David M McLean, Skinny Devil Music Lab and Lexington Music Awards, January 2017

Image courtesy of David M McLean

David M McLean is yet another of those prolific musical entities that are the engine room of independent music.

You know the sort of person who slogs away in the foreground and background, tirelessly making things happen and ensuring the world is a music-filled and art-filled place to live, breathe, and hear.

A writer, composer, guitarist, producer, teacher, and possibly most front-brain right now, the brains* behind the Lexifest music awards for Lexington, Kentucky.

* Refer to the interview for how the brains and brawn of this event are distributed and attributed.

In 2017, I spoke with David as he sat in his truck with his cell phone somewhere on a cool Lexington KY evening. We spoke so long that my intention was to break the interview into two parts. However, after a series of technical gremlins and many edits later, I’ve whittled this down into the one sound file.

Part of the editing leaves the back end of our chat slamming like a door in a stiff breeze, so apologies for the abruptness.

*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***

*** Audio file will be removed by the end of March 2020 ***

I’m looking forward to hearing about Lexifest 2017, and here’s hoping the blizzards stay away from town in the run-up this year.

Image courtesy of David M McLean

Image courtesy of David M McLean

Text of the interview with David M McLean:

BQ: I’m sitting in Coolangatta in the beautiful south east of Queensland, Australia but somewhere in Lexington, Kentucky USA it’s good evening to David M McLean. G’day, David.

David M McLean: Hey, how’re ya doin’, Bill? Yes, I’m right here in Lexington, Kentucky. In my car! My truck, actually.

BQ: When you say ‘truck’, are we talking a pick up?

DMMcL: Ah, no no, it’s sort of just an SUV crossover kind of thing so I can haul gear and that.

BQ: So your band van then?

DMMcL: Yeah, sort of, yeah. Something where I can sit as many guitars as I need.

And my Marshall.

BQ: Now we were talking off air about why it’s particularly appropriate that you’re sitting in a car. David M McLean, why is that appropriate?

DMMcL: Well, I think the very first time that we spoke on the phone, years ago – six, seven years ago? I was actually in my vehicle then. So here I am again.

BQ: I want to explore a few different things because you are a man of many levels and layers. There’s a whole bunch of things that you’re involved with but you’ve just come from classes. Tell me a bit about the guitar classes that you do.

DMMcL: I teach four days a week when I’m teaching regular lessons across three locations. Two days I’m teaching private lessons but two days I teach group class lessons in two different locations. And we have multiple levels where we bring people in and take them from the very novice, never picked up a guitar, and we take them hopefully in very short order and have them strumming songs and playing riffs, singing along and having a good time.

A bit part of what I do is teaching.

Image courtesy of David M McLean

BQ: The first contact I had with you was through one of your former students, Almira Fawn. Her story was one of using guitar to overcome shyness. Do you find when you’re teaching kids, young adults that you’re teaching them guitar but maybe addressing some other need?

DMMcL: Absolutely, yeah. Sometimes people come and they just want to learn. And my younger students are seven and eight, but my gosh I’ve had them as young as five years old if they’ve got the fine motor rhythm acquisition to be successful with it. And my older students, I’ve had beginners literally in their seventies and eighties, so I’m not just teaching children.

But having said that, yeah, absolutely. Sometimes they’re learning additional life skills in the process of learning an instrument because of the discipline required to do anything well for that matter, not just a musical instrument. It certainly teaches you other things as well.

Almira was a classical example. At some point she joked about it being therapy, that was the running joke at the time. But most certainly. Sometimes people come because they think playing an instrument will help with – in her case – shyness and breaking out of her shell or expressing themselves in some other way or what have you.

I’ve even had some come and say, “Well, we’ve heard that music is really all numbers and I have a hard time with math” or “My child has a hard time with math, so we thought that might help”.

I don’t know if it does or not, but that’s what they tell me.

BQ: You mentioned the 70 year olds and 80 year olds, do they ever say it’s something they’ve always wanted to do and either never got around to it or I didn’t have the time or had some other barrier?

DMMcL: Yeah, it’s odd because a lot of kids will come in and sometimes I’ll have a seven or eight year old say, “I’ve always wanted to do it”. Always what? You’re eight!

But a lot of times the kids are experimenting to see what they like. You know, guitar lessons for a couple of months, and soccer for a couple of months, basketball for a couple of months, and dance for a couple of months and whatever. Just bouncing around to see what it is they like.

But most adults when they come to it, typically they’ve wanted to play and either have played years before or it’s something that they’d never gotten around to, and wanted to get around to.

Sometimes the thing that’s always struck me as odd is people who come having never played an instrument and I’ll say, “What brought you to guitar specifically, as opposed to trumpet or violin or whatever else?” And occasionally they’ll say, “Well, I really wanted to play piano, but I’ve decided to play guitar instead”.

And hearing the reasons why they choose guitar is always interesting, and it runs the gamut from anywhere from, “Because I just want to play socially, like around the campfire but the piano won’t fit in the back of the car” to “Well, I did try playing piano, but I took a month of lessons and the teacher told me I wasn’t cut out for it”, which just strikes me as a crazy thing to say to a student.

Image courtesy of the Lexington Music Awards

BQ: The next thing I wanted to focus on is the Lexi Awards. That seemed to start off very quietly and slowly and it’s really built into something quite amazing. Tell us more about the Lexi Awards.

DMMcL: Well, we’re about to do the third award show on January 29th. It started as what I that was going to be a small idea until we booked a small venue that held 75-100 people. We thought we’d struggle to get 75 people in, but it would be the first small steps in building an awards program for the central Kentucky region.

It kinda blew up overnight, so we had to switch venues and the good folks at the Lyric Theatre were fantastic and got us set up. And that year, the first year we did it, there was a huge snowstorm and the whole city was shut down literally until the day of the show.

They finally got the roads cleared and we’d sold only a handful of tickets in advance because everybody knew that the weather was going to be real bad. But we ended up putting 350 or more people in the theatre that holds about 500, a little over 500.

So it was a really good turnout for the first year, and last year we sold out our second year. We added different changes, we added a live band and it was fantastic.

But the awards in general is a little different to what people would see at a standard awards show. We have an industry section where we have a number of categories like best recording studio and best music retailer and things of that nature: best sound man, best live venue.

Then we have another section for performance like best guitar player, best horn player, best bass player, best piano player, whatever.

And then we have a style section which is standard awards that people would be used to seeing. In the US it would the Grammys. And that’s where you have your best rock band, best country band or bluegrass band, jazz band or classical ensemble.

BQ: Do you have a bit of canned music in case anyone does a Bill Quinn and starts talking too much and you want to get them off stage?

DMMcL: No, but we’ve got a live band there so they can cut in any time they need to!

And we’ve got a fourth section that has our song of the year and album of the year, critic’s choice award, lifetime achievement award, community service award, which is really nice to have those special categories.

So it’s really neat and interesting, not just your standard musicians-patting-themselves-on-the-back type of awards show which is an obvious critique that things like the Grammys will not have. In our case, we’re trying to have the entire community involved: music lovers and people who don’t play anything, they just enjoy the music, as well as the retailers and the studio people.

Because nobody makes music in a vacuum; there are people teaching lessons and schools that you go to and recording studios that you go to and somebody selling your stuff and management companies, record labels – we just wanted to bring the entire community and represent all of that in our industry segment.

And then you have people more focused on excelling at a given instrument, for example, and we wanted to honour that as well. You normally see those things in magazines like guitar magazines and things of that nature. We just wanted to run right across the board and bring the entire community in which is why we even have a community service award. Maybe even just a particularly outgoing fan could be nominated in that category. Or a photographer could get nominated. In fact a photographer did get nominated in the first year, I believe it was.

And then Rennie [Neubecker] who runs the LexJam which is basically an open mic, a monthly, very well done open mic, actually won last year. The first year, the award went to the Woodsongs crew because they’re, as you well know, an all-volunteer crew. They put on 40+ shows there, a nationally televised, international radio show and they do it all for free. Every week they’re there with all this top flight talent and they’re just doing it for the love of doing it. So they were honoured the first year for the community service award.

Image courtesy of David M McLean

BQ: Sounds like you’ve got a really good model there to the point where I’d recommend that in a quiet time you document it because it’s absolutely instructive to so many organisations that mean well, but don’t really get it quite right.

Like Woodsongs and the Front Porch Association, you’ve got a good sense of start small and grow it sustainably.

DMMcL: Yeah, that’s why we wanted it community-driven. Quite frankly, and this is gonna sound terribly arrogant until I finish the sentence, I think our program is the best one I’ve ever seen in terms of how we’ve got the whole thing put together. And some might say that’s a terribly arrogant thing to say but in my case it isn’t because I’m just the ring-leader.

The reality is the vast majority of ideas we’re employing are not my ideas. The one thing I think I got right that I would pat myself on the back over is that I recognise when I’m not the smartest guy in the room.

And I know that when you’ve got a thousand people willing to put their thoughts and their passion and their ingenuity and whatnot on the table, and quite frankly, the bravery to lay the ideas out with a bunch of people taking shots at those ideas, I knew that it would turn out better than what I could ever do on my own.

So what we had was we had well over a thousand people involved in the group: musicians and music lovers and professionals and hobbyists and whatever. And they all came together and said, “Well, I think you should do it this way” and “I think you should do it that way”.

And I got more ideas, more great ideas on the table that way. It’d take me a hundred years to think of half the stuff that they came up with in the short time we’ve been doing this. So that’s the think I’ll say that I got right that I recognise that there’s no way for one person, from the ground up – or from the top down, I suppose is the better way to do it – to sort of construct the entire thing and say, “There! It’s awesome, I’ve got it!”

It’s only because the door’s open for anyone to put their two cents in and try to make this thing better that I think we’re doing so well so quickly with it. It’s certainly not perfect, and the nice thing is that at the end of the day, I make the call whatever we’re gonna employ. So if it doesn’t work, it’s clearly my fault; I made the wrong call.

But if it does work, then obviously it has nothing to do with me, it has to do with the people who came up with the ideas that we’re employing. I think that, Bill, I think that alone makes it so community-driven because people have a sense of belonging to the thing. They’re actually part of the process, they’re part of the growth of the entire thing. And they know that they are; they’re empowered to make it better.

Within a couple of years, hopefully my name won’t be associated with it at all. It’ll just be the awards standing on their own and maybe a number of people can speak for it. And I think by that stage, it’ll be twice as good. The farther removed I am from it probably the better it will get!

I try. I don’t know that I’m the best model for getting any of it done. I get some of it right but I sure don’t get all of it right!

BQ: Thanks, David. We’ll talk to you next time.

DMMcL:  Thanks, I’m looking forward to it.

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