A MAN ONCE WROTE A SONG...
... that he knew was very good, but that he also knew sounded very much like another song by another man. Whether it was a conscious act or not, the songwriter realized he had partially stolen the song, that it was not a completely original tune. This was unsettling to him, but he wanted to keep the song, for it was one of the best he had ever written. He struggled with this for a while, going back and forth about what to do. Finally, he went to the man whose song he felt he had stolen, a man he admired greatly. He told him, I wrote this song, but I’m afraid I may have stolen it from you. To which the second man replied, play the song for me, and I will tell you who I stole it from.
The opening bars of “Finds About You,” the first track on Willy McGee’s 2018 studio album “Are You Gonna Eat That?” are the words and melody of a Hank Williams Jr. tune, a nod to the old honky tonker. A smooth and sharp pedal steel ride naturally follows, but then, instead of the slow groove the listener expects, drums come in tight and quick, turning the song from the familiar barroom ballad into a groovy little shuffle with completely original lyrics. It is yet unknown whether Bocephus might be honored or offended by McGee’s tribute to the classic cheating song, but the idea of integrating something new and interesting with an old sound is one that persists throughout this entire album. Willy McGee isn’t afraid to steal a song and then masterfully and undoubtedly make it his own.
Growing up in Austin, Texas in a house full of instruments, McGee quickly learned how to play by imitation - imitating his father and the old records of his grandfather. Among the pianos and guitars and upright basses and tubas and trombones he began to shape the varied and solid sound that marks his new album. “Artistically the record stands for an introduction,” he says. “The title fits the metaphor for the record as a whole. What some may call rude, and what some may call intimate and friendly. The intention is the latter. It’s the question close friends ask each other. And that’s how I want the people to feel with the record.”
The relationship between two close friends is the subject of the second track, “Damn I Miss That Guy,” a wistful yet upbeat song that seamlessly flows back and forth between a bluesy ballad and swinging country tune. McGee recalls the inspiration for the song during his college years spent overseas at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, as he was meeting a hero and all the while wondering about his friend who he knew might be in trouble. “And then I meet Paul McCartney, show him a couple songs, and then he says songs are about home, you know? Which totally defuncts my living there and purpose for songwriting. I’m waiting around over there to get the piece of paper that says I graduated and right when I’m about to get it I can feel somewhere deep in my heart and soul that he’s losing the will to live, like I sold out or something. It was crushing and I miss him a lot sometimes.”
The third track on the album looks at life and death from a more sardonic point of view. An intriguing guitar riff leads to stories of the dead and famous in this catchy and darkly comical song. “People Die and Then They Get Famous” is an artist’s observations on the absurdities of fame and the strange and almost inherent desire in all of us to experience it. “This is my attempt at laughing life off,” McGee says, “with a heavy dose of irony.” The song provides a somewhat worldweary, though still comedic, perspective from a musician who’s spent over a decade playing the bars and clubs all around Austin and throughout the country, watching himself and others chase the limelight.
“Spiritual Man” comes next, with another vocal intro displaying a penchant for catchy melodies, followed by a soft and crisp snare and the soothing twang of the steel. McGee recalls the song coming about in the early hours of the morning at a hometown house party, sharing song ideas with a friend. “It’s fun trading guitar songs made up on the spot pretending you’re playing for the devil at the crossroads and your performance will decide your fate,” he says. But if any song came from a bargain with the devil, it’s the next track, “I Can’t Compete.” The most pure and raw number on the album, this raucous waltz features bouncing piano, unhinged guitar riffs and wild and powerful vocals telling the tale of life out on the road with only the music to count on, looking for a good time and perhaps a little bit of love to go with it.
The final song on side A is the sadly humorous tale of an oblivious man who is getting left behind by a woman. Written originally on a small melodica during a train ride through Europe, “This Is News” found its final arrangement as an almost sleepy island tune, as if the narrator has pulled up his beach chair next to yours with an umbrella drink and is telling you how he got to be so alone. “I could never figure out what this song needed until one day someone said it should be a samba,” McGee recalls. “There’s nothing like a happy sounding song about something heartbreaking. That’s what old country songs always feel like. Willie Nelson is a pro at that. All those legends are perfect about making light of heart break. That’s what really attracts me to country music.”
Side B of this diverse album begins with the most soulful song on the record, “Double Text.” A “funk disco blues” number as McGee describes it, the reverberating refrain laments the heartbreak suffered after being ignored via text message not once, but twice, and possibly even three times, by a love interest in this ever more impersonal modern age. “It took forever to get this song recorded, so long that double texting is old news now,” McGee muses. “Getting ghosted is casual. It’s the millennial goodbye, the millennial never mind. The millennial break up.” It’s a silly, serious track, with dense organ notes and the wah wah distorted guitar sounds carried by a roller rink groove, all overlaid with a chorus of back up of female singers reminding you how bad you got burned. But just as “Double Text” leaves us alone on the floor, the next track, “Let’s Talk About the Heat,” demands an invitation to dance. Running guitar licks, flying organ cries and fast drum fills each take up all the space they can while working in symbiosis to create a masterful clash of distorted rock and roll. All together it seems to perfectly touch on that feeling of being “at a party late night with everyone packed in a room shouting,” as McGee envisions it. “The moment when you can feel the person you’re attracted to wants you to say hello.”
The first few piano bars of “Red Handed” introduce a heavy blues number that only keeps on getting heavier and continues on loud and slow just like the blues ought to be. A simple cheating song, McGee is at his best here showing his inherent ability to write music that sounds completely timeless. We know exactly where this song came from, musically speaking, but it could have been written fifty years ago or yesterday. It is McGee stealing another song that has been stolen countless times before and making it indisputably his own. And it’s a piano ripping, guitar screaming, hell of a song.
If “Red Handed” is the drunken rage, the next track, “Where Were You,” is the come down and the hangover. As if in deep thought after catching his erstwhile lover in the act, the narrator now dabbles in melancholic reveries of where she was all those times. The song feels like we are looking out on a rainy day that turns into a long rainy night, street lamps and bar lights the only things to gaze upon. And this one is in no hurry, drawing out the heartbreak over five and a half minutes at rock bottom. “I’ve always imagined a woman singing this one,” McGee says, “even while I’m playing it maybe.”
The eleventh and final track on the album, “Identity Theft,” is a strange, almost comical, nearly psychedelic tale. Is this the voice of the offending neighbor who chagrins the narrator in “This Is News,” or simply the voice inside his own head telling him what he’ll never be? The slow groove accompanied by quick rhymes certainly give it a schizophrenic feel. McGee describes it as “that eery feeling of disappearing, no one recognizing you, looking in the mirror and seeing another face...the feeling of losing control.”
This album is full of unforgettable sounds. Powerful vocals that range from the tones of a jazz woman to a blues man to a country singer. There are wailing guitars and bouncing pianos, howling organs and crying steel slides. The sounds are sundry and myriad and possibly even overwhelming at first. But after a few listens they begin to fall into place. Albeit with plenty of poetic license, it is a country blues album. Side A is country, and side B is the blues. And it is a fine country blues album, solid and true to the man who wrote it. With “Are You Gonna Eat That?” Willy McGee gives us a wide variety of songs that may be hard to track for some of the more traditional minded listeners. Yet there is a common and tightly wound thread pulsing throughout this collection of recordings, a thread that resonates of the true sound of American roots music. To be sure, McGee did not cower in recording a few tracks for himself on this album, but those are the ones that the listener, pleasantly pleased and fulfilled by all the rest, wasn’t going to eat anyway.