A few weeks ago on “American Idol,” a contestant named C.J. Johnson sang a song as old as he is. The question of whether or not he sang it well doesn’t matter; it happens almost every season. “I’ll Be,” the 1998 hit by Edwin McCain, is performed frequently on the hit show. Does McCain mind? We caught up with him on his way to do a favor for a friend (spoiler alert: he is the nicest guy ever) to ask this very question and a few more before his show at Capital Ale House Music Hall on Friday (March 11).
Richmond magazine: Did you hear the “American Idol” contestant singing your song a few weeks ago? What do you think about it?
McCain: I absolutely love it. And I knew that — every time it happens, or every time they use it — my phone blows up. Everyone sends me message. Most of the time, the contestants, they were 5 years old when that song came out. It is astonishing when songs land and hang around like “I’ll Be” has. Once again, music rescued me. Because when I wrote the song, I was hours away from being dropped from the record label. They were disappointed in my record sales. [The message was,] “You better come up with something great. If you don't, you are gone.” Oh gosh, here I go. I had this idea on a napkin, and sat in my apartment in Atlanta. It was a Hail Mary shot at the buzzer. It is miracle.
RM: Tell me about yourself? How did you get into music?
McCain: Truth be told, I would blame dyslexia and learning disabilities for my musicality. I had a really hard time as a kid, had a hard time reading and writing. I have pretty significant learning disabilities. As a result, I went with what I could do naturally and what came easily. And what came easy was singing. I was experiencing a lot of failure and frustration in the academic world and grade school. Music came along, like it has my entire life, and swooped in and saved me. At the moment, I am particularly aware of this because I have children this same age now. It is hard time to be a third and fourth grader and not do what everyone else can do, and struggling.
Music kinda came and handicapped me up. It took me out of a place where I was being judged pretty harshly. It evened the playing field a little bit for me. That’s a release to a 9-year-old. I sang in the church choir first. Children's theater. Then some state stuff. It gave me confidence. I had to co-exist with adults. The social aspect was transformative.
RM: Where did the whole band thing fit in?
McCain: I played in a high school band with some pretty serious musicians. One of the guys in the band, Jason Moore, his father, Jim, had been a professional musician, a guitarist. He had an appreciation for Southern soul. And while we wanted to play Cheap Trick and Van Halen, he was making us play Spencer Davis grooves. He would make us listen to Tower of Power and all this really great music that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. He was straight from the Muscle Shoals (Alabama recording studio) school.
Then there was a guy named Steven Gayle, a bass player — real introverted guy but incredibly talented, artistic. He turned me on to Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jaco Pastorius. He certainly changed my idea of music. It steered me out of the idea that pop music was all I knew. He changed my idea of music from pop to songwriting; things like Joni Mitchell. Such a good foundation for sure.
RM: So what was the timeline for all of this? Right on the cusp of being signed with Atlantic?
McCain: This is all right around the time I was 15 or 16. I didn’t sign with Atlantic till 1993 or '94. I was 23, 24 at the time. I remember them thinking I was almost too old. There was some conversation about me being too old for them. They were getting people so young at the time. It was interesting. Also, we had been playing with Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, playing with these really cool jammy bands. We were in a jammy band world — signed with Atlantic and that was the end of that. We went from playing with the Allman Brothers Band, Bob Weir — went with Atlantic and had a song on the radio, and that was over. No more jam bands.
I am still friends with them, with Warren Haynes. Still play the Christmas jams we started years ago. That audience is pretty particular — have to keep it indie. Not sure why.
RM: Did you see yourself going in the pop direction?
McCain: No (laughs). If I really tell the truth, I just really wanted to be David Lee Roth.
I imprinted on Diamond Dave when I was 14 years old and thought it was the greatest thing ever. I had the ego-driven dreams of rock stardom. And what is so funny, obviously none of that happened. It continuously reinforces the idea that music saved me from myself, many times over. I went on a ride and it has taught me a lot of things. Some lessons are easier to learn than others and some are just dang hard. I am shocked that at 46 years old, I get to do this for a living. I had no clue what would happen.
RM: We all have moments that shape us, right? Make us aware of our age.
McCain: I had one recently. There is a place we play called The Windjammer (beach bar) at the Isle of Palms, South Carolina. The guy that runs the place is a dear friend of mine. My shtick is at some point of the night, I would jump off the stage and climb on the bar and sing half a song on top of the bar. It was all very rock ’n’ roll. Not last year, but the year before last, I jumped off the front of the stage and was heading for the bar. And this middle-aged voice inside my head said, “Oh, that looks slick, that looks slippery, you could get hurt.” And I bailed out of climbing onto the bar. Just stood next to it. And I regretted it for the whole year. I felt like a total failure. So I redeemed myself this year. But I’m sure my demise will be some sort of fall off the bar at the Windjammer — break a hip and die of sepsis or something.
RM: Do you try to stay in shape?
McCain: I ran a couple of marathons — I think the second one was a mistake. I told my wife that our relationship was over probably a million times between mile 20 and 26. Then some 70-year-old ran by me and said, “Pick it up, fat boy,” and that gave me the anger to finish the race.
RM: Why you are touring now?
McCain: Well, that is a good question. I pulled back on my touring a lot to be with my kids. I love playing and I don’t want to stop touring altogether. Part of this, too — as an example for my children, I don’t want them to think that Dad is just sitting around. I want to show them a good work ethic. I think it is important for them to see me doing what I love, dedication to one true thing. I don’t feel like I have gotten to a place where it is boring. Traveling with Craig, Shield, Larry and Jamie, these guys are the best part about it. I would miss that. We generate jobs. And I like driving the bus.
RM: You’re in relatively intimate spots for your music. Do you find that works better?
McCain: That is pretty much all we do. I abandoned the big stuff. For the most part, we play seated listening rooms. It is very conversational. It is the best setting in which to engage your audience.
RM: Where did the boat show, “Flipping Ships,” come into play? How did you get into boats?
McCain: I made a really bad decision about a big boat that I thought I could restore. It started as a hobby. I was in over my head. This giant boat was ridiculous. So I made a jokey video clip about this big boat, had a friend narrate and as a lark sent it to California and then there was some interest. From the idea phase to shooting, it was three years.
RM: Have you always been handy or mechanically driven?
McCain: No, I am not. My best friend is a master mechanic. I admire him and over the years I wanted to be better at being mechanical. So I challenged myself to be better. If handy is, I can tear stuff up completely and go “Help! I have completely broken this thing, it was broken before but now it is really broken, so help me put it back together,” then I am handy. Always musical, never handy. That is 100 percent true.
RM: Been to Richmond before?
McCain: Absolutely. I use to play at the Flood Zone all the time. Back when the earth was still cooling.
Edwin McCain's show starts at 8 p.m. at the Capital Ale House Music Hall, 623 E. Main St. Tickets are $35 to $45. 780-2537 (ALES) or capitalalehouse.com.