Blues entertainer Doug MacLeod keeps pursuing truth
Doug MacLeod is a bluesman whose music is in conversation with the blues tradition. However, unlike a lot of other blues artists who have a deep respect for the music of the past and the deep history of the genre, MacLeod doesn’t play covers. MacLeod spends a chunk of each year on the road doing solo gigs. He doesn’t trot out gems by Robert Johnson or Howlin Wolf to demonstrate his connection to the 1930s and 1940s. Instead, MacLeod, who will play Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Aug. 17, performs only originals. I spoke to MacLeod by phone from his hotel room in Raleigh last week, where he had played a show before bouncing down to Georgia.
The blues, of course, is a form with specific chord changes, structures, and the expressive treatment of certain non-standard flatted notes. It’s also a tradition of truth-telling and entertaining that involves transforming pain, suffering, anxiety, and hardship into art. Non-verbal moans and cries can be central details in a performance. The authenticity of the blues — the realness of the struggle and emotion that the music often conveys — is what first drew MacLeod to the blues when he was a high school student in St. Louis in the early 1960s.
Since then, MacLeod made a living as a performer, singing the blues, writing songs, playing guitar and telling stories. Early in his career MacLeod met and played with some older blues artists like George “Harmonica” Smith, Ernest Banks and Lowell Fulson. They became his mentors, and they nudged MacLeod toward an articulation of the blues that required a challenging level of self-discovery and self-revelation. One thing that MacLeod learned was that the songs and tropes of pioneering blues artists weren’t necessarily sensible material for him. If part of what resonated with him about the music was its realness, then he had to try to get in touch with his own realness if he wanted his music to have a similar punch.
An early experience performing the classic “Hellhound On My Trail” spurred a conversation with one of MacLeod’s mentors, who asked him “What do you know about hellhounds?” To which MacLeod had to answer, “nothing.” So, who was he trying to BS? That was the question his mentor, Banks, asked him.
“He taught me to be honest and to write about what you know about,” MacLeod said.
MacLeod realized that he’d never experienced some of the particular hardships and colorful details that he’d come across in old blues songs; he’d never picked cotton, and he didn’t know anything about mojos, as he said. So that left MacLeod trying to figure out what topics were fair game.
As it happened, loneliness and the need for love proved to be pretty decent places to start. MacLeod’s first solo record, 1984’s No Road Home, starts with the song “I’m Down Now,” which is sort of a mission statement about lowness and isolation. Over the years MacLeod moved away from the electric blues of his first record, and he began playing on a resonator guitar, performing mainly solo. The set-up allowed him to showcase his deft fingerpicking and expressive slide playing. That early commitment to playing only original material forced some innovations so that he could fill up a full night on the stage: MacLeod became a storyteller and an entertainer with a comedic streak.
“I had to do a lot of stories in between songs to entertain the crowd,” he said. “Because of that, I became a really good storyteller.”
Setting up his songs and explaining some of the characters and context became part of his show. Whether he is getting laughs (often) or sketching out the hurt and anger that might have prompted one of his songs, MacLeod treats between-song banter as central to his role as an entertainer.
MacLeod’s most recent record, Break the Chain from 2017, takes the tell-the-hard-truth challenge seriously, with the title song being about MacLeod’s experience of being sexually abused as a child, and about the ways that those types of traumas can set up patterns of abuse in victims, later in their lives. Through therapy — another system of intensive candor — MacLeod came to terms with what had happened to him as a child. He realized that his story of endurance and the eventual establishment of a healthy and loving family relationship with his wife and child could serve as an inspiration to others.
In addition to songs about the redeeming power of love and truth, the record also features a recording of “Church Street Serenade,” an older instrumental that MacLeod had an originally recorded for a previous record that is now out of print. The song is a sort of hat-tip to a place in Virginia, where MacLeod had spent time as a young man, seeking out the blues. “Church Street Serenade” is slow, somber and pretty, evocative of classic, expressive blues tracks like Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night.” It’s MacLeod’s way of honoring the humble nobility of the artists inspired him and the music that ultimately saved his life.
Even MacLeod’s instrumental music points back to that ethos of truth and expression. MacLeod said he views slide playing as a way of making the guitar sing. And he often encourages students in workshops to make sure that any guitar playing they attempt to do should first relate back to the voice. Meaningful music, in MacLeod’s view, isn’t about some crafty assemblage of notes, it’s about the expressive emanation of one’s being, one’s soul. If you can’t articulate that essence by singing it, then MacLeod views that as a sign of something possibly being off the mark.
“Your first instrument is your heart, and your second instrument is your voice,” he said. Converting that into sound on an actual physical instrument, whether it be on a piano or a saxophone, requires both a little magic and a core of truth. Riffs and solos should be things that one can replicate with one’s voice.
MacLeod asks: “If you can’t sing it, should you be playing it?”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.