While there are obvious advantages to lending one’s name in support of an iconic musician, it sometimes creates a difficult dilemma in which one’s own efforts become unavoidably overlooked. In Chuck McDermott’s case, his efforts as the chief foil for the late John Stewart (the man who wrote “Daydream Believer,” campaigned with Robert Kennedy and scored a hit of his own with he song “Gold,” which found him backed by Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks), sometimes seemed to minimize his own intents and deny him a solo spotlight that he so clearly deserved.
The two met when McDermott’s New England-based country rock band Wheatstraw made its move to Los Angeles and made their mark on the local circuit, and a short time later, McDermott became Stewart’s primary sideman, contributing to his albums Blondes, Trancas, The Last Campaign, and Punch the Big Guy. After Stewart’s passing in 2008, his influence remained intact, and McDermott joined with other former Stewart support players in the John Stewart Band as a means of keeping his mentor’s legacy alive.
Nevertheless, after a career that now spans some 40 years, McDermott is again striking out on his own. After a career that’s found him working in both the governmental and private sectors on energy and environmental issues, he’s returned to a musical mantra. His last album, Gin & Rosewater, released in 2017, marked his first solo effort in the 33 years since his solo debut, The Turning of the Wheel, which was released in 1984. His latest effort, a seven song EP titled 38 Degrees and Raining, addresses the troubles and tumult of the last four years in ways that are both descriptive and disparaging, with songs that are insightful, intuitive and unflinchingly honest all at the same time.
McDermott notes that 38 Degrees and Raining was originally intended to be a full-length effort and that most of its songs, and several others that weren’t included, were recorded in January 2020. “In the process of listening to them, me and Marco Giovino, the drummer and producer who is a real important part of this record, started talking about how we wanted to attack the various states of mind affected by the pandemic,” McDermott recalls. “There was no appetite amongst anybody to be in a studio environment, so we had to kind of go to a plan B, and we focused in on some of the songs that were the furthest along, like, for example, ‘We Will Walk Through the Streets of the City.’ It was pretty much just there. With the song ‘You Always Do That To Me— Sometimes,’ the basics were also there.”
“We Will Walk Through the Streets of the City” is the only song on the album which McDermott didn’t write, but it became a source of inspiration. “It’s an old, old gospel song written by this preacher named Garfield Haywood in the 1920s,” he explains.” It’s been recorded several times, and as we did with several other things, we took it from major key to a minor key and we slowed it down a lot. And when we first recorded it, I still stayed true to the gospel lyrics, which was all about the fact that we are weak, but God is almighty. And if we play by the rules, we’ll meet up with our loved ones on the other side. But being that we’re in the middle of the pandemic, and we’re in year four of the Trump administration, I said, ‘You know, this could be more than that, about how I’m weak, but together, we’re mighty, and you can’t hold us down. So I rewrote the lyrics to do that.”
With the various turns and tweaks, the record slowly started to take on a new impetus, as well as a new meaning.
“The song ’38 Degrees and Raining’ I wrote a couple years ago, in 2017 or 2018, and we had been gigging it ever since. So we went back to that song, which starts out literally bitching about bad weather. In writing that song, I had started down that road. Sometimes your songs take their own path. So by the second verse, I’m turning the foul weather into a metaphor for the foul mood in the country. Good liars borrow, but the great ones steal. So now I’m really talking about Trump. Somewhere in the writing, I was hijacked by Rachel Maddow.”
McDermott’s emotional investment culminated with what is arguably the most poignant song of the set, “Here’s the Thing About America.”
“I wrote the song last April and I really felt an affection for it,” McDermott recalls. “However stylistically, I wasn’t really feeling it was a fit with the rest of the record. So we just set it there for a little bit. But that was a classic example of recording in the COVID age. I did the voicing on the guitar here at home and then put a little synthesizer bit on and sent that to Marco and the professionalism flourished. Marco put his stuff on, and sent it to the other musicians and that’s how it was done.”
Eventually, the decision was made to move ahead with an abbreviated version of what they had conceived early on. “We were now at around six songs,” he recall. “So we figured it doesn’t need to be more. Let’s make it an EP. It doesn’t have to be a CD. And then my last harebrained idea was to shape it as a political album, or a cultural album or whatever. I went back to the song ‘Hold Back the Water,’ which was originally on Gin & Rosewater. That’s my climate change rant, if you will. So I said, ‘Let’s get that in there too. As long as we’re going to complain, let’s just complain about our inattention to disaster.’ So we did a remix of it, put it on and then considered the record done. There’s four tracks left over from these initial sessions we did last January that will wait for the next project. This was all about the wonders of digital recording and emailing tracks back and forth.”
Photo credit: Ron Pownall