Edwin McCain shared a humorous story during a recent phone interview about the perspective his young son had on what his father does for a living.
“When my son was in K-4, he told his class when they were doing ‘What does your dad do for a living,’ my son told his class that I worked in a warehouse driving a forklift, which is actually true because we have a warehouse where we keep our bus and all of our equipment, and I have a forklift,” McCain said. “So he sees me driving the forklift, and to him, that’s work. And he’s seen me play shows. But that wasn’t work. Playing a show is fun. He just put two and two together and decided that driving a forklift is what I do for a living.”
The story told by McCain’s son is worth noting because it symbolizes the kind of career his father has today and what it means to be an independent artist in today’s music world.
McCain literally does load the bus for tours. In fact, he often drives it to many of his gigs and also does a lot of the maintenance on the vehicle to keep it in excellent running shape.
Having to be bus driver, mechanic and roadie – as well as performer, songwriter and guitar player – is part of the life McCain chose after he had the chance to be a bona-fide pop star with a major label record deal, songs on the radio and the much easier mode of touring that popularity affords musicians.
Signed early in his career to Atlantic Records, the 44-year-old native of Greenville, S.C., saw his second album for the label, the 1997 release, Misguided Roses, go gold behind the ballad, I’ll Be. That was followed by another hit ballad, his cover of the Dianne Warren tune, I Could Not Ask For More, from his next album, 1999’s Messenger.
Another hit single could have elevated him to million-selling popularity. Instead, McCain amicably parted ways with Atlantic in 2001, opting to return to releasing music independently and a life where touring would be his financial bread and butter. He saw more value in having creative freedom and no pressure to record pop hits. Also, he didn’t have to suffer through the promotional duties that come with getting songs on the radio and creating the visibility needed to be a major star.
“I wasn’t really cut out for that,” McCain said. “And we (Atlantic and McCain) both sort of discovered that once we got into the thick of it. It was like I’m not like Kid Rock. He thrives on the fame and the cult of personality part of it, and I just wasn’t that. I wasn’t very good at it.”
So now, McCain has to run an efficient business.
“It definitely was a change, for sure,” he admitted. “It kind of comes back to what do you really need. I was living a lifestyle that was incredible, but it was unnecessary. There are a lot of things that are unnecessary. So I just had to get smart about a lot of things. Like I bought the tour bus that we have. I bought it as a salvage bus. It had been in a fire and I got it for pennies on the dollar. We rebuilt it, so we saved money there by not leasing a bus. And we save money on maintenance because I do a lot of it myself.
“A lot of the things that we used to have, like everybody had their own hotel room … we had an 18-wheeler full of gig and lighting and all of that stuff, we don’t have those things anymore. We play smaller venues, but it still works.”
The hit songs that once put McCain in the awkward position of deciding whether to chase fortune and fame or follow his heart musically, though, are one reason McCain can be his own boss.
Each year, when wedding season rolls around, I’ll Be, I Could Not Ask For More and a third song that originally was not a hit, Walk With Me, are popular choices to be played at weddings, in the process introducing McCain to potential new fans.
Those wedding songs translate into tickets sold everywhere McCain plays.
“They bring in a certain percentage of people no matter where we are because ‘Hey what are we doing tonight?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Well, that guy who sings that song, they’re playing down at so and so …” he said. “So there will literally be a certain component at the shows every single night that are based on that. And now I have 90 minutes to go ‘Here’s all this other music that we play.’ ”
Aside from his famous pop ballads, McCain is mostly known for songs – many of them quite frisky – that blend soul-and-folk-flavored rock. A new 11-track concert release, Live Songs, gives fans a good taste of his music and sound with a few songs from McCain’s 2011 album, Mercy Bound, and a few others from across his career. The variety and energy of some of his songs often surprises fans that are only familiar with the hits.
“My favorite post-show conversation is with the unwilling husband who got dragged out to the show,” McCain said. “His wife is a fan of I’ll Be or I Couldn’t Ask For More, and he’s like ‘Oh God, we’ve got to go hear this guy. I’ve just been dreading it.’ Then after the show, I meet him, and he’s just like bubbling over. Like ‘Dude, I was totally dreading this.’ Like to my face, they’ll say it right to my face, ‘I was completely expecting you to suck, and I was going to listen to ballads all night long. And man, this was awesome.’ That is my favorite conversation to have, just a complete turn-around. The guy could not have wanted to come to the show less and ended up having a great time.”
Chances are some fans will have a few revelations like that when McCain plays at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, at Evans Towne Center Park. Also performing will be Shawn Mullins.
Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 the day of the show. Children ages 5 and younger will be admitted free. Call (706) 650-5005 for more.
The show returns McCain to the Augusta area, where he has special memories.
“Augusta, Georgia, is significant for me because I recorded my first album there at a little place called Studio South (Productions) with a guy named Howard Lovett,” McCain said. “That was the height of the dreaming period, where you’re just dreaming about maybe you can do something with this. I was doing everything I could possibly do to make it happen. Those were good days.”
Augusta has other connections to McCain’s early years as well.
“I used to play this little place called Squeaky’s Tip Top, which was one of my favorite out-of-town gigs,” he said. “My band, the very first band that I had sort of back and beyond, consisted of Augusta guys. It was former members of the Truly Dangerous Swamp Band. … It was a great, really neat band at the beginning. I was really lucky to have them. It was sort of serendipitous that the Truly Dangerous Swamp Band broke up and those guys were kind of available.”