Noel McKay on New Album, Busted Knuckles & the Whims of a Musical Brain

Noel McKay’s Blue Blue Blue crosses dreamland highways while hanging a metaphysical elbow and cruising at the speed of reminiscence. Along the way, McKay visits various locales populated by hard luck and romantic melancholia, observing the customs of his memory between crisp lines and taking his time in the telling with smooth, cultivated melodies. It’s the kind of album you drive to with no particular destination but to entertain (or escape) a particular feeling. Throughout, McKay displays a skill and pedigree that stretches back over thirty years from the rounds and workshops of Music City to the flatlands and hill country of his native Texas. Noel has performed with his brother Hollin as The McKay Brothers and as one half of a duo with longtime partner Brennen Leigh, and for Blue Blue Blue he enlists both alongside a splendid array of special guests that includes Sunny Sweeney, Chris Scruggs, Jennee Fleenor, and Melissa Carper. In addition to Leigh, McKay also matches his considerable songwriting with Becky Warren, and on one particular track with his friend and mentor, the late Guy Clark. Blue Blue Blue cycles through heartache, commentary, and wit, enjoying each visit but always with the engine idling, warm and expectant of the next destination. 

AI- It’s been more than a few years since you’ve released a straight-up Noel McKay project. Of course, you’ve been anything but idle– but how did you know that now was the time for you to make Blue, Blue, Blue?

NM- Well, I actually made Blue, Blue, Blue slowly. How did I know it was the time to do it?

Or rather, when did you know it was ready?

I knew it was a time to do it because I’ve got a bunch of songs for the next thing, basically. I felt like I really needed to get this thing out there so that I can get the next project goin’ too. As any creative person is, I’m excited about continuing to do things that are expressive. I guess that’s mostly how I knew. I decided to sit it out during the hardcore quarantine last year. I was gonna release it last year, and as you know, the world kinda lost its mind a little bit! So I decided to just wait and it felt a little bit more like the right time now.

I spoke to Brennen Leigh just a little bit over a year ago when Prairie Love Letter came out, and we talked a little bit about that quarantine period. You did the Sequestered Songwriters series with so many of your friends and peers. What did you think about having to rely so heavily on streaming and social media as a performer?

It’s definitely changed the way that I think about puttin’ music out there. It’s changed my perception of how to present myself. That’s for sure! It’s made me feel a little bit less reliant on live performance, but it’s certainly a very different way of interacting with an audience. I missed that one-on-one communication that happens when you’re in front of a group of people. It’s not the same, and I’m grateful that those kinds of shows are back. Even if they’re not a hundred percent back, it’s great to be playin’ in front of people again. But playin’ on the internet has definitely changed my perception of myself as a performer.

You open the album up with– and I love– “The 50 Loneliest Places [In The Nation]”. I think that the coolest part of that song is how you add the line about the town you’re in tonight. You can work that in any room, anywhere in the world– and I love it when songs are able to do that!

Thanks! It’s not as effective when you’re playing in a city that song mentions (laughs)– that takes a little bit of the wind out of it! You know, I dreamt the beginning of that song. I started deciding which way it should go and started puttin’ some cities together, and then I started thinking, “If I’m gonna get 50 in there, I better start crammin’ ’em in,” and that’s about the time I started crammin’ ’em into the second verse. But the idea about “the city that I’m standin’ in tonight” came to me pretty early in the writing of that song. That song took me about two hours probably to finish. As soon as I thought, “Okay, that’s my destination, that’s Tahiti, that’s where I want to get to,” that’s where I worked towards in terms of writing the song from that point.

I read the story about you dreaming that song. Not too long ago, I had a dream, I was sittin’ around a fire outside with Mike Ness and Dory Funk Jr. We weren’t doin’ nothin’ but sittin’ around the fire! I thought it was amazing that you dreamt that song with Roger Miller and Roy Orbison in mind.

Well, not so much Roy Orbison. In the dream, it was Roger Miller singing the song. But of course, I am a huge Roy Orbison fan! I spent a lot of my childhood out near Lubbock, and I think Roy was from Midland, Odessa, not too far away. But yeah, I’m a huge fan of Roy Orbison. It was really Roger Miller in the dream singin’ the song.

Do you often dream songs?

I do often dream songs. One of the reasons that I decided a few years ago to study music composition and classical music was to be able to track down the whims of my musical brain and to be able to know what it is that is happening. It’s a different process. When your subconscious is comin’ up with a melody or a song idea, it’s a different deal from when you’re awake and sayin’, “This is how music goes.” I think you’re freer. Your mind in its subconscious state is a freer place. I guess what I’m sayin’ is dreaming song ideas is definitely a different place to draw from. Since I began to dream music as an adolescent, I wanted to be able to capture what it was as soon as I woke up. And I’ve been able to do that a few times. I’ve written, I don’t know, eight or ten songs that sprung from a dream.

Are any more of those on this album?

You know, the B section of the song “Pawnee Waltz”, the instrumental part, that was dreamt.

Well, since you bring that song up! You’ve got some guest stars on this album and that song in particular features Melissa Carper, who’s got one of my top albums of the year right now with Daddy’s Country Gold. I love the community that you are a part of– all the great performers, singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists– and it always tickles me to death to see you guys appearing on each other’s projects! How do you go about wranglin’ everybody together? Do you hear them on the song before you get them to do it, or is it just a convenience thing when someone’s available?

I’ve known Melissa for a lot of years. I love Melissa Carper! She is one of my favorite people in the whole world, and it was a real honor and joy to have her come in and sing. She just had the right singing voice for that harmony part, I thought. The way she sings is unmistakable. She has a lot of character to her voice, and she’s a great harmony singer. You just can’t beat that!

In addition to guest stars, you have a few wonderful co-writes on the album too. I mentioned Brennen earlier– and I hope that you are not tired of talkin’ about Guy Clark yet ’cause of course, I want to talk about “Flying and Falling” that you wrote with Guy. You’ve talked about how that song, in retrospect, helped you understand him better, or at least his reasons behind writing that song, to begin with.

It did! Guy and I wrote that song over the course of about four months, probably, from the time that he handed me a piece of paper sayin’, “I’m frustrated with this, see what you can do with it,” to the point where I felt like he thought it was finished and wanted me to record it on his little CD recorder in his shop. That took about four months. But Guy was sick the entire time. I was aware of Guy being sick in 2006 when I opened the show for him in Holland, in the Netherlands at the Blue Highways festival in Utrecht. Guy got better– but then Guy got sick again, and his resilience, his willingness to keep going in the face of extreme physical adversity… He was in a lot of discomfort, and I think probably suffering from some degree of depression that comes from that kind of difficulty, but he persevered and he just wanted to keep goin’. He just wanted to keep playin’.

There was a point at which after Guy had passed away, when I was performing that song someplace, that it just clicked that Guy was really tryin’ to convey that you don’t hang it up. You don’t quit, you don’t give up on it. You don’t give up until it just goes away from you. But as long as there’s a little sliver of hope and any strength left in you, you keep goin’! That was Guy’s deal. He didn’t shove that down anybody’s throat. He was not the kind of person that would tell people what to do. That wasn’t his style. He wasn’t exactly a cheerleader in that capacity, but he led by example, and that is definitely one of them.

You built a guitar with Guy– that you play throughout this album! You wanted it to sound like #10, I believe. That shares some wood with the legendary #10 guitar that Guy built. And you had a couple of hiccups along the way while you were puttin’ it together if I’ve read the stories correctly!

I did! Guy was very patient with me about writing songs, but I already knew how to write songs when I met him. But Guy was less patient (laughs) about building guitars! I had less experience at building guitars, even though I had already done it some over at Collings Guitars for a little while before I built a guitar with Guy. But I was just in a little cubicle making my bridges and pickguards all day, so it wasn’t the same as engaging in the entire process of building a guitar from start to finish.

There were a couple of hiccups. One of them was that the thickness of the sides where the neck meets the body was about three-sixteenths of an inch. The heel was too thick and the sides were too narrow right there by comparison by that small little margin. So I took one of Guy’s hand planes… I think it might’ve been my hand plane that guy showed me how to sharpen. I think there’s a video of it someplace of me planing in it back down to the right thickness. Guy was goin’, “I don’t know. I don’t know if that’s gonna work.” And I said, “Watch me, it’s gonna work!” (Laughs) And it did! I got it together! And then the other hiccup that happened was we cut the channel for the rosette and it went beautifully. Like I said before, Guy was sick and he wasn’t feelin’ good, so I had to wait for days when he felt really good before we could really get some serious work done on the guitar. And Guy was very into doing that.

This one particular day, we cut the channel for the rosette. It worked great, Guy was ready to go, and so we were gonna cut out the soundhole. That’s the next thing that you do. Somewhere in there, the little knob that tightens the dremel tool down didn’t get tightened all the way, and while I was cutting out the hole for the soundhole, I could see that it was beginning to drift a little bit. I turned it off, and there we were with a sound hole that had drifted a small amount! Guy sat there and smoked and looked at it and said, “I think you should maybe start over on this piece of wood.” But that was the piece of wood that shares the same top with #10, which is the best sounding guitar I’ve ever heard and played in my entire life!

I looked at guy and I said, “I’m not startin’ over on this piece of wood.” So what I did was I took one of his little hand files that’s almost like an emery board. It’s a very specialized file. I just filed that sound hold until it was round, and all said and done, that sound hole on my guitar, which I named El Tajin, is an eighth of an inch wider than it would otherwise have been. But it sounds fine! Sounds good! It’s a good-sounding guitar! Doesn’t sound as good as #10– but no other guitar that I’ve ever played does! So what are you gonna do? Guy said, “Okay, you did it. There it is!”

We didn’t finish the guitar before Guy passed away. It sat in his shop for a long time. A few days after Guy died, I went over to the house and I got it. And then I just sat at home and every now and then would open up the case and look at it in its pieces that weren’t together yet. One day I got a phone call from Tamara Saviano sayin’, “We’re doin’ a Guy tribute at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, like for you to be a part of it.” I knew that I had to get the guitar together for that. So I did. I spent months by myself in the shop, putting it together and thinking about Guy and listening to music, and I got the French polish on it finished the day of that show!

Photo by Aisha Golliher

Another song on the album– a co-write with Brennen– is “Real Cowboy”. That opening line, “A real cowboy’s got some busted up knuckles,” really made me reflect on how many folks– artists, musicians– found themselves back out in the sun workin’ or back behind a bar during the pandemic. As a matter of fact, I spoke to a fella not too long ago named Eric Shicotte. He just put out an [EP] and I was watchin’ some videos of him performin’– and he had these busted up knuckles ’cause he’s a steelworker for his day job! When I heard that song, it immediately made me flashback to that. I don’t know if that’s necessarily what you’re talkin’ about in the song, but I think that the line between the fantasy of being an artist and the reality of having to work for a living is what that song speaks to me about.

Well, good! The busted up knuckles for me is workin’ on a car. But it’s buildin’ houses, it’s doin’ the things that you gotta do, the things that life throws your way. Being a real cowboy doesn’t mean you’re comfortable. That’s for sure. That’s what I’ve seen.

I love the song “Lurlene”, which you wrote with Becky Warren, who I just think is a fantastic songwriter. I know that’s a personal song for you about your grandmother, and she has a knack for being able to inhabit the subject of a song. Is that how you two came together to write that particular song?

She sure does! I met Becky in East Nashville. There was this thing goin’ on where all these songwriters got together and traded songs when Brennen and I first moved to Nashville. I met Becky there and immediately was drawn to her writing, just thought she was brilliant right away. Becky writes unflinchingly about people and about situations, and I just think she’s so brilliant! Becky snd I’ve written a ton of songs. That’s just one of many that we’ve written, and I’m very proud of every single one of ’em.

Do you find yourself working on a song and think, “You know who might have a good idea about somethin’ like this?” And then contact that particular songwriter? And vice versa? Do your friends do that to you as well?

Oh, all the time! I get song ideas from people all the time that are my friends, just like, “Hey, what do you think o’ this?” I’m in the process of writing a song with my friend Adam Carroll. I sent a couple of new song ideas to Becky the other day, and we just have to find the time to get together and finish them. She’s out on tour right now with her band. I’m writing songs with Brennen frequently. Yeah, often, I’ll have a song idea and I think, “This would be great to see if so-and-so would be willin’ to help me finish it.”

“When This Town Was Cool”… I confess that I have met that guy, and I may have been that guy In a bar after too many drinks!

(Laughs) Me too!

Your brother Hollin appears on that track as well, and I imagine if push came to shove, you two could share that story back and forth about all your nights in Austin and in many other great music towns!

We played a lot of different places! We toured all over, mostly Texas. We certainly have a lot of stories. We can’t share all of them! Hollin and I did a lot of fun stuff– and a lot of the stuff we wouldn’t want to go back and do again! I’m lookin’ forward to playin’ with him some more. He’s a great writer and a great performer, and I’m glad that he’s my brother!

The final song [on the album] is “You Oughta Write A Song About That”. I know the background of the song– as a songwriter, always having people make suggestions to you– but how often do you hear those suggestions and actually go, “You know what? I am gonna write a song about that!” The song itself notwithstanding, how often does that happen to you?

Very seldom (laughs)! But it does happen. I’m more likely to pick up a song idea that somebody doesn’t intend to give me (laughs)! When somebody does intend, when somebody says, “How about this song idea?” I’m flattered! I’m flattered and terrifically amused! I’m amused in the best way that someone would think highly enough of me as a writer that they wanted to share their song idea with me. That’s really flattering. That’s a phenomenon that even though I’m pokin’ a little fun at it in the song, I hope that doesn’t ever go away!

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