by Huck Bennert and Chip Taylor
I first met John McGann in 1990 when I was working as a house engineer at Wellspring Sound. The studio at this point was in a small basement in Newton Center. We were working on a jazz-bluegrass CD for John’s good friend and musical partner, Hiro Arita. Lots of uptempo Django Reinhart-type stuff. It became clear very quickly that not only was John an INCREDIBLE musician who could play nearly any stringed instrument, but he was also a really nice guy and had a wicked sense of humor.
A few quick stories I’ll always remember:
The next time we worked together was on a session for John’s friend – Irish tenor Billy Walsh; mostly a folk and bluegrass CD. John played the most beautiful acoustic guitar solo on one of the ballads; the song name escapes me. For a couple days we were all talking about what an amazing sounding solo it was. A few days later I came in to discover that during an overdub session one of the other engineers had accidentally recorded over half of the solo! We spent the better part of that day trying to recreate it; John playing beautiful solos one after another, but none had “the juice” of that original solo. It’s like the tale of the fish that got away, only a few of us will ever know how big that fish was; and nobody would believe it if we told them.
On a tongue-in-cheek song called “Alone and Sober Again” Billy sings about how great it is to be sober even if he’s alone. In the background is the “drunk chorus” of all his friends singing along in the bar. The late Johnny Cunningham – a brilliant fiddler – and John McGann, among several others, are having a bit of an inebriated argument in the background in between trying to sing each of the choruses as they go by, getting worse with each attempt. It’s hysterical! The very last thing you hear as the last note of the song fades out is John slurring the words, “I’ll bite ya”. John didn’t really remember saying that line, but as the engineer I heard it over and over again as we were mixing, cementing it in my memory. For years after, whenever I’d see John at a session the first words out of my mouth as I’d go to shake his hand would be, “I’ll bite ya.” It always made him laugh.
During the Hiro Arita sessions, Hiro was insistent on fixing up any small mistake on his many solos. This is before digital editing, so we were punching in on analog tape. LOTS of punching. Hiro had this funny way of asking to do a punch. He would suck air through his teeth (Ssss) and then slowly say this: “(Ssss) … I … ah … I wondah … if … could I … ah (Ssss) … do a … ah … punch in at ” – such and such a spot. He said it that way every time. Well John, who was his good friend, thought this was hysterical, especially considering how many punches we were doing. So he starting imitating Hiro. Tape would stop and before Hiro could ask, John would get on the talkback and do the imitation back at Hiro. Hiro would laugh, of course, and it would be a while before we could continue. This became a running gag between me and John long after Hiro’s CD was done. Anytime I’d be doing an overdub session with John, and he needed me to punch him in, he’d do the imitation of Hiro.
Over the 20 years I knew him, John recommended me for many many recording gigs that ultimately led to relationships with the other players: Frank Ferrel, Peter Barnes, Bob Childs, Jim Whitney, Dave Mattacks, Joe Derrane, Johnny Cunningham, Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez – to name a few. I’ll always be grateful for this. I had a standing invite from John to stay at his house in Roslindale if I happened to be recording in the Boston area and didn’t want to sleep on the studio couch. “Come by even if you don’t need a place to crash. We’ll hang out and have a few beers.” With the changes in recording technology over the last decade, I’ve found myself doing more mixing at home in Maine and less tracking in the studio. It’d probably been 3 or 4 years since I’d seen him. In the back of my mind, though, John’s invite was still there and I always intended to take him up on it. But I never got around to it. Now it’s too late. Let that be a lesson to us all.
To John McGann, a true Rock & Roll Joe.
May all the mandolins in heaven play in tune.
- Huck Bennert (May 2012)
It was 2001. Carrie Rodriguez and I were just back from touring Europe on behalf of my solo album, “Black and Blue America”. Carrie was killing the audience with her fiddling, her harmony singing and something new – a duet of “Storybook Children” – which was totally taking down the house. Not being totally stupid, I had written several songs for us to sing. And now we were ready to record our first album together.
Having never met John McGann, but after hearing great things about his musicianship from Carrie, engineer Huck Bennert and others, I called him on the phone. I remember liking him immediately and asked him to play guitar and mandolin and be band “leader” on our first duet album, “Let’s Leave This Town”.
The other principal musicians we hired were all John’s friends – the great Dave Mattaks on drums and the soulful Jim Whitney on upright bass. We recorded in a humble studio in Boston – Rear Window – actually in the basement of a private home.
Before recording, the musicians stood around the piano and took notes as Carrie & I sang the song. After one listen through, we’d play the song again and John would join in. From the first note he played I knew some magic was about to happen. The thing I immediately loved about his playing was his use of silence. He never interfered with the message of a song, he only added to it – playing the prettiest and warmest bluegrass-like licks that accented my acoustic guitar and complimented Carrie’s fiddling perfectly.
After the success of our first album, Carrie and I came back to do it again – with the same soulful line-up, which led to our #1 Americana album, “The Trouble With Humans”. Again, John’s beautiful playing is all over that album as well.
But for Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, our success all started with that one-of-a kind magical John McGann guitar intro to our first hit, “Sweet Tequila Blues”.
Every so often Carrie and I would return to play in Boston – on a few occasions John would stop by and join in. It’s been several years since I last saw John, but I was so saddened by the news. What a warm, kind guy and what a magical player! Thanks John! – CT
A few weeks ago Carrie got the sad news and sent this loving email:
“On a much more somber note….one of the guys in that bluegrass band (we opened for) told me that he heard John McGann had just passed away. I don’t know much except that he had cancer and it moved pretty quick. It’s so sad…he wasn’t that old. I remember that he had young kids when we were making our records…he used to talk about them a lot when we were recording. He was such a great guy and sure added a tremendous amount to those records we made.”