If Edwin McCain felt any trepidation or writer’s block at the daunting prospect of following up his 1997 breakthrough release, Misguided Roses (Atlantic/Lava), it’s well-hidden behind his brand-new CD’s 12 well-crafted folk-rock numbers — a mix of the intimate and the upbeat, of ballads and party tunes.
Messenger (Atlantic/Lava, 1999) is the third major-label release from McCain — who has bulled his way through what can only be called a rash of Hootie backlash (yes, he once toured and recorded with Hootie & the Blowfish — perhaps the most equally hated and loved band in America), performing almost nonstop and putting out a new disc that beats no retreat from his South Carolina rootsiness.
Producers Matt Serletic (Matchbox 20, Collective Soul, Aerosmith) and Noel Golden (Cool For August, Chantal Kreviazuk) encouraged McCain to pen the songs for this disc in the studio, with his bandmates in the studio this time (as opposed to his usual solitary songwriting). But after the long Misguided Roses tour ended — and before he and his band embarked on the arduous songwriting process — McCain took what he calls some “vagabond” time, flying a single-engine plane across the country from Portland, Ore., and sleeping in hangars along the way, “like Huckleberry Finn with a charge card,” as he once described it.
Then in March, McCain — along with longtime bassist Scott Bannevich, drummer Dave Harrison, sax/keyboard player Craig Shields, and guitarist Larry Chaney — entered Atlanta’s Tree Sound Studio. “Prior to this, I’d been writing acoustic songs, and then the band would work them up,” McCain explains. “That was cool, but a little disjointed, if you’re trying to function as a unit. On [the new CD], we functioned more as a collective. This is much more of a reflection of everyone’s musical input than it is my own vision — which, in my opinion, is a better way to go, because everybody in this band is so talented.”
McCain presents an interesting set of contradictions. On the one hand, he confesses that spending too much time in the studio can lead to a less-than-honest record. “When you get into the infinite possibilities of the studio, you start second-guessing your second guesses,” he observes. Yet Messenger is a lavishly produced studio affair — featuring members of the Los Angeles Symphony and the Atlanta Brass Society, and including a sweeping tune that has become a top-five-adult-contemporary hit (“I Could Not Ask For More,” written by pop songstress Diane Warren). “Diane called and said she wrote a song for me,” McCain relates. “I was, like, ‘I don’t really do other peoples’ tunes, but thanks anyway.’ So she played it for me over the phone, and I thought, ‘What a great chorus! Let’s do it.’
“Albums should be a snapshot of your head space at the moment, as opposed to these grand creations of what you think people want to hear,” McCain continues. “This record is me and the band striving to make more of an all-around [release]. We have these giant rock songs, and then there are these sparse, painfully intimate acoustic songs. It’s representative of what we do live, really.”
Many of the “snapshots” on Messenger bring to life the Americana that McCain has experienced while touring — the brokenhearted, the lonely, the lost people and places. “See Off This Mountain” begins: “She’s a Blue Ridge cradle, she’s a mother to some/And home to the laughter of road weary ones/So we’ll sing all the old songs, sing to grandmama road/And we’ll sing ’cause we miss her, and we’re sad she had to go.”
In “Ghosts of Jackson Square,” McCain describes a street person: “In tinsel and tap shoes, Mardi Gras beads in her hair/Down to the graveyard, she wrung out her hands as if he will meet her/All day she stands.”
“Beautiful Life” tells of a longing for the past: “And they’re eating breakfast at the strip bar just to have a peek/And the beer-soaked angels spread their wings/And dream of twenties and diamonds and things/And somehow that might ease the sting of the company they keep.”
While growing up in Greenville, S.C., McCain was influenced by country, soul and Motown sounds, along with rock ‘n’ rollers as diverse as Kiss and The Replacements. As a guitar-playing teenager, he also drew inspiration from one-time Asheville resident David Wilcox. “I’d drive two hours up to Black Mountain just to catch his set,” McCain recalls. “David wrote all these gut-wrenching, incredibly poetic, parable-type songs. All these people would pile into this tiny little club [McDibbs, and later, The Grey Eagle] to listen to this guy preach. It was rapturous, to say the very least.”
McCain got a gig playing covers and some originals at a Hilton Head Island resort, and soon formed a band, called simply, Edwin McCain. They began playing numerous dates around South Carolina, built a strong following with the help of a self-released CD, Solitude. The band struck up a friendship with fellow South Carolinians Hootie & the Blowfish, and spent time as that group’s support act. That stint brought McCain and company to the attention of Atlantic Records; in1995, the label released McCain’s first full-length effort, Honor Among Thieves. The disc sold more than 250,000 copies, and included a duet with Hootie’s Darius Rucker (titled “Solitude”).
Misguided Roses proved McCain’s staying power on the charts — though the disc’s ascent was slow. Released in June 1997, it didn’t hit the Billboard 200, nearly 10 months later. In May of 1998, a ballad from the CD, titled “I’ll Be,” was featured in the season finale of the Warner Brothers teen-angst series, Dawson’s Creek. By June, McCain had a breakthrough hit on his hands. “I had a feeling when I wrote it,” he says. “I don’t get that often, but I just knew ‘I’ll Be’ had a great, hooky chorus and a different way of saying something everybody could understand.” As of October 1999, Messenger had peaked on the Billboard charts at number 59.
But record charts are not McCain’s main concern: What delights him most is surprising audiences. “People come to our gigs expecting this acoustic-ballad show,” he says with a laugh, “and then we come out and cover the spectrum, from Latin to rock to the solo-acoustic thing. There’s a lot of dimension to what we’re doing, and it’s all based on the heritage of songwriting and our road-dog musicianship vibe. It’s all about the shared experience.”