Forrest McCurren photo by Brett Jackson
Forrest McCurren on The Overlooked World of Oh Me, Oh My
Forrest McCurren is building on a live performance history by releasing his debut album, Oh Me, Oh My, out August 19th, 2022, joined by his wife Margaret McCurren, who plays violin and delivers harmony vocals on the album as well as taking part in their live band. Songs “Oh Me, Oh My,” and “Little Rock” are out now, showcasing McCurren’s storytelling, and reflecting the duo’s first experiences recording in a studio, laying down the tracks with Wes Sharon of 115 Recording in Norman, Oklahoma. On Oh Me, Oh My, the McCurrens are also joined by guitarist Ryan Engleman (Turnpike Troubadours and Reckless Kelly), drummer Jimmy Paxson (The Chicks, Stevie Nicks, Ben Harper), and keyboardist Dan Walker (Heart, John Fullbright, Courtney Marie Andrews), with Sharon on bass.
McCurren has now been songwriting for a few years and his goal to capture the small details of daily life that most interest him, particularly drawn from the observation of his fellow humans, is on full display on the new album. Those details that are often overlooked in the business of living life take on deeper meanings for McCurren. Along with developing memorable central themes, McCurren often immerses the audience in a sense of place, time, and character that are met by robust rhythms and warm strings that make sure that the songs are as memorable musically as well as lyrically. I spoke with Forrest McCurren about a number of his interests, including Sam Shepard, the freeing sense of driving while listening to music, and telling empathetic stories about the human beings that he encounters.
Americana Highways: How do you find time for songwriting, given that you play live a lot when you can?
Forrest McCurren: Most of the songs that I keep, and enjoy playing, and that resonate with folks, makes people feel like they know the people in the songs. When someone comes up after a show, and says, “I know that guy! You wrote a song about me!”, I say, “I love you.” Those songs seem to come out pretty quickly. My buddy in college gave me a book called The Art of Discipline, and I still haven’t read it, but I love that title!
AH: [Laughs] That’s a very revealing joke. I love that you haven’t read it yet.
FMcC: [Laughs] And I actually read all the time! I love reading. But I’m a short story guy and I love excerpts. Sam Shepard has a collection called The Motel Chronicles which I carry around. I have three copies.
AH: I love that book. I love his plays, too. They are so memorable and stay with you.
FMcC: What I love about him is that he focuses in on the micro of things. It’s an evening in a hotel room, it’s something that you’ve experienced, but he makes the everyday special in some way. His writing is so human. I try to keep the avenue to writing open, and if I have a line that I like, I pay attention. I’ll make time for a line that I like, stop what I’m doing, and write it down, even on a piece of cardboard if that’s all I have. You can use your phone these days, but I really like a notebook. I do find that if I go a month and that hasn’t happened, I have to sit down and get something out. Journaling and writing songs are the way I process things without having to think too much about them. It’s kind of a therapeutic thing. Sometimes it comes quick, though, and I try to get it down quick. I’m working a lot on editing these days since sometimes the songs were written in a feverish, nonsensical state. But in my writing, I do try to be very conversational.
AH: Based on listening to the album, I would say that it is very conversational, but I am surprised by how much detail works its way into the songs. In these songs, you’ve got this key concept or idea, but you’re also putting in the detail throughout the song which means the audience really should pay attention throughout. Do you have any thoughts about that?
FMcC: You mentioning that makes me feel very proud because that’s what I love about my favorite songwriters as well. When you write a song, you hope that you can keep someone’s attention through the second verse. Margaret, my wife, always thinks my second verse is my best so I ought to hook people sooner, but that’s just how it comes out. For a successful song, it can sound good as hell or you can try to catch them with a play on words, but I love the verses.
I love being at a bar and noticing a guy has a tattoo just peeking out under his sleeve or seeing a bandana that’s hanging outside of a lady’s purse. That’s what keeps me interested. I feel I’m really at my best when I’m looking outward at the world around me and noticing the special little quirks that life has all the time if you’re open to it. Those things are all out there in the world, but life is a hell of a thing, so it’s so easy to get focused on paying those bills, or making sure you can eat, or looking out for the folks you care about. But the reason I love songs, and the reason that I love books, and good shows, is that they raise up everyday life. Art does that, raising up the everyday goings on.
You write about the big things, and you try to address love, and death, and the things we all experience, but there are a lot of ties that bind in life, like waking up hungover and needing to go and see your grandpa because you haven’t stopped by the see him in a while!
AH: I’m not exactly sure why, but I think there is a trend in modern life to see it in minimalist terms. Because we’re so focused on how life should be lived, achieving certain goals, we overlook a lot of life itself. We get blinded to the details.
FMcC: Gosh, that’s been on my mind a lot lately. I grew up without a computer or anything, and my dad ran a business out of our house, so I was really good at answering the phone exactly three times a day. Anything more than that, now, is too much. I get texts, and I get e-mails from my buddies, and I feel like everyone has a higher ability to text message than I do. I’m super relational, and that’s what I value, but I’m not technological, so that really weighs on me. We’re so easily at risk of being affected by technology. I don’t want to be a throw-back or jaded about technology. I like it, but it is hard to remove yourself from it. Do you have any techniques for that?
AH: If I had more, I would use them more. I find it’s important not to engage in negativity via social media, texts, or e-mails early in the day. If I do that, it influences my whole day. Even a bunch of positive messages at the same time can be overwhelming for me, worrying how I should sound in my replies.
FMcC: That’s because you’re a writer and so am I! That might be the crux for both of us. People who give a damn about words worry more since text messaging is essentially writing.
AH: A lot of the technology we’re talking about relates to writing, it’s true. I want to ask you about the song, “Big Blue Space.”
FMcC: Speaking of Sam Shepard, I was reading a lot of him when I wrote that. I think I read something of his that made me think of a trip I made to Santa Fe because he referenced Santa Fe. In the song, it references Santa Fe. I’ve always used driving to figure stuff out. If I spend too much time at home, especially alone, it’s not really good for me. I’ve always said that if you can hit the road, with the right album, and the windows cracked just right, you can really get to the bottom of some things.
A few of these tunes are inspired by that, but I think that one is the clearest anthem for the road. That came out with the first line, “There’s a dirty house and a chance of rain.” It’s kind of a conglomerate song because it’s about some friends back home, but I also used to foot race my dad all the time. But I wanted to capture that sense of freedom on the road. I think that we all have times of transition in life where, if you’re going through a tough time, you know when you have a breakthrough or when you’re finally letting go of something that’s been eating at you, so I wanted that chorus to be kind of triumphant.
Life isn’t all flowers, but even though there are things that happen to you, you’ve got to have hope. The name of the game is keeping hope alive. I wanted that chorus to have the feeling of getting a little swagger back in your step. That was our first time going into a studio and recording tunes, so I talked a lot to Wes [Sharon] about that song. That chorus starts to rev up and bounces in your shoulders, and that was a pretty gratifying moment when I felt that we had achieved that.
AH: I think in the lyrics, there’s also a lot of empathy for that character. It reminds me of people who I knew growing up who had a lot of potential, but also inner demons, and I just hoped they’d get to the point someday where they’d be able to break free.
FMcC: I come from a sports town and sports family, and all my dad’s family were great athletes. That’s why I ended up going to college, because of an athletics scholarship. It was only after sports that I had time to pick up a guitar, but I always loved songs. I think it happens in America a lot, especially with young men, where their whole world is a sport and .01 percent of people continue to be able to do that after college into their 20s.
But then I started playing music and I thought, “Oh my gosh, what a gift this is!” I already had buddies who were starting to act middle aged, and I was kind of saved by music. It now means more to me than sports ever did, because it’s a way to connect with people. But in “Big Blue Sky,” there’s this guy who was the big [sports] man, and he’s still in that town, he’s drinking too much. For me, that song is a lot about transitioning into young adulthood and trying to keep some pep in your step.
My dad was a hard-ass worker, but he was really good at that, and was always down to play a game or dance. I also think keeping a spirit of wonder about the world is important. John Prine is my number one guy and I think he was really good at keeping that sense of wonder, and also empathy. There’s a lot of empathy on this album for people, in general, because it’s tough out there.
AH: I think all these characters on this album encourage empathy, and I also like the fact that they are not squeaky-clean heroic figures. You don’t worship them, you have real human empathy for them.
FMcC: I just know myself too well and we’ve all taken a fall. The more time that you spend with people, and have friends for a long time, you see that it gets rough out there. I’m not a very “proper” person myself, so that’s probably where that comes from. I try to break down those walls. If you meet someone at the grocery store on a Tuesday afternoon, you can laugh and say, “We made it! We made it to here!”
AH: Some of what you’re saying reminds me of another song on the album, “Pray For Sun.” The character in that song, a female speaker, seems to have been through some very hard things in life, but is still going, still keeping on. There’s an energy and determination in that.
FMcC: Yes, that’s from a female perspective, which goes into her speaking. That was based on a lady who I met out in Arizona. My buddies and I had gone out there for spring training. We were staying at a KOA and I went across the road and ordered blueberry pie for breakfast. She was a Native American lady with the coolest turquoise and we got to talking. That was kind of her story. She says, “I’m proud I’m Comanche, but I’m prouder to be a lady!” She’d had some fools in her life, I think, and she’d been married. She talked about losing her mom, who had been a single mother, and I had lost my dad when I was 13, and my mother, who was a teacher, raised us.
AH: How did you come across the phrase “Pray for sun, prepare for rain”? It plays a powerful part in the song.
FMcC: The chorus came out, “Life gets messy, it’s gonna leave a stain.” Then, that was the rhyme that ended up resolving it, and I love the “pray” and “prepare” as far as word play. That’s one that, when we first started playing, we were hanging out with a lot of old Folkies in Kansas City. Now we tend to play a lot of bars and clubs, but “Pray for sun” was received more by the Folkies. They liked that line. My grandpa, “Big Forrest” was a farmer, and my grandma was a great gardener, and we spent a lot of time on their farm growing up. She was always weather-centric, and talked about things like Robins being a sign of Spring, so I’ve always paid attention to the change of seasons and how that affects your mood. I’m a summer person myself.
Thanks Forrest McCurren, for talking with us! Find more info and his music, here: https://forrestmccurren.com/home