Michael McDonald Keeps Runnin'
Legendary vocalist and multi-instrumentalist returns with a solid new album

By Lee Valentine Smith

Once a punchline for hipsters, Michael McDonald is finally receiving some decidedly overdue respect from a broad swath of fellow artists and listeners. His instantly recognizable voice is a part of music's DNA at this point, from his considerable canon of work with the Doobie Brothers, his solo releases and collaborations with the likely (Ray Charles, Steely Dan) to the improbable (Thundercat). After forays into Motown and holiday collections, his new album Wide Open is his first batch of originals in 17 years. Currently on tour in support of the disc, the soft-spoken Tennessee resident spoke with INsite on a recent day off.

You're coming back to Symphony Hall, after a holiday show there a while back and then the all-star Last Waltz tour earlier this year.

It's a beautiful venue. I really enjoy playing there. With the Last Waltz, for some reason, the house stayed lit so we could actually see the audience and it was just a beautiful place to look out on.

Last time I was backstage at Symphony Hall, I was talking with David Crosby and your name came up.

Yeah David and I wrote a song together that he recorded [on Syktrails] and I also recorded a version of it. It was a big thrill for me, as you can imagine. He's one of America's treasures as a songwriter. And as a friend, I just enjoy him so much. He's a very unique person. He sees things with a kind of intelligence that most of us have to run to catch up with.

And he's not afraid to speak out, to put it mildly.

(Laughs) No, he's not. But we need that. It always ruffles a lot of feathers to hear the truth, but God willing, there'll always be somebody willing to tell it. Like now, there's so much [going on] that we should have been past years ago. We certainly shouldn't be passing along racism and all these maladies to the next generation. We all thought we'd be the generation that would finally do away with it. But there's still some work to be done.

As a man of faith and an artist, how do today's events affect your work?

Well when it comes to faith, I don't speak for anyone else. My relationship with the God of my understanding doesn't have anything to do with anyone else. So much of religion is man trying to create God in his own image so they can control other men. I think we need to move away from that and find God inside of us. When I start to get all churned up and angry, I've learned that I'm the problem. Basically, I have to walk the walk - and we do have to stand up sometimes.

What a time to be releasing a new record.

It's definitely an interesting time, especially for the record business. Who even knows what the record business is anymore? We put these things out there in hopes of something but I figure if it just boosts ticket sales a little bit for the live performances, I'll be happy.

It's a very Nashville record, but it's certainly isn't country.

I know what you mean, the core players on it are all Nashville guys. But that's a good city for that because there's such a great pool of talent, especially guitar players. You can't find a bad guitar player in Nashville. It's be like finding a bad restaurant in Chicago.

The song "Hail Mary" from the new album is a great statement of being and redemption. What was on your mind when you did that one?

Well that's pretty much it, what you just said. I do this a lot - maybe to a fault - I'll take a personal feeling, maybe more of a singular personal feeling, and put it into the context of a male-female relationship. That's just for the purpose of having a motif for the lyric. On a personal level, it's kind of about the thing we all experience at my age. You hear so many people go, 'You know I still feel like I'm 15 in my head.'

Right, but sometimes the body doesn't cooperate.

Yeah, I think it's something we wrestle with as we get older. You might think, 'When I'm 65 I'll just sit on the porch and stare at the lawn.' But that's not really what happens to us. Look at some many of the bands that are touring now, some of the guys are in their '70s and they're just hittin' their zenith, you know? I find that inspiring. So the song is about that feeling when you start to second guess yourself. At this point in time, you may feel like you're making a Hail Mary pass. You want to just run it into the end zone one more time. I don't think that feeling ever leaves us. For the baby boomer generation, I don't think we feel that we're supposed to go hang it up somewhere. For some reason, we feel that we need to keep trying to make a difference or keep shooting for a goal.

You're on a wave of great appreciation and it's so good that you've just released a solid record. But what else keeps you runnin' as they say?

I have a few more records in my pocket. Lately I've had several things going at once. For a long time though, it wasn't that way. When I was younger, our schedule was such that we were lucky to just get the next record out. This one took forever, but I'm a great procrastinator. Past that, a while back I bought myself an old, drivable Airstream, so sometime I'd like to just take some time to go up and down the coast and surf and paint. You never know.

Michael McDonald plays Symphony Hall on October 22. Marc Cohn opens. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.



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