch of demos for Uncle Pat (which UK label Evangeline later issued overseas in 2002). “I was surprised at how easy it was to take them down to the local Tower and sell them at gigs,” he says. That experience encouraged him to take his club band (including session aces Kenny Greenberg and Michael Rhodes) into the studio and do his latest one “for real.” The result, Next 5 Miles, was released this fall on his own label, Cream-Style.
Though McLaughlin cites James Taylor and Joni Mitchell among his inspirations, you would be hard pressed to hear either in his music. The more abstract nature of his tunes sets them in another realm. Verging at times on a Burroughs-like cut-and-paste construction, they resist linear story lines, often revealing different meanings over time. Combining funky grooves with pop harmonies, McLaughlin’s songs meld melody with rock ‘n’ roll energy as well as anyone since the Beatles.
A tune such as “Not Far From It” applies the writer’s typically nonlinear approach to his feelings about September 11, with cryptic lyrics such as, “Never felt better in a police car.”
“I think it is valuable that the words don’t make sense on a certain level,” McLaughlin offers. “The people who know how to make sense in songs — I really can’t compete with that group.”
Another of the new album’s tunes asks, “Hey, hey, Brother Ray/ What’d you mean by, ‘What’d I Say’?” You could as easily ask that rhetorical question about McLaughlin’s lyrics — and you would similarly already know the answer.