ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON DEC. 2, 1983
By Steve Newton
Like the down-to-earth artist that he is, Murray McLauchlan always finds inspiration for his best songs in the experience of life–whether it be the murder of John Lennon on last year’s Windows album, or, as in his new single “Never Did Like That Train”, a vague memory of childhood yearning.
“To a large extent it’s autobiographical,” reveals the Scottish-born 35-year-old of his first release from the new Timberline LP. “I started to remember this thing that used to happen when I was seven or eight years old.
“There was a freight train line about a mile and a half away from the house, and this big bugger used to come through from Detroit once or twice a week and wake me up at two or three in the morning. With the Doppler effect it would kinda spook ya–you’d start to sort of travel with it in your head.
“It came to present both freedom and the fear of being afraid at the same time. So the train in that song is almost symbolic–it’s a metaphor for a state of life.”
Timberline is McLauchlan’s 13th album. His first, Songs From the Street, was released in 1971, and he’s put one out every year since. Some of his better-known songs include “Down By the Henry Moore”, “Farmer’s Song” (for which he won two Juno awards in 1973 as Composer and Folk Singer of the Year), and “If the Wind Could Blow My Troubles Away”, which was chosen as the worldwide theme for the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons.
He also wrote the theme song for the movie Melanie, which starred Burton Cummings, and has scored two other feature films, Partners (1976) and Ripoff (1971).
Not a bad track record for someone with meager beginnings in the Ontario coffeehouse circuit. Although, according to McLauchlan, that circuit did thrive in the late sixties and is being somewhat relived today.
“I’m not really nostalgic about it,” he says, “but I do feel sometimes that it would be an awful lot nicer for people that are trying to break into making music–for other reasons than making money–if that vital kind of club scene still existed. Although, it’s starting to exist again–just in a different way than it was then. Different values, different styles–whether it’s a mohawk haircut or whatever–the scene is more alive than I remember it being for about 18 years.”
And what about the folk music scene in general?
“Well, I can only go by the evidence,” muses McLauchlan. “I got back on the folk festival circuit this year more out of curiosity than anything else, and found out–to my great surprise–that there’s a lot of great music being made by people that isn’t getting on the radio. And that there’s a tremendous amount of interest in it.
“I did the Winnipeg festival the summer before last, and when they asked me to come I went, ‘What? A folk festival? I haven’t done one for ten years!’ But they had 60,000 people there over three days, which is amazing.”
McLauchlan, who has played this year’s Festival Of Friends in Hamilton and the Calgary and Edmonton Folk Festivals (but not the Vancouver one–“nobody’s formally invited me”), has been a commercially licensed pilot since 1976, and routinely flies himself to concerts and record promotions. One wonders whether the sensation of flying would inspire him to write tunes.
“You’re a little too busy to write up there,” McLauchlan says with a slight grin. “But actually, one of the songs on the Timberline album–“Red River Flood”–is culled from an experience which occured while I was flying across the country on a tour for the Whispering Rain album.
“I was flying a big Aztec Twin over Manitoba and the Red River had just crested. And it was just water–miles and miles of water all the way to the U.S. border. All you could see was the tips of the trees lining where the river used to be.”
But “Red River Flood”, one of the more upbeat numbers on TImberline, is not concerned solely with that incident.
“In a rather odd sort of way that song has to do with the reason behind fundamentalist religion too. The idea is ‘You put your whole life in this piece of clay and the Red River comes and takes it all away.’ I’ve seen that happen in the Texas panhandle or so many places where people put their whole lives in the little gas station on the corner and then all of a sudden KKKKKKKKK–something comes along and smears it. So who do you appeal to? Then all of a sudden fundamentalist religion made more sense.”
And McLauchlan uses aviation images in another song off the new album, “Out Past the Timberline”, to say something about the Canadian identity.
Bush plane pilot rumbles out on floats, and then a flash of spray/Twelve fuel drums and four Indian kids and their mother fly fly away/Down in Toronto blue-suited commanders taxi flying hotels past the green marker signs/That’s the heart of the country, but the soul is out past the timberline.
“It used images to make the point that Canada isn’t necessarily just Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, etc. That’s where the heart is, but it’s not the thing in people’s souls that defines them as Canadian. That’s something else, and the song tries to express it in a spiritual sort of way.”
Timberline is “vastly different” from his more recent albums, says McLauchlan, because he’s become involved with a style of music in which he feels completely comfortable. He believes his last two, Windows and Storm Warning, were “just sort of poking out and seeing what happened.”
“I wanted to go back to making the type of music that was like all my favourite albums. I love Johnny Cash’s first Sun album. There’s nothing but Carl Perkins and a bass guy and a drum and that’s it, with Johnny Cash playing acoustic guitar.
“I wanted to make an album where you could really hear the guys playing together. I wanted it all to sound like me and two guys and I didn’t want any virtuoso soloists on it.”
McLauchlan didn’t get any virtuoso soloists on Timberline, but he did acquire the solid rhythm section of bassist Terry Wilkins and drummer Bucky Berger.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with them, though I’ve wanted to for a long time. It was an unusual kind of combination, because they are best known for being part of Rough Trade for a number of years. So it’s kind of a strange direction for them.
“But they play in five or six different bands–everything from a bluegrass band to a swing band that does Andrews Sisters stuff. They play a lot of different kinds of things.”
The versatility of Wilkins and Berger is likely due to their having been influenced by many different musicians. And though his style crosses fewer dimensions, McLauchlan’s influences are also numerous.
“Before I was aware of Bob Dylan I’d heard of Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Then Dylan came along and influenced me and a tremendous number of other people with the idea that you could put something more in the way of lyrics to a melody and make something happen. It was essentially the birth of a new, more powerful form of songwriting that was taking folk singing somewhere else.
“But in more modern times people that have influenced me a lot would be J.J. Cale and Tony Joe White–people like that. It’s my ‘roots’ music. Not so much mainline country, but more like country blues–southern swampy or western Texas swing. And I like Tony Joe ’cause he’s such a tremendous rack harmonica player.
“He’s almost as good as me,” says McLauchlan with a chuckle.
One of the things that make Murray McLauchlan such a fine songwriter is his imagination. Take for example this verse from Timberline‘s “Horses On the Highway”.
The stars say steady as the white line blurs/All across the flatland, not a creature stirs/Then time rips open, like a jagged hole/And the scouts ride out and the wagons roll.
“Sometimes a window will seem to open into the past where you can see things in your mind’s eye superimposed on where you are in the present. And for ‘Horses’ the idea is of just driving along through the West and all of a sudden having these historical ghosts running along with you when you’re bagged late at night and kind of hallucinating. You see these things, and they’re real, but the sun comes up and they all burn away with the fog, and then you go, ‘Wow, am I nuts?'”
No, you’re not nuts Murray. You’re just the kind of creative songsmith Canadians can be proud of.