Looking Up: Mike McClure Plugs Into His Heart Chord

Mike McClure answers the phone with a drawling, “Macon, Georgia!” That’s how we start, like old friends sharing a magnificent laugh, catching up from a distance created by time– and maybe a pandemic. Of course, we’ve never met, but that doesn’t stop Mike from relaxing into the conversation, and I almost feel like he’s invited me through the kitchen door of his Ada, Oklahoma home. When you start digging into Mike’s history, you’re bound to hit Red Dirt at one dip of the spade or another. Before long, most likely immediately, you’ll glance off of artists like Stoney LaRue while burying the point in bands like Cross Canadian Ragweed or Jason Boland and the Stragglers. You may turn up the Turnpike Troubadours, while somewhere underneath all that, you’ll be amazed to discover The Farm and the legacy of artists that came out of Stillwater, Oklahoma with a style and attitude to challenge both country music and rock n’ roll. Mike McClure is such an artist and as part of the seminal outfit The Great Divide, he helped define, inspire, and propel Red Dirt into the 21st Century. Beginning with 2002’s 12 Pieces, McClure began releasing music under his own flag while working behind the scenes as a producer and songwriter for all of the aforementioned bands. He also began building up a new lair of creativity to rival Stillwater’s fabled Farm with his home-based Boohatch Studios where he continues to produce and host workshops for aspiring writers. His latest album, Looking Up, finds McClure aware of but unencumbered by his past and ready to showcase some of the best songwriting of his career.

AI- It’s been some time since you have released a solo project under the Mike McClure banner. I know you’ve had some of these songs for years. When did you start recording with the expectation of releasing a full-length?

MM- I hadn’t put a record out in five years other than this live thing that I did with Cody Canada, Chip & Ray: Together Again for the First Time… Ridiculous title (laughs)! My buddy Joe Hardy, he did Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, recorded and mixed it, and did ZZ Top from Eliminator on… I loved his work even before I met him. We met each other through [Cross Canadian] Ragweed. I was doin’ their Garage record and Tony Brown from MCA wanted me to get in touch with Joe– and we worked together ever since that album! That was in ’05. He just passed away [2.12.19]. So I just haven’t done another record. Part of it’s because he hadn’t been in my life. That took a while. I was always writin’ and recordin’ little pieces here and there, and that’s my favorite part– the writing and gettin’ it down– but I lacked the focus of puttin’ it all together.

When COVID hit and I was forced to come off of the road, I had no excuse not to put a record out! I live in a studio, I can’t go anywhere– what the hell else am I going to do? It would have been ridiculous not to! And I’ve been through a ton of changes. I got sober in the last year. I was pretty much a bit of a mess. I got a divorce from being in a marriage for 21 years that I should have done a lot longer [ago]… Anyway, I found new love and she’s an artist herself, and we’ve been together for two years. She’s really brought a lot of focus and some grounding to my life. Going through COVID, I’ve never been in one spot so long. I was always at least playing on the weekends [or] sometimes gone for weeks…

Let’s break all that down (laughs)! That’s a lot!

(Laughs) Sorry! That was long-ass answer, my friend!!

Well, the beauty of that is– that’s all my notes! Those are all the highlights of things that I wanted to ask you about– Joe Hardy bein’ at the top of the list because you were so close and you had worked with him for so long. Was there a trepidation of going back in to do a project without the guy that had helped guide you that whole time?

Yeah, absolutely, man! Scared to death would be a way to put it! He was just so really great at what he did. I got lazy with it though because I would record my vocals and some guitar tracks and just imagine how the band’d be behind me, and I’d send ’em down to him. These are like my last three albums that I put out. [That] was the process. I did an album called Foam in ’05, and I used a full band with Tom Skinner and Eric Hansen, who plays with Cody Canada and The Departed [on] drums. But the last three or so, I just would record my parts, send ’em to Joe, and he would add everything else!

I wouldn’t really put anything into promoting a record. I’d just go onto the next one! My idea of promotion was just puttin’ ’em up on iTunes and tellin’ some people! I’m really proud of those records, but a lot of ’em weren’t heard. This time around doin’ the Kickstarter, I’ve been able to hire someone who sets up things like this interview right here. I’m lucky for that, but the trepidation that you said earlier there with Joe, yeah, absolutely. I shouldn’t have leaned on him so hard. It was just so easy ’cause I really respected him and his work and then we just had a great relationship. He was one of my best buddies. And then losin’ him, I lost a little direction. I knew there were people that could mix, but it was such an intimate part of that friendship that it just seemed weird, you know?

You talk about leanin’ on him, but at the same time, maybe you feel like you were being lazy when it came to your own projects, but you were still helming and producing things for other artists. You bring up your friend Cody Canada. There were records that you were makin’ with Jason Boland and several others. So you were still very integral in helping other artists along with their careers and with their music. I find that that dichotomy very interesting.

What I like about being a producer, like when I did Ragweed or Turnpike Troubadours or Damn Quails when they’d come in, they had their band, so it was just more a matter of gettin’ good sounds and Joe mixin’ those records. I wasn’t really tryin’ to figure out what the band was gonna sound like. They already sounded like that. It was my job as a producer to get the hell out of the way of that, not try to change it to fit whatever I had in mind. Those guys had a great sound and I was just tryin’ to make the best of it. But when it comes down to my thing, I’ve played acoustic, I’ve played with bands… I can be all over the map! It was more a process of tamin’ my inner self where I could focus and find 10 songs that I thought really spoke from where I was at as a person on a soul level.

You’ve got your home studio, Boohatch Studio (laughs)… We could dive into that name if you want to. I know you’ve told that story a thousand times, probably 1,001…

We’re good (laughs)!

But you’ve had the studio there for some time now. I believe I’ve read that you’ve just basically switched its position within the household, right?

Yeah. When I was married before and things weren’t goin’ good, I had the studio in the basement– kinda my place to escape. And now that things are good in my life, I’ve come upstairs in more ways than one! It’s a pretty good metaphor of the past couple years– comin’ up out of the basement into some light and not livin’ like of vampire! I’m startled by all this growin’ up!

It’s funny how it takes you some time to get to it! I have experienced that myself as a grown physical adult, but mentally, I know exactly what you mean with that growin’ up part.

And my job made it super easy not to grow emotionally or grow up because, hell, I strapped on a guitar and went into a bar and people handed me cocktails! That was great for a long time (laughs)! And I did that for a long time. I’m not gonna say it wasn’t fun and wasn’t a great ride… But after a while, I just thought, “Man, I’m almost half a century!” I’ll be 50 next year! I just needed to do some growin’. And by doing that, growin’ on the inside, it affected my whole outside as far as, “Alright, let’s get a record out! Let’s do this right! Let’s do a campaign and let’s work at it!” My lady, luckily, she’s great at that stuff and gave me the push when I needed it. Let me pout when I needed it (laughs)!

Nobody understands how important that pouting is sometimes! You have to have it! Even if it’s just five minutes and then it’s done, and then you can go on!

Yeah! “I know I’m wrong! Let me just feel wrong!” (Laughs) She’s right 99.9% of the time– and that is so frustrating for a guy like me!

My wife’s the same way, but I need to be able to bounce things off her to get that perspective. That’s how I know I’m not makin’ the mistake.

That’s great. That’s somethin’ that I’d never experienced really ’til the past couple of years. Love has been good, man. Really good.

Chrislyn, who you’re talking about, Chrislyn Lawrence— you two go back a ways. You had worked together professionally before becoming romantically entangled, right?

(Laughs) You make it sound saucy! Yeah, she worked for a bookin’ agency out of San Marcus, Texas, and she was my agent and we were friends. She’d moved off to England. She’s over in England for about two years and workin’ on her masters over there. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and about the time I was gettin’ out of my marriage, our paths crossed again, like the universe can do sometimes. It was just perfect timing. She was comin’ out of a bad place and I was too. We were both on the rise and both good at tryin’ to pick the other one up and rise up above a lot of petty stuff I’d been living in the middle of.

You live and work in the same place, which I guess in a pandemic is a pretty decent thing to have, because as you have an idea or you need to lay down an idea, you’re right there and can do it. But is it difficult for you to get out of work mode? Or are you just always in work mode?

There’s different parts of it. Though, I would say the work mode would be the actual recording the song. But writing the song and bein’ in the space to come up with the song– that’s work too, but it’s not the same kind of work. The creative work doesn’t feel like work to me ’cause I love it. It’s just like someone that likes to put together puzzles. That’s their thing. That’s my thing with words. I like to put words and melodies together and try to say somethin’ that’s goin’ on in my life. That part doesn’t seem like the work. The work is actually goin’ in, running the mic cable, makin’ sure it works, settin’ it up there, gettin’ the tempo, just doing the little computer or doing the engineering part of it.

I’m always in the writing mode of it. I’m not always in the “let’s get this recorded” mode. I’m a little lazier when it comes to that just because engineering wasn’t my real calling. I didn’t really set out to be an engineer. I just wound up being one because Hardy taught me how to record my own stuff and get it to him so he could mix it. So, yeah, I can work if I want to, but my favorite thing is just the comin’ up with the stuff. I can always stay in that mode. I like it.

Was that something that frightened you as far as sobriety went? That once you got away from the bottle or whatever else that it would affect that creative part of you that you obviously love so much?

I never really wrote drunk. It was never something that went together. I still smoke weed. I think weed can be a part of the creative process. It can put you in that mood, you know? I still enjoy that, but lately, I’ve been writing more, not even smoking weed! I’ve just found more of a clarity in my own self. Alcohol? I couldn’t find the clarity. Weed? If I smoke too much pot, then it can have an adverse effect, but… Not sure you want me to be yammerin’ on about that?

(Laughs) That’s entirely up to you! But I do find that part interesting because yeah, some people, man, when it comes to booze, it is not conducive to creating and working. I daresay you could say that about anybody, but I find that interesting that you still enjoy marijuana.

Yeah. Yeah, I do. The thing that was throwin’ me off was alcohol. Because I would drink it instead of diggin’ in to figure out the why. Why was I pourin’ this on there? And every time it came down to me not wanting to face somethin’– be it an insecurity, a character flaw or whatever, not wantin’ to honestly look at it. If I poured some alcohol on top of it, I wouldn’t deal with it and just shove it down. I’d feel temporarily better, but it would just keep rearin’ its head. I had to sit alcohol down because I couldn’t grow any while I was doin’ that. As far as the creative process, it was never really a big part. It boils down to just gettin’ alone, to gettin’ that guitar and pluggin’ into your heart chord and lettin’ that start babblin’.

You’ve been doin’ songwriting workshops. You have one comin’ up here soon, don’t you?

We’ve switched everything to online because of COVID. We would have up to six people that would come to these workshops and it’d be a two-day thing over a weekend. It’s really cool ’cause different songwriters would come in at varying levels of expertise and everybody would get together, co-write, and work with each other.

And you would do this at home where you have the studio?

Yeah, at my house.

Was that’s sort of a like recreating The Farm and parts of that creative environment?

A little bit. The Farm wasn’t as structured as what we’re doing in the workshops, as far as, “From 10:30 to 11:30, we’re gonna be goin’ over alliteration.” Out there, it was just where everybody went and hung out and shared ideas. [The workshop] is just bein’ a little more structured. But yeah, I’ve got four acres in the middle of town and it seems like we’re out in the middle of nowhere because trees are all around it. My house was built in the ’40s and the town kind of grew up around this property. So it’s got that Farm kinda vibe where you can wander around outside with the guitar and people writin’ in different rooms in the house. It’s really cool. We’re gonna be doin’ more of that once everything opens back up, but here lately, I’ve been doin’ one on one songwritin’ sessions with people on Zoom. I got a group of students that I meet, usually once a week on that thing, and we just work on their songs. I offer what advice I can, what I would change in their song, or what I think really stands out in their songs. I like doing that.

I also know that you’ve been doing the private concerts, streaming concerts, which I’ve noticed a lot of folks doing. You had talked about doin’ the Kickstarter for this album, and one of the things I like to talk about with folks is how everything has changed when it comes to releasing music. I think there’s a huge premium, especially these days, on do-it-yourself when it comes to the music business outside of having a label or a machine behind you. Somebody recently said to me, the difference in having a label and not having a label is not as great as once it was. [Great Divide] started makin’ records, sellin’ CDs, and possibly even cassette tapes in the mid-’90s…

Absolutely sellin’ cassette tapes!

Before streaming, really before utilizing the internet, no social media…

Before internet! And cell phones too! That machine was more important back then because of those very reasons.

But you were still on the forefront of being a do-it-yourself band at that point in time. I don’t think people understand now what that meant then because you didn’t have so many immediate avenues to get your songs out in front of people.

In a way. There were pros and cons, definitely. Some of the pros was you could figure it out. Great Divide that I’m talking about, we started in 1992. We put out our first solo record in ’94 with Lloyd Maines. He produced it, Natalie Maines’s [of The Chicks] dad. He did our first three records. But yeah, we were basically the record company. We went and got some financial backers and put up enough money to make an album. I think it was $30,000 back then… That seems crazy! But it’s different times, you know? We borrowed the money and we went about it as a business to where we hired an independent radio promoter and they would work our record. We just did basically what a label would do. And by the time we got around to Break in the Storm, we had sold 20,000 copies, I think, on our own to where we got all the money.

Our first album we got… Let’s see, what was it? 500 cassettes and 500 CDs! So we were right there at the [fallin’] off point with the cassettes. I remember having cassingles! They’d be in a store– a Great Divide single with another song on a cassette! That was pretty funny. But we became the label and then Atlantic Records approached us and offered us a record deal. We went out there before and knockin’ on doors and passin’ out tapes and nothin’ happened. So we came home and just did it ourselves. I think it was a great thing. And then after leavin’ the label, it’s almost come back full circle. It’s just “do all the stuff yourself!” That’s where Kickstarter came in. They essentially became the label. The people became the label.

I like that artists can do that now. I feel like it creates a connection to the project and between the artist and the fan that you couldn’t have had at any other time in recording music history

Right? Yeah, you couldn’t have reached those people that way. Labels had it really easy for a while because they’d have control of all the radio stations across the country and they’d tell ’em what to play. And once you got on board with that, you were in!

Looking Up is comin’ out on September 25th. What have you got planned for the release date?

Everything’s still a little up in the air. One thing we do have planned, I just went to Tulsa yesterday and there’s a place called the Mercury Lounge and a friend of mine named Jake Flint. They do a show out there where they have like five cameras, really great audio, and then they’ll do a pay-per-view streamin’ thing on September 26th. It’ll be a virtual release concert. Just as far as playin’? I don’t know. I’m still up in the air about it. We were doin’ house concerts here in the livin’ room, which was great. We’d do like 35 tickets or 40 tickets. But we may do somethin’ outside where people can socially distance and feel safe– and I’ll feel safe. May do some of those. Like I say, just so up in the air right now. We’ll see how the winter treats us.

You went and recorded this Mercury Lounge show yesterday? Is it just you, or did you have any other guys with you?

It was just me and [Chrislyn]. We did a few together. Just us two yodelin’! But that’s really how my shows were the last year. I quit tourin’ with a band about a year before COVID hit. Just goin’ and doin’ more listenin’ rooms as opposed to bringin’ a loud band into a loud bar.

I think that’s the way it’s gonna have to go for the foreseeable future. I see the singer-songwriter format being the way to get back into live performances. We just did one here. I think it was like 40 people, and it was kinda like a trial run to see how it was going to work and everything went great. They’re gonna try to do some more things like that, but the singer-songwriter, to me, is the only viable option outside of streaming concerts to get back into doing it.

I think so. And it’s not asking that much of people, you know?

No, I don’t think so! But you never can tell…

Oh, I know! But that’s one of the reasons that I want to do it at my place. ‘Cause I can control that and say, “This is how this is gonna go, and I’m not gonna put up with any other opinions!”

Great Divide… I know that relationship has been so much better the last few years for you. Let’s be optimistic about it. What do you see happening in the future with that?

We had a really great summer lined up, which is really a bummer! So many bummers this year, and I’m not gonna claim that’s a one worse than what most people are going through… But it was a bummer. We’d set up quite a few shows, outdoor rodeos, and all kinds of stuff. I like goin’ and playin’ those shows! That was a big part of my life, and I know it’s nostalgic for a bunch of people. I see it on their faces when the band plays. It’s a joy! And that’s fun to bring somebody. Hopefully, when everything is cooled out and a little bit safer, we’ll go set some dates again. I love those guys. We’re still friends. We put out kind of a greatest hits package a couple of years ago, like the 25th anniversary album. We got together and recorded four new songs and they’re on that record. I’m proud of those too. Like I say, it was just kind of a bummer when we couldn’t go out and promote it. But that band’s been around a long time and they go way back with a lot of people. So I’m sure we’ll always at some point play a few shows here and there.

Visit mikemcclureband.com to pre-order Looking Up. While you’re there get details on private shows or book a songwriting session! Like and Follow Mike McClure for news and updates on performances and workshops, and watch Mike perform live from the Mercury Lounge on Saturday, September 26th!