RYAN BOWMAN, MyToba.ca
Photos courtesy Stony Plain Records
He may have a penchant for reflecting on the past with a touch of nostalgia, but 45 years into his professional music career, Big Dave McLean is just as excited talking about the future.
He doesn’t take his glory days for granted, nor does he yearn to relive the years that were. He is content where he is in life, a husband and father of three in the twilight of his career, enjoying each new day as it comes.
“I’m just loving life and taking it one day at a time,” says McLean, the hearty voice on which he’s built his reputation carrying across the coffee shop on Winnipeg’s Corydon strip. “Some people are scared of getting older, but I’m embracing it.
“I’ve worked hard and built my name up in the music business for decades, and it’s gotten to a point where I’m comfortable.”
McLean’s comfortable existence has been a long time coming.
It all began on the prairies of Yorkton, Sask., where McLean grew up with a concert pianist for a mother and a Presbyterian minister for a father. While he was serenaded by the church choir on a weekly basis, and played around on the harmonica and the kazoo, he didn’t begin to appreciate music until he met blues legend John Hammond at a concert in 1969.
“I got to see him at the Mariposa Festival in Toronto and he gave me my first lesson,” recalls McLean, who was living in Winnipeg by that time. “Something hit me hard when I started listening to the blues, and I knew I was in love with it. From that point on, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and nothing was gonna stop me.”
In addition to his ongoing mentorship from Hammond, McLean befriended a number of Winnipeg blues artists, including Brent Parkin and Gord Kidder. He also cut his teeth at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, where he performed close to 20 times over the years.
“I would say the Winnipeg Folk Festival was one of my biggest schools growing up,” he says. “Every summer I would play out there and I got to meet so many of the guys that influenced me.
“I’ve been fortunate to have such a good collection of friends and acquaintances over the years. We all seem to stick together more than they do in other cities, which can be pretty cutthroat.”
As McLean began to carve out his sound and build a name for himself, his reputation grew. Over the years, he began securing bigger gigs and performing alongside some of the legends in the blues world – including his musical idol, Muddy Waters. He would also go on to contribute to a dozen compilation records and will release his eighth solo effort, Faded, but not Gone, this November.
Still, despite his burgeoning success, McLean struggled to make a living with his music. In fact, he spent nearly 20 years working odd jobs – from construction to car jockeying – to supplement his income.
“The music business is a tough nut to crack and it takes a certain kind of person to make it,” McLean says. “There are people out there that are super talented, guys working at Walmart or Hydro or whatever. But just because they have the talent doesn’t mean they all make it.
“You gotta be able to take being on the road a lot, being away from your loved ones. Sometimes things don’t go your way and you need to be able to handle that just as well as you handle the success and the good things.”
In addition to hard work and determination, McLean says making it in the music biz also takes guts, sacrifice and a sense of humour – even if it’s at the expense of yourself. He says it also requires the ability to adapt.
“The music business changes a lot. The scene, even in Winnipeg, isn’t what it was in the 70s or the 80s or the 90s. If you’re not able to adapt and overcome, you’ll be eaten alive.”
In the case of McLean, the level of success he spent his entire 20s and 30s striving to attain also required patience.
“It seems like the generation coming up right now wants everything instantly,” McLean says. “My only advice to the young guys coming up is this: if you’re interested in doing it, do it all the way. Do it with all your heart.”
McLean is a man who practises what he preaches. In addition to maintaining a demanding touring schedule, he is in the rehearsal studio as often as possible. And when he’s not performing or practising, he’s writing.
“I like working,” he says with a shrug of his broad shoulders.
“I always get shit from my band because I make them play for two hours straight before taking a break,” he laughs. “But I waited all day for this, I’m gonna go as long as I can. Music is what I do, and it’s what I wanna be doing.”
Asked if there’s ever been a point he felt like giving up or taking a break, McLean shakes his head and recounts a gig at a high security prison in the U.S.
“I can still remember the warden standing there with this guy who was locked up for murdering four people,” he says. “I was playing this ballad and both of them had tears rolling down their cheeks.
“Afterwards, the prisoner calls me over and he says, ‘That song reminded me of my mother.’ That really hit home with me. I realized music is something you do for everyone. It really touches everybody and affects everything.”
A more recent reminder of why he does what he does came when he traveled to Mississippi earlier this month.
“It was so sweet to get down there and finally see the place I’ve been singing about all these years and meet some of the people who were there back in the day. I was there, at Ground Zero, where it all began.
“The blues are the first kind of music there was, and pretty much everything else branched off it,” he adds, likening the evolution of music to a massive, immortal tree with blues at the roots.
Roots which McLean feels the duty to both preserve and, at the same time, branch out from.
“I feel like I have to do my part to keep the early blues going, but I try to put my own personal stamp on it,” he says. “You can take things from the other guys, but you want to have your own sound and your own style.”
That sound and style, highlighted by McLean’s raspy vocals and aggressive guitar licks is, indeed, unmistakable. But fortunately for old-school blues lovers, it is also rooted in the stuff he grew up on.
“The stuff I mostly tap into, aside from making up my own stuff, is the traditional hard-hitting stuff, Mississippi Delta and early Chicago, what Muddy (Waters) used to call the stone blues,” he says. “That’s where my heart is at.”
And although his music may never crack a Top 40 chart or win him a million-dollar contract, McLean says there are other – and more important – benchmarks of success.
“If I look at my finances, I guess I’m still hoping to make it one day,” he laughs. “But I’ve got the respect of other musicians, I’ve got fans all across this whole country, I’ve been to other countries where they’ve heard my name, I’ve played side by side with some of the legends.
“I’ve been able to do what I love for 40 years,” he says. “I’d say that’s making it.”
Big Dave McLean will perform at this weekend’s BBQ and Blues Festival at Shaw Park on Sunday, Aug. 17. It will be his third consecutive appearance at the festival.