Jerry McCann is a professional musician, singer/songwriter and teacher. He’s a guy who was bit by the music bug as a kid, and made the muse his teacher. Music is a way for Jerry to make some sense out of life.
Many folks get caught up in music and find it’s not an easy way to make a living. On the other hand, they never give music the opportunity to be their life. Jerry did, and the music has been his life for over a half century. He’s played with and shared the stage with many music icons. Zappa, Garcia, the Moody Blues, Santana, Steve Miller, Creedence, Chicago, Paul Butterfield, to name a few.
He’s gone through the communal days of living on the Russian River in Northern California. He’s had his share of record and music biz fiascoes, and come out of it all on the upside of life. Jerry McCann is a successful artist, who loves what he does and does what he loves. He will continue to live the music until the day he leaves this rock.
Today, five albums and countless sets later, he continues to perform, write, and record. When he’s not performing live, playing his own songs or giving new life to classic rock, jazz, reggae and blues, electric or acoustic, he’s busy teaching people how to love and play the music they choose.
Jerry’s music is his religion and the stage his church.
Thanks Jerry for doing this interview. You have been performing and writing songs since the sixties – you even had a contract with Elektra Records and didn’t pursue that road. Why was that!
I have always written songs. I wrote my first song when I was 8 years old. It wasn’t that I was a prodigy, my teacher assigned a song for me to learn. I had never heard of the tune and was too lazy to learn it, so, I used the same notes and rearranged them into a completely different song. I played it for her and she got quite upset. From that moment on I knew I wanted to be creative with music and not just a parrot. As for the Elektra experience, I was very disillusioned with the “business” of music and left L.A. to figure out another way to make a living in music. I never stopped writing though.
Do you regret the decision to get on that Rock Star road?
Regret is one of my least favorite words. It’s really a waste of time to live in regret or remorse. It doesn’t change anything. The important thing is to learn from your mistakes and keep on doing what you need to do. I saw, first hand, what the so called “Rock Star” road did to people and their art. I wouldn’t mind being wealthy, but fame is not healthy for a lot of people, and I would be one of those people. New songwriters might read this and relax a bit – It’s not such a bad thing to not get that Big Record Deal.
In this current state of music and the business, you don’t really need the “Mother Ship” record company. What you need is good songs, good demos, and knowledge of the social media phenomenon.
Would you say then that fame is a career killer?
I know, for me, fame is not only a career killer, it winds up taking everything. Your art, integrity, priorities, and sometimes your life. Success can be measured many ways. Having my face on the cover of Rolling Stone could be, for some, a good thing. Fame is, it seems to me, a toxic thing, Elvis, Jim Morrison, Janis, Michael Jackson. I like my privacy. I like to go anywhere, anytime, and be me. I don’t think I’m ready for my close up. Just yet, anyway.
So, selling a song and having it be a hit is not a good thing?
No, selling a song and having a hit is a great thing! It can be a life long source of income. It can be the opening door for your other songs to get picked up and covered by other artists and used in movies, commercials, and T.V. I think when you get into the fame thing and celebrity side, you can get lost very easily.
What do you think of the music biz today?
I think the music business is being totally re-invented and it’s going to, eventually, find a whole new system of doing what it’s supposed to do. Bring the art, the artist, the public, and financial equity into balance. For far too long, it was controlled by the financial side and the art of music suffered.
How many CD’s do you personally have out?
I have 3 c.d.’s out under my own label, Blind Owl Music. “Blue Plate Special”, ” All Lit Up Like the Moon” and my latest ” What It Is & What It Was”.
Dave and I enjoyed listening to “What It Is & What It Was”, and one cut particularly caught our ear, “Without Expression”. Give us a little history on that tune.
Without Expression, is a song I first heard, many years ago, while playing up in Colorado. The owner of the niteclub took our band Framework horseback riding in the Rockies. It was spring and there was a sudden rain storm and we got back into the car and turned on the radio and ‘Without Expression’ was playing. A couple years later, after Show of Hands broke up and Elektra let me go, I did a demo with Bill Blue. ‘Without Expression’ was the first song we recorded. The demo did nothing, and many, many years later, in 2008, I went to a party and Bill was there, we talked about that song, how we could and should do a better version. We agreed to try, and as we went along we just kept recording more and more songs. That’s where “What It Is & What It Was” came from. I would like to acknowledge, and give a large thank you to Bill Blue, Will Gibson, Ron Middag, and Gil Bateman.[cincopa AgDAkgam25Tp]You are a skillful musician, a singer, a performer, a songwriter, and a teacher, if you were to pick one – how do you see yourself?
As a master of disguise and a person with a short attention span!
Which of your skills is the most enjoyable?
I think my ability to imitate farm animals. Actually, the skill I haven’t learned yet is my most enjoyable.
You told us a great story about pitching songs – could you tell it again?
I think the story you’re referring to is, the time I was in the office of the record company president. He told his secretary he was not to be disturbed. I started to play a song for him and within 30 seconds, his phone rang, and he “Had to take this call”. He finished and said to play another song. The phone rang and it was another “must take this call”. After about 3 more tries, I realized this wasn’t going to be my big chance after all.
A few years later, I went to see the movie “One Trick Pony”. Paul Simon wrote and starred in this very realistic portrayal of the music business. There’s a scene with Rip Torn playing the record company exec and Paul Simon trying, in vain, to pitch his songs. He would start to play and the phone would ring. It was exactly what I went through. It was like someone else had been in that office and used my experience in the film. I realize now that many songwriters have gone through that same scene. Many more times than you can count.
With people like that in the industry, should you write songs with that in mind?
I think you should write songs that are the truth. Your personal truth. Write about what you feel. Who you are. How it is in your world. Never write a song that is contrived and not real and personal. Write about the things that make sense to you and are important to you. If, by some cosmic stroke of good luck, it’s a hit, you will have that song following you for the rest of your life.
How, in your words, has your own music changed over the years?
I think that music is so much more varied and interesting. There are so many genres and new ones happening all the time. When I first started recording and writing, songs could be no longer than 2 minutes and 30 seconds. No exceptions. Nothing controversial. In love or out of love. That’s it. You could get away with novelty songs. Purple spacemen and monkeys in the jungle. They were always a good way to make a buck. Now, I write much more honestly and try to write words that reflect what and how I think and feel.
What inspires you to write a song?
Sometimes I hear a phrase or a line in conversation. Sometimes I have dreams and they come from God knows where and I write them down. There are songs I have written, I cannot tell you where they came from. Sometimes I feel like a stenographer. Melodies come from the great unknown. I hear tunes in my head 24 hours a day. I tell you, it gets crowded in there.
You teach guitar and songwriting – what do you try to impart to your students?
I try to get students to be creative from day one. As soon as they can play 3 chords, I encourage them to try ideas. I believe that every person has, at least, one great song in them. The only thing that gets in the way of creativity is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of not living up to your own expectations. When we learn to ride a bike, we’re shaky and uncertain. We fall, it hurts, we bleed and get back on that bike. The great thing about music and writing is when you make a mistake and fall, you don’t have to get any stitches.
How important is it to have an education in music – to be able to write and read music?
I get this question often. Lennon and McCartney couldn’t read music. Jimi Hendrix didn’t read music. They gave the world incredible music. Paul Winchell, the ventriloquist, was not a trained medical person, yet he invented a mechanical heart that saved many lives. Ava Gardner, a beautiful movie star came up with an idea on mixing radio frequencies. She wrote it out on a bar napkin. It gave the Allies a great advantage in communications during World War II. The point is, creativity comes from ideas and not structured knowledge.
Give us an idea how you go about teaching a new student to be a songwriter?
I ask a student to point out something in the room we’re in. I’ll write a song about it on the spot. I’ve written songs about rugs, chairs, music stands etc. Were they great songs? No. Were they examples of the communication of music? You tell me.
What is the best advice you could give a new songwriter?
No matter what, keep writing! Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do it. If at first you don’t succeed – write a song about it!
You are certainly a master of your craft and we look forward to your coming contributions to Songwriters Marketplace. What can our readers expect in your ‘Workshop’ series?
I wish I could see into the future. I’d make a killing in the stock market and retire to the south of Fresno. All I can tell you for sure is, I look forward to being a part of anyone’s desire to make, write, or perform their own music.
After Dave and I sat and listened to you play for two hours we know one thing – the music is most certainly in you. Thank you Jerry for your authenticity and generosity.
Thank you guys for allowing me to contribute. I look forward to doing all I can to help.
Jerry offers instruction in singing, guitar, bass, harmonica, and beginning flute. He can also help with songwriting, performing, and stagecraft.
Contact Jerry at:
Jerry McCann Music Instruction
American Music Exchange
204 N. El Camino Real, Suite F
Encinitas, Ca. 92004
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