I can remember when and where it was that I first became aware of Levon Helm. In the early 80s, when MTV was just starting out, they would occasionally play clips from concert movies as videos. I was about 12 years old and had been playing drums in a band for about a year. I had also been doing some singing from the kit.
One afternoon, a clip from something called, “The Last Waltz” came on by a group I’d never heard of called The Band. They were playing a song called,”The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
The drummer was playing a black marine pearl Gretsch kit that looked a lot like the ’60 Slingerland kit I had inherited from my dad. He was stationed at stage left more towards the front of the stage, his kit cocked to the side so you could see everything he was doing. There was a vocal mic goose necked directly over his head and he was singing lead with every ounce of his being.
His playing was completely different from all the other drummers I had been hearing and seeing at that time. For starters he had a basic 4 piece kit with just a few cymbals,not one of those huge drum cages with toms and cymbals surrounding him. He held the sticks traditional grip with the left stick in a sideways fashion. I had learned traditional grip from my Dad who was a drummer himself, but many of my drummer friends played “matched grip” as did most of the other drummers I’d been aware of then.
His rhythmic feel was loose and fluid, yet rock solid, deep and funky. His drumming seemed to weave in, out and around the vocal line rather than lock it in with a static “time keeping” groove. His touch was sharp and sophisticated. His sound was low, warm, thuddy, clunky, chunky. Like a gut-bucket, second line, Salvation Army band. There were pauses and big breaths in the music that he accentuated with his bass drum and with press rolls. It totally blew me away and I immediately identified with it. I felt like he was playing the way I wanted to play. For months I walked around thinking the guy I saw was possibly Kris Kristofferson on drums but I didn’t know for sure….
A few months later I was in our backyard raking leaves with the radio on. The local rock station was playing “blocks” from A-Z of the greatest rock bands of all time all weekend. They started the Bs with The Band. I immediately got excited hoping to hear that “Dixie” tune again. Instead,the first tune started with a funky riff between the bass and drums. It was,”Up On Cripple Creek”. The tempo was deep, way back,and the pocket was wide as a river. At the time I considered myself an expert on all of the classic rock bands but this was really like nothing I’d heard before. It was so organic sounding. Real. Unprocessed. It sounded like some guys playing in a room together and the rhythm gave you something to hang your hat on right away. The vocal came in with a soulful southern twang that worked in tandem with the drum beat. They danced around each
other like two prize fighters at the beginning of a championship fight. It hit me like lightning.
If you had told me that day that I’d ever get to meet Levon Helm, let alone play music and share the stage with him, I would have yelled for the neighbors and called the cops. But through his daughter Amy, my bandmate in Ollabelle, we all got to meet him and share many great times together. Musically and otherwise. What I found was that the soulfulness, the realness, the earthiness and that delta swing were ALL who this man really was. The guy you felt like you knew in those songs through that voice and those stories, and that incredible, perfectly placed backbeat was exactly the guy you met, if you were lucky enough to meet him. And if you were so lucky, he went out of his way to make you feel comfortable, included and welcome. He loved people, telling stories and, above all, laughter.
On April 19th, 2012 the music world lost one of its true originals. He was the kind of musician who had no filter between his soul and his hands or voice. He was born and raised at the birthplace of rock n’roll. His lifelong teachers had been the road and the audience. His mission was to make the people dance,smile and feel good. And he seemed always able to tap into that well of light and share it with us all.
Though his passing has caused a tremor of loss through the world of music lovers, his legacy is his music and the joy, tenacity, and celebration of life that it held and conveyed.
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.”