DESPITE the fact he has a Juno, eight albums and more than 40 years of music-making under his proverbial belt, you’d be hard pressed to find a more humble guy than Win- nipeg bluesman Big Dave McLean.
The West Coast Music Award winner is quick to give credit to everyone but himself for the diversity of his new record, Better the Devil You Know, which sees McLean veer outside his Mississippi Delta/early Chicago blues pocket and venture into new territory, exploring the more far-reaching cor- ners of the genre, including country, Americana and — perhaps most sur- prising — southern gospel.
Mostly, though, it’s producer and singer-songwriter Steve Dawson
who receives the majority of McLean’s adoration. Dawson also produced McLean’s 2014 album, Faded But Not Gone, in his Nashville studio, and
the experience was so positive — the album was nominated for Blues Album of the Year at the Junos — the pair decided to take a second crack at it.
Dawson enlisted what McLean deems an “amazing group of perform- ers,” many of whom also played on Faded But Not Gone. It was the addi- tion of the soulful backing vocals of the McCrary sisters, Ann and Regina, however, that created the gospel feel McLean was hoping to capture.
“Everybody just brought their A- game, and it made me work harder, drawing the best out of me,” McLean says. “Plus Steve makes me work outside the box a little bit, y’know? I’m out of my comfort zone because we covered styles of music I’m not really versed in.”
The actual content of the record
is as varied as the melodies behind
it — McLean found inspiration for
the original tracks he penned in the political (Talk About a Revelation
is inspired by the mass shootings in Paris) and the personal (Swinging on Heaven’s Gate was written after the death of his father and one of his close friends in 2000), while Dawson con- tributed two tracks of his own that pay homage to bluesmen past.
And it wouldn’t be a Big Dave McLean album without a few blistering cover songs, one of which — Johnny Shines’ Pet Rabbit — was recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Records.
“You always want to cover a song as if you were playing to the guy who wrote it — is he gonna slap you in the head or say, ‘Hey, good job’?” he says of Tennessee-born bluesman Shines. “You put your little stamp on it, your feel on it, because it’s something they experienced, but it’s something you can relate to and you want to relate that to everybody else.
“Because I’m self-taught, I haven’t developed the skills to cover these guys who are better musicians than me, but I can do that song, though. I can put my heart into that song and try and put as much feeling into every- thing I do because I take it seriously; this is a story, I’m telling you a story, listen to the story,” he says.
McLean is a student of the blues and speaks of his idols, most notably the iconic Muddy Waters, with an almost tangible passion. But in the eyes of younger blues players, the tables have turned and it’s McLean who holds idol status, something he says is “kinda cool.”
“I look at it more like ‘Here’s somebody who’s hooked on the same thing I’m hooked on.’ It’s not like, ‘Gather round and I’ll teach you,’” says McLean, who hosts a weekly jam night Sunday at Times Change(d).
“It’s always nice for people of any age, any gender, any whatever, anyone who loves to hear the blues... it’s great so many young kids are getting into it.”
And at 64 years old — “Tell the girls I’m only 48 American,” he jokes — McLean has no shortage of wisdom to share from a career that’s taken him around the world as a touring musi- cian. “It’s been an uphill climb, but a good climb,” he says, adding that he has no plans to hang up his signature fedora any time soon.
“You retire when the grass is grow- ing over your head,” he laughs. “Nah, you don’t retire from music; none of my heroes did. Half of them dropped on stage... I’m hoping I’ll be at home — less of a mess to clean up.”