Featured Interview – Doug MacLeod

Cover photo © 2024 Marilyn Stringer

imageFew solo acoustic artists can captivate an audience in the way that eight-time Blues Music Award winner Doug MacLeod does.  Having played guitar alongside such greats as Pee Wee Crayton, Big Mama Thornton, Eddie “Cleanhead Vinson” and George “Harmonica” Smith, his superb guitar skills (and soulful vocals) would be enough to mesmerize listeners, but it’s his storytelling that truly holds them transfixed and hanging on every word.  Having been on the blues scene for over forty years, MacLeod’s wealth of knowledge was sought by Debra Schiff, and he became a co-author for the book Murder at the Crossroads, lending accuracy to the blues musician characters in the story.  However, many likely consider him an authority on more than just blues history, as his song lyrics suggest he serves as a “subject matter expert” on the wonders of life itself.  This songwriting gift led to his work being recorded by such legends as Albert King, Eva Cassidy and Albert Collins.  Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Doug MacLeod in Memphis, where he currently resides, just prior to him winning the 2024 Blues Music Award for Acoustic Album of the Year.

MacLeod’s career started as a sideline while he worked in the Navy in Norfolk, Virginia.  However, he recalls that he might have been one of the few Navy men who never sailed.

“Í was a bit disappointed about that, because that was why I joined—to see the world.  But they had me on land, fixing radars instead.  It was a day gig, so I fixed radars during the day and played music at night.  I was playing country blues, and the hippies were diggin’ me, so I thought I was a real bluesman.  Then one guy I knew asked me if I wanted to meet a guy who ran with Blind Lemon Jefferson named Ernest Banks.  I said yes.  I wanted to show that old Bluesman how great I thought I was.  When I got done playing a song for him, he said, “Give me your guitar, boy.”  Then he opened tuned it, picked up a copper slide and played.

I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I realized that I was in the presence of what was real about this music.  He only had one eye and he kept looking at me with that one eye as he played with feeling and power, as if to say, ‘can you do this, boy?  How about this?’  He was embarrassing me in front of my friends, and when he got done, he asked me, ‘Which one moved you more—yours or mine?’  I said, ‘yours’.  He said ‘if you want to be a blues man, never play a note you don’t believe and never write or sing about what you don’t know about.  Later on, as we walked out, he put his arm around me and said, ‘you know where I live now, don’t you boy?’  I said, ‘does this mean I can come back?’ and he answered, ‘You ain’t deaf too, are you, boy?’  Years later it dawned on me the double meaning of what he said.  Did he mean you know at which magnolia tree to turn right (because he lived back I the woods) or did he mean where I live musically.  I’m not sure. Maybe both.”

imagePrior to working as a musician, MacLeod used to stutter.  The connection between singing and stuttering has always been a fascinating topic.  Some famous singers, such as John Lee Hooker and country singer Mel Tillis, stuttered except when they were singing.  For MacLeod, his experience was like that of BB King and pop singer Ed Sheeran, in that he noticed an overall tremendous improvement in his speech after learning that he could sing.

“I heard this music in St. Louis, and it just spoke to me.  I was just playing bass back in those days, but one day I picked up the guitar and I tried to sing.  This voice came out and I realized I had a choice between the one that stutters and this one.  I think the music helped me.  Most of the time now I can speak without stuttering, but there are a few times when it does come back to me.”

One of the characteristics of MacLeod’s playing that fascinates listeners is his ability to sound like more than one person playing, something else he seemed to have learned from his encounter with Earnest banks.

“Mr. Banks told me, ‘With an acoustic player, the left hand is your brain, and your right hand is your personality.  That’s why when you listen to the old country blues men, Big Bill Broonzy don’t sound like Tampa Red who don’t sound like Robert Johnson or Lightnin’ Hopkins and so on and so on.  Because each musician has that unique right hand.’ He said ‘Boy–you’ve got to sound like you’re more than one man up there.   And you’ve got to find a groove because of the ladies.  You’ve got to get the ladies to start moving their head because then there’s a good chance that something below the head will start moving.  And then sure enough that thing below that will start to move and when that start moving the men will start asking the women to dance and it will be hot and they’ll start sweating, so they will buy the ladies a drink and that means you are going to get paid at the end of the night.’  That was his philosophy about it.  And that’s why when you hear, especially with the hill country blues, that groove—it is incessant, kind of juke joint.  It makes you move.”

MacLeod was also influenced by George Harmonica Smith, who helped him find his unique voice.

“George was like my father.  He was born on my father’s birthday, but a couple of years after, and he was truly the father that I needed.  I loved him and he loved me.  One of my favorite stories about George was when I was playing electric guitar.  He said, ‘Dubb (his nickname for MacLeod)—you sure sound like BB King.’  I said ‘Thanks, George,’ and he said, “That’s not a compliment.  Let’s put Dubb in there instead.’  The older musicians can help you with that.  He was a dear, dear mentor.”

imageMacLeod’s songs connect with the audience in many varied ways.  Some bring great visual images to mind with intriguing stories, such as “Horse with No Rider,” a song about death, noting, “Once the horse gets his rider, he don’t look back…won’t somebody tell me who will his rider be?”  Others comment on political or social events, such as “Dubb’s Talkin’ Politician Blues”:

“Now I got to talk about some of these politicians.  Sure got my world in a sorry condition. They say one thing but mean another.  That’s a very worrisome thing, my brother…Would you get my BB gun?  No, I don’t want to kill them, but I’d like to hurt them some!” 

However, the lyrics which are the most emotionally stirring are very personal and cathartic songs about his recovery from a history of abuse.  His album, Break the Chain, was the winner of the 2018 Blues Music Awards for Acoustic Album of the Year, and its title track documents MacLeod’s focus on being sure that he put an end to the cycle of abuse in which he had been a victim.  The lyrics note, “You’ve got the power to make a change, stop the pain…break the chain”, and are meaningfully sung along with his son, Jesse.  He explained a bit more about these powerfully written songs.

“’Dubb’s Talkin’ Politician Blues’ was written in 2006, but it may be even more appropriate now.  And “Break the Chain” was written about how I was sexually abused by a male cousin and the female friend of my mother who used to babysit me.  I had blocked it out, but one Thanksgiving my mother said she wanted me to go over and see her friend, my former babysitter.  I remember I thought we’d have a nice dinner, but she asked if she could take me upstairs.  I went upstairs with her, and she said, ‘remember when you were a little boy and I used to dress you up like a girl and play with your pee-pee?  Would you like to do that with me and my daughter?’  I said, ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’  Years later, before my mother died, I told her that her friend had abused me and she said, ‘she didn’t—your cousin did.’  That’s how I found out my cousin abused me.  I had heard that some people who are abused are at risk of possibly abusing others, and I needed to make sure I put a stop to the cycle.  I think when I found blues music I found a way to express it in a positive way.  I think I invented this saying, ‘you always must remember, even from a pile of manure a rose can grow.’  The most important thing, and the hardest thing is to forgive. ‘Break the Chain’ really reaches people.”

MacLeod also reaches people through his involvement with the organization called United by Music, which has the motto of “challenging attitudes about intellectual disability through music”.

image“That’s a wonderful organization.  You find out how much music can help people with intellectual disabilities express themselves.  The first time I ran into them was in Appeldoorn, Holland.  I had just spent the whole day on a train and all I wanted to do was get one of those great Belgian beers and get in bed and read a book.  I got a call from my agent at the time, Jan Mittendorp,  He said that Barbara Hammerman invited me to a nightclub in town to hear what this group was doing.  I didn’t want to go, but something told me, ‘Just go on and go’.  So, I went down there, and I saw how the music reached them, and I was really touched by it.  Barbara asked me if I would like to be a mentor and that is how I got started.  I might help them get a groove.  Once they have that, I give them little bits of advice on playing.”

MacLeod is one of those musicians who seems to be writing all of the time, with 28 albums released.

“I’m always writing.  Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and the whole song is formed.  Some take a little bit.  Recently I thought that I don’t have any more songs left in me, and my wife said, ‘hush—there will be more’.  And she was right.  It’s like a field.  You harvest the crop and then you must let the field be fallow for a while.  I was just in that fallow.  We have another album that just came out this year (Raw Blues 2).  Some are new songs, and some are new versions of previously released songs.  Andreas Werner, the producer, said, ‘I just want to document what you do—no overdubs.  Just sit down like you did with Mr. Banks.  Sit on your porch and play.  That is what I want—just whatever song comes to you.’  It’s like my shows.  I never plan a set.  I might plan the first song, but then I just let whatever the spirit tells me to do.”

MacLeod was asked if there were any new, young musicians that he found exciting, and whether he had any advice for them.  He initially responded to the advice part with a joke, but then followed it with some important and useful tips.

“There’s one guy named Nathan James, out of southern California, and Jontavious Willis, Marquise Knox, and Solomon Hicks.  Oh, and Kingfish—I really like what he’s doing.  The biggest advice I can give to a young musician is to get a partner with health insurance (laughs)!   On a serious note, for younger musicians I would give the same advice I received:  never play a note you don’t believe.  Never write or sing about what you don’t know about.  And also, keep your musical horizons broad.  If you are an acoustic blues player, you sometimes just listen to acoustic blues.  I say broaden your horizons.  Listen to jazz, Hillbilly rock.  Listen to other instruments.  Piano players and guitar players don’t have to breathe to make a sound.  Trumpet, saxophone and harmonica players have to breathe, and that’s so important to phrasing.  Playing music is an extension of what is inside of you.  If you don’t have to breathe you can end up playing a whole lot of notes that mean nothing. If you have to breathe, you have to stop.  I remember going to hear a guitarist once with Pee Wee Crayton and he said, ‘I gotta get out of here—I can’t listen to that diarrhea guitar—he’s shitting all over the bandstand.’  We should remember that space is a part of the music too.”

MacLeod has also recorded an instructional DVD, previously hosted a radio show in LA, and he used to write a magazine column called Doug’s Back Porch.  He is currently considering recording a podcast in which he will be able to tell his stories using his own voice.  You know whatever comes next, there will be many of us who will be quick to tune in or pre-order it because any project in which he is involved is bound to be magnificent.  You can find out more about Doug MacLeod at https://www.doug-MacLeod.com.

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