THE READING ROOM: Joey McGee Embraces Storytelling in Both Books and Songs
Nicola Gell Photography
Texas roots singer-songwriter Joey McGee loves a good story, and he’s thrilled when he can put a good story to music. When he’s not letting an idea for a new song percolate in his mind, McGee’s reading a good book or listening to Dylan or Guy Clark or Patty Griffin, paying attention to the ways those writers put words together to tell a story or to paint a colorful soundscape.
A native of New Orleans, McGee’s personal and musical journey has carried him from his Louisiana homeland to the Hill Country of Texas to the industrial corridors of Pittsburgh and back to the Brazos Valley, where he now makes home near Bryan, Texas. Along the way, he’s been nourished by the rich musical flavors of Cajun, soul, rock, blues, and country music. His new album, El Camino Real, traces this journey through these musical styles. Named for the old road that winds from Louisiana to Mexico, the album features songs that wind through the hills and valleys of McGee’s own life — losses and disappointments, revelations and hopes — and reveal his embrace of the diversity of musical styles that have shaped him.
Looking back on his journey, McGee notices that his love of storytelling is the thread that runs through it: “I like simplicity. I like a good story and I like playing guitar,” he says. “The whole ‘three chords and the truth’ thing really resonates with me, and I find that in country and folk. It’s in the blues and gospel, too, and I think blues and country are two sides of the same coin. I can dig ’em both if there’s a good story to tell and a good groove to be had.”
I met McGee in Nashville last September at the Americana Music Association Conference and Festival. We were sitting in a session at which Charles Hughes was speaking about the intersections of country music and soul music. After the panel McGee and I started talking about topics including religion, race, and reading. We continued the conversation one afternoon over coffee, and we continue it here, in the context of books, reading, and songwriting.
What books are on your nightstand now?
Well, there are some books I read over and over, so I always have them near at hand: Elie Wiesel’s Night; Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I have a couple of books that I am currently reading. One is As Many Reps as Possible by a CrossFit guy named Jason Khalipa; it’s a bit of his story and a bit of a business book, too. The other is Doug Bender and Dave Sterrett’s I Am Second, which is a collection of testimonies and stories of how people come to faith. Then I have other books that I hope to read, or that I have read a little bit and am trying to read as I have time. One is the new Jeff Tweedy memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Another is Charles Hughes’ Country Soul. Then there’s Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism and Ben Myers’ System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywood.
What’s one book you won’t leave home without?
The Bible. It’s been life-sustaining for me for years. There is a companion that I take with me everywhere and use every day: the dictionary! I have a copy on my iPhone, but I use that thing multiple times a day and it is a constant companion, likely more than the Bible, now that I think of it. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, too, though not the entire book. She has a section called “morning pages,” and she recommends writing 1,000 words a day. For me, it’s like therapy. I also take my bullet journal with me; it’s the place where I write notes. I write every day. Writing has helped me bring to the surface my thoughts about certain subjects.
Do you always finish books?
Well, I’ve never finished Julia Cameron’s book (laughs). I was listening to a Joe Pug podcast that featured the writer Brian Koppelman. He mentioned Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. He also said that he didn’t finish the book, but started doing “Morning Pages,” the exercise Cameron encourages. I found that hilarious! Has anyone finished the book? There are several business books I’ve never finished. I was almost that way with Tamara Saviano’s book about Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed or Caught. I almost stopped reading the book when it got to the partying.
How have social media affected your reading habits?
Social media are a big distraction to me, so I try to stay away, even though as an artist I have to be present on media such as Facebook and Instagram. I like to read print books, though, and I don’t read books in digital format.
What writers do you admire most?
Dylan, Patty Griffin — she’s a huge influence in my life. Paula Cole, Suzanne Vega, Rich Mullins — he was a big influence in my life. What I love about Rich is that he had this wild relationship with God that came through his writing and his songs.
What’s the last great book you read?
Dylan’s Chronicles. I really resonated with the book, especially with where I am on my journey. I have also been listening to a lot of older music and learning from it.
Can you talk a little about your approach to songwriting?
Songwriting for me is a deep thing. Some people write songs for the sake of writing songs. I want a song to accomplish something in the world, something good in the world. Lots of my songs are percolating; “percolating” is a very good word for me. I have something percolating in my mind, either a melody or an idea. From the time I was eight or ten, I wanted to write stories. I’ve always been attuned to words. Sometimes it’s memories or feelings that are rolling around, sometimes it’s melodies. “Pining,” from the new album, came about as a challenge from a friend who asked me if I knew Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” I listened to the song at midnight and woke up at 3 a.m. and the song just poured out. Some of the songs on the new album I wrote while I lived in Pittsburgh, over 10 years ago. It was during that time that I came to love country music. A couple of the songs for the new album I finished only a day or two before going into the studio.
If you could have dinner with three writers, living or dead, whom would they be?
Alice Walker: she was a huge influence on me when I was young, especially her book Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems. King Solomon. James Baldwin: I’d love to hear what he had to say. Maya Angelou: In reading her I get the sense that she was pulling from a deep well of understanding and profundity. I also love her particular Southern voice and vernacular. She was astounding. Incidentally, a line in one of the songs, “Sunday Blues,” on El Camino Real is rooted in something she said while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey asked her, “What is the greatest virtue?” Maya thought for a while and responded, “Courage.” Hence, “Courage is a virtue that is hard pressed to be found / and wisdom shouts from rooftops / though it’s hard to hear the sound.” And I find her assessment of courage to be true. Malcolm X: I would love to talk with Malcolm about the transformation that happened in his life. Malcolm was a scrappy guy from the East Coast, a survivor on a number of levels, and I would love to converse with him about his change and how that played out in his life. I love stories of transformation and overcoming.