To Be or Not to Be Fayssoux

Singer/songwriter dishes about peacocks, Tom T. Hall, stage malfunctions, and more

Rocking the Upstate (and WNC) with sass: Fayssoux McLean

Fayssoux Starling McLean was profiled in a January 2018 Bold Life feature, and since that time, the feisty and irrepressible singer/songwriter has stayed busy (as the pandemic allows) with live performances. McLean, who sang harmony with Emmylou Harris on many of Harris’ albums, is currently part of several ensembles — a duo with Brandon Turner, the trio Almost Acoustic, the Bluegrass Messengers, her electric band Fayssoux & Company —  all showcasing a repertoire that spans multiple genres. McLean maintains a full schedule in Western North Carolina and the South Carolina upstate. 

You’ve been playing with guitarist Brandon Turner for more than 20 years — an eternity in the music world. What’s special about him?

He is my go-to guitar player. Brandon is absolutely wonderful; I trust him with everything. I give him the last word on everything, because it’s his guitar playing that’s going to make or break it.

In addition to your original material, how do you choose what songs to include in your set?

I go all over the place. I’m eclectic, and I like a whole lot of different things, from Mose Allison — who would be considered jazz — to country: Jimmie Rodgers, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou [Harris], and Hank Williams. I do “St. Louis Blues” which is a song from 1914, I sing Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” I can do “Black Magic Woman.” You just cannot tell what I’m about to do.

You worked with famed songwriter Tom T. Hall, who passed away very recently. His songs are warm, wise, and funny. What was he like in person?

Tom T. was quite an unusual fellow. He played a guitar, and he said he always kept it out because, he said, “It doesn’t like being in the case.” And when I drove up to his farm to sing on his Songs of Fox Hollow album, there were peacocks all around. A great big one was strutting his stuff on the front porch as if to say, “Welcome!”

Did he ever share any musical advice?

He did. When I got ready to sing a song on the Women of Bluegrass box set, I was trying to make sense of it. He said, “Fayssoux, put yourself in the mind of a soliloquy, like from Hamlet. Pretend that you’re just talking this song, not singing it.” So I tried that different technique, and it worked better. I always loved that help that he tried to give me.

Speaking of advice, if you could go back and give one piece of advice to a younger version of you, what would it be?

“‘Be prepared when Lady Luck hits you. And be persistent.” I think there are a lot of talented people in the world, and some are more famous than others only because they’re more persistent, not because they’re more talented.

Over the course of your career so far, you’ve had a lot of great gigs. But tell me about a bad one.

Well, the potential for a bad gig was at [an] Emmylou show with Rodney Crowell and Sam Bush in Shelby. I was asked to come on stage earlier than expected. Finding the backstage flashlight fellow missing, I caught my red vintage boot on a cable and it sent me sailing out on stage in front of a packed audience. I just threw my arm up, saying “Here I am!” A stage technician picked me up, and I went to my chair and sang. But it was a great night, with a VIP reception at the Earl Scruggs Museum, and funds raised for a good cause.

Fayssoux McLean and Brandon Turner play the The Purple Onion (16 East Main St., Saluda) on Thursday, Oct. 14, 8-10pm. For more information, call 828-749-1179 or see purpleonionsaluda.com. 

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