“Any farewell show feels a little bittersweet. I’ve been through one or two of those,” says Brian McGee. McGee has lived in North Carolina for the last decade, establishing himself in the local singer/songwriter scene and releasing two albums, including last year’s The Taking Or The Leaving.
McGee and his wife are moving to New Jersey on August 21, the day after the singer performs a farewell show at The Grey Eagle in Asheville. She will be attending graduate school at Rutgers, and he will be reuniting with his punk rock group Plow United to headline the Riot Fest East in Philadelphia on September 24.
“I’m looking forward to the change,” he says. “I’ve been in North Carolina for 11 years, and it’s been great. I think I’m ready for something else, something new, something to take me out of my comfort zone and shake things up a little bit.”
McGee, like fellow singer Pierce Edens, was influenced strongly by Nirvana and the Seattle grunge scene. “From playing in punk bands I definitely was not the quintessential, clean country bluegrass singer or writer. So I have naturally more not-so-smooth edges. I think of Pierce kind of the same way. He definitely has that guttural, grungy kind of thing.”
McGee’s first album, Brian McGee & The Hollow Speed, reflects the strong interest he had in old time and country music. “I wanted my songs to have that flavor, with banjos and fiddles on them.”
His new album, The Taking Or The Leaving, is a point of departure from that roots music sound. “I walked away from that because to be honest I don’t think clean Americana stuff is where I thrive.
“I came from loud punk rock, so playing rock and roll with electric guitars is much more natural to me, and a lot of that comes through,” he says. “I was listening to Rolling Stones and The Replacements, which I’ve always loved. That was more where my writing was going, to a rock and roll vibe.”
McGee feels he learned how to sing while living in Asheville. “To be honest, a lot of what I did in Plow United was yelling. I did what I needed to for those tunes, and that’s just what I learned first. When I lived in Pennsylvania I was getting into folk music, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. It took a long time to wrestle my voice into being confident with singing instead of yelling. Through going to see old time bands and country bands and rock and roll bands around Asheville, I feel like I’ve really learned to sing.
“I got a big lesson in the traditional music of the area, and learned to appreciate and respect it and see where it came from and who’s taking the traditions and building off of them. It was definitely a huge lesson in American roots music.”
The Taking Or The Leaving was recorded over three days at Echo Mountain Studios in Asheville. “It was intense. We worked non-stop for 12-14 hours a day. It was a much more live record than going into the studio and experimenting. Pete James (The Honeycutters) and I did a lot of pre-production, deciding what songs would get picked, and what overdubs, like keys or pedal steel to use. We did a lot of the figuring before we set foot in the studio.
“The album shows a real growth in playing. I was playing with those guys for a couple of years, so it shows a tighter group, and that’s one growing part of it. Another part is, I think the songs are stronger. I feel a lot more confident about the writing. Between the two records I played a lot of shows, a lot of guitar, and that comes through on the record as well.” The album features Chad Hildebran on drums, bassist Zack Plemmons, Mary Ellen Bush of Menage, singers Sam Quinn and Amanda Platt, keyboardist Ryan Burns, and Nathan Golub on pedal steel.
Since The Taking Or The Leaving was released, Bush has become the regular bassist, and Evan Martin has taken over on drums. “Evan played in Menage too, so he and Mary Ellen were pretty well linked up,” McGee explains. “We’ve been playing more as a three-piece, which has been great. I play more electric guitar in that scenario, so I went from having a five piece band with banjos and fiddles straight back down to what I’m used to, which is a three-piece rock and roll band.”
Several years ago McGee made new fans while hosting singer-songwriter nights at The Back Room in Flat Rock. “There are some seriously great songwriters in the area,” he says. “It made me feel extremely lucky to have friends who are that talented, who inspired me to try harder and push a little further. It was great to organize the singer-songwriter shows. There might be six songwriters in a circle, sharing tunes and singing on each others’ songs. You go in with a new song to play, you get feedback, and at the same time you get schooled by the next person in the circle that’s got this great song.
“Those Back Room shows were great and I really appreciate how supportive everyone has been to me throughout the years. I definitely went from playing for a handful of people to playing to a full room. That has been great.”
McGee thinks a good song can be played any style from country to punk, and still be good. “I’m trying to keep the honesty and integrity intact. I haven’t tried to stick to an exact format for the sake of continuity from release to release,” he says. “The continuity is in the writing and the honesty and integrity of what I’m doing.”