Don McLean, through his iconic songs “American Pie,” Vincent,” Castles in the Air,” and others is one of the most recognizable names in American music. Recently, the singer/songwriter penned a distribution deal with Time Life that allowed 11 of his albums to be available for the first time across all of the major digital platforms and for the release of his new album Still Playin’ Favorites in the Fall. By phone, we discussed “American Pie,” Elvis Presley, Pete Seeger, his deal with Time Life, his new album, the songwriting process, and his plans for the future.
Americana Highways: Over the last few years, you have been very open and forthright about the meaning of “American Pie”. As we approach the 50th anniversary of its release in 2021, do you have anything to add to what you have already said, or are there still misconceptions about the song that you would like to address?
Don McLean: Well, I really haven’t spoken about the song. I have spoken about the origin of the song and tried to explain the concept of what I was trying to do when I wrote it. There’s still a lot of misconceptions that people have about it and I don’t correct them or address them because I don’t talk about the lyrics to the song. I just let it be fun for people and let it operate on the various levels that it operates on.
AH: Can you describe your emotions you felt when you first found out that Elvis Presley, one of your biggest musical heroes, had recorded and was regularly performing your song “And I Love You So”, a song originally from your first album Tapestry?
DM: That was definitely one of the highpoints of my career. A lot of people have recorded Elvis’ songs but very few people can say that Elvis sang one of the songs that they wrote. So, that’s a pretty big deal that he sang one of my songs and that he did it so beautifully too. You know at heart, Elvis was a pop singer and he sang a lot of love songs. He just kind of lucked into that whole rockabilly motorcycle hood thing. But basically, he was a mama’s boy and he sang a lot of songs that his mama would have liked and I am sure he saw “And I Love You So” as one of those songs.
AH: What are some of your favorite memories of your mentor Pete Seeger?
DM: Oh, wow. You know Pete Seeger was a character. He really was. He was outside of the norm in almost every way. I have so many vivid memories, too numerous to mention here, of him doing things and saying things that were just different.
AH: One of my favorite quotes of his, that you have said he said to you, was that “Everything Matters.”
DM: Yes, and by that, he meant both the big stuff and the little stuff mattered. That was one of the many things he taught me. You know, he would say things like do it all and big things will happen, but you don’t ever want to be just living for the big things like stadium appearances. He would say that there are all kinds of things that you do that affect people and you never know who is in your audience. He would always tell me that it was important that you had standards and that you maintained those standards.
I also think he had enormous respect for his audience, for the people out there listening to him and the struggles that they were going through in their lives. As an artist, he wanted to give them information, his point of view, and he wanted to help make the world a better place with his music.
There were times when he was tired or sick or whatever, but he always pulled himself together, got his energy up, and did what he had to do to give a good show. I never saw him give a bad performance.
AH: So, how exactly did the streaming deal with Time Life come about?
DM: Actually, the origins of it were when my son Wyatt texted me and asked me why only a certain number of my records were on the streaming sites and I told him I didn’ t know the reason why.
Also at the same time, I had a new album that was finished and in the can and we were looking to find a record company to release it.
So, after my management people contacted Time Life about the new album, they not only said yes to putting it out but also said that they were interested in releasing 11 of my albums that hadn’t been streamed before, onto all of the streaming platforms.
Between the streaming sites and the new Don McLean YouTube channel that the Time Life people set up, a lot of music fans are now learning about my music for the first time, which I must say, is rather exciting.
AH: So, when will the new album that you are referring to be released?
DM: They are going to release it in the Fall, along with a CD boxed set of the 11 albums that are now streaming for the first time. The name of the album is Still Playin’ Favorites and it is an album of cover songs that has a lot of rockabilly and uptempo songs on it.
AH: How would you best describe your songwriting process?
DM: I don’t have one. A lot of times I avoid writing songs because I really don’t like doing it. I don’t like the fact that an idea will take me over and that I can’t sleep until I finish the damn thing. Perhaps, if Warner Brothers said to me that they wanted a new album full of new material, I would give it one more shot, but I feel like I’ve said just about everything I have to say about almost everything. I mean, I’ve written about poverty, I’ve written about the environment, I’ve written about scads of things, and I just don’t do something to do it. It’s not how I operate. I don’t have anything to say that I don’t write.
AH: What advice would you give to aspiring songwriters?
DM: In short, my advice is to listen to music going back to the 1930s-1970s and maybe the 1980s and that’s it. Put songs from those eras in your head and something good will come out.
AH: How would you best describe your music?
DM: I would describe it as a fusion of three different kinds of music – the popular music that existed before rock and roll, early rock and roll itself, and of the folk music of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
With those three kinds of music, I take the beautiful melodies from that era of Pop music and combine it with my love for the land and my love for the down to earth stories that you find in the old rock and roll and folk music. All of my songs come out of this fusion.
AH: How would you like to be remembered?
DM: I don’t have to worry about that because I have already created my legacy with my songs. All those tracks on all my albums, all those performances on TV, all those concerts, and all those events I participated in speak for themselves. My life has had ups and downs just like everybody else’s life has, but I am not concerned about my legacy because I trust in the music that I have created and I trust in my standards. That’s the reason why I’m not writing right now – I feel like I just don’t have anything to say at this moment in time. I feel like if you push yourself to put out something just to put out something, it’s going to come out wrong. I don’t look at anything that I have done like it was wrong, because it wasn’t. I always kept my standards, so I believe that’s going to be my legacy and how I am going to be remembered. People are going to listen to my songs, see me play live, listen to the words and melodies and say that’s Don McLean.
AH: So what’s next for Don McLean?
DM: Well, we have a very full year planned for next year, and I also have a lot going on for this year, if any of it is allowed to happen. I don’t know if it will be, but if I don’t get to do the stuff this year, then I will do it next year or the year after next because I’m not coming off the road. I’m going to die out there or die at home, but I’m not going to retire and sit at home and drool, because that’s just not my style.
To find out more about Don McLean, his music, and his new deal with Time Life please visit his website .