Tom Joad’s Footsteps

Singer-Songwriter Mark McKay Paints Americana With His Music

By David Morreale | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 02.12.16 – In the Studio, Music

Mark McKay is possibly the most accomplished songwriting son of Frederick that you’ve never heard of. A regular player in New York City,  he divides his time between the musically rich mecca that is the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the perhaps surprisingly deep and broad music scene here in Frederick.

His songwriting, gritty and honest and gorgeously full of longing, sets boots down on the same ground trod by songwriters like Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen, without being derivative, while adding to the vocabulary of the American Songbook.

As a songwriter performing around the area, I’d seen McKay’s name on posters next to mine at coffee shops and other venues for years before I met him. He rarely put his face on his posters, and his reputation was that of a thoughtful, literate, Dustbowl-style songwriter. Once I finally meet him and get to know him, it is easy to hear that his reputation was a well-deserved thing.

“I just love being part of that team. I love listening to other musicians and I love live music and listening to great musicians.”

A part-time resident of Braddock Heights, his Frederick roots go back quite a ways. These days, he plays the Frederick Coffee Company & Cafe on a regular basis between gigs in New York. But he still had time for us to sit down and chat about music, Frederick and what it is to be an itinerant, peripatetic-type in the Americana music scene.

Let’s start with Frederick. Any local musicians turn you on?

“There is a local musician here in Frederick that I love, named Harry Lebherz. I was just talking to Harry, and he was telling me about a session he’d played on for Barbara Streisand, you know? He played Broadway shows! He’s a classically trained bassist who understands rock ’n’ roll and he plays great, and he lives here!”

As songwriters do, we also talk about the venues we’ve shared and the gatekeepers who book acts at those venues.

“The cool thing about this town is that we have more than our fair share of great venues and music. Todd Walker is one of those guys that is just so committed to producing fantastic music in this town. He understands this scene very well, and he’s great at getting songwriters from all over. He’s tied in, you know?”

McKay’s regular shows in NYC are the product of his own skills and his connections to other prolific songwriters and performers. One long-time collaborator, Eric “Roscoe” Ambel, plays guitar for Steve Earle and has produced several of McKay’s records, including the 2010 CD Dakota Dust and the 2004 release Shimmer.

“Eric and the rest of the band I play with in New York are amazing players. At our last gig, I started to call the tune out to the band, and Eric stopped me and said, ‘Don’t tell them what song we’re playing! That’ll ruin it.’ So, I didn’t and they rocked it. I love the confidence that comes with knowing that the band is tight, everyone trusts one another, and I love the energy that’s created when that happens.”

But live performance is so different from the craft of writing. It’s the difference between tying one’s shoes and walking a tightrope. So …

Why songwriting? If art is expression, then why not painting or sculpture?

He pauses and finally says, “There’s just something sacred about songs. Something different that isn’t there in painting or novels. There’s that Leonard Cohen line about the temple of song, right? I think of that when I write…”

His voice, taking on a rising note as he warms to a subject dear to his heart, becomes imbued with the fervor of the acolyte.

“I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again. He totally changed my life when I was a teenager. I’ve been listening to his first album again, and I’ll tell you, the thing that is interesting about his first record is this. Every song is three and a half minutes or less. … He only stretches out on House of The Rising Sun, and there’s just something about that vocal delivery that gives you that singular experience of Bob Dylan, an artist just at the top of his game.”

Listening to McKay’s CDs is like walking on worn ground scattered with dust of broken hearts and beaten-down dreams. His song Nashville especially stands out as evidence of a writer at the top of his metaphorical game, swinging for the fences. His list of performers with whom he’s shared stages is a Who’s Who of great, American songwriters: Rick Danko, Fred Eaglesmith, James McMurty, Kris Delmohorst, Mark Erelli and Baltimore’s own Junestar. Regardless, when he travels, he travels alone. Have guitar, will travel.

Is it a lonely business, touring and writing alone?

“I’m kind of obsessed with landscape as metaphor right now. When you paint the picture of a place, it evokes a certain ideal or emotion and I think, for musicians, Nashville holds a kind of idealized value, maybe for commercial reasons, I don’t know. But [my song] Nashville is a love song, really. It’s about longing for that kind of idealized place. … We move toward ideals, and it’s about emotion and driving back to the thing that motivates us.”

Does the city of Nashville hold that kind of allure for him as it does for so many other songwriters?

“I’ve been there, but really, the only place in America that holds that kind of magic, for me, is New York.”

What about your past? How did music happen for you?

“My dad was so obsessed [with music] that he ran a cable from the turntable in the music room in the basement, through the floor joists above, to a pair of headphones on his bedside table upstairs! He’d put on a record, a vinyl record, and run upstairs and sit in bed listening to the music. It was amazing.”

He also received support at school for his efforts.

“I had a teacher, a creative-writing teacher who really challenged me. She told me one day, ‘You’re poetic. You’ve got writing skills that you should continue to work on. So I did.”

His musical roots are firmly rooted in the jam band scene, and that morphed into his current obsessions with Dylan, Patti Smith and more modern songwriters and progenitors of the Americana scene.

“Bob Dylan, The Band, Wilco… those guys are Americana music … with some punk sensibilities, and I just listen to everything. I’ve worked with Eric Ambel producing the records for a long time now, and he has that sensibility where you come into the studio with the songs ready, and you put good mics in front of good musicians playing good songs and you record that. Minimal production. It’s an honest ethic in how you record stuff, and that’s how I try to write.”

What do you think about where you might fit into the pantheon of American music?

“I’m just a guy, man,” he demurs, “there are a lot of great songwriters out there and I just love being part of that team. I love listening to other musicians and I love live music and listening to great musicians. It’s simple, I just love good songwriting and that’s really all there is to it.”