New release ‘Botanical Gardens’

Don McLean . . . folk rock, country or Americana? . . .

NASHVILLE — Don McLean is one of those transcendent music makers who made his mark with “American Pie,” and its memorable line “the day the music died.” He became a folk-rock favorite of 1970s’ fans; however, in 1981 chose country, hitting Top 10 with his first of five chartings, “Crying,” a Roy Orbison-Joe Melson creation, that ironically topped the British chart for him. Today, he’d fit smoothly into the Americana fold.
Now McLean’s newest album, “Botanical Gardens,” released March 23, 2018 by BMG, brought him back to Music City, where he’s confided to being more comfortable. This collection, boasting a baker’s dozen tunes, has him co-producing with Nashville pickers Pat and Mike Severs, and reportedly has been in the works in part since 2014. It is his first in eight years (and its release precedes a 14-date UK tour, starting April 29 at the Southend Cliffs Pavilion, and continuing into Ireland thru June).
Issued in February, the title track’s digital version is an ode to historic gardens (initially wrought for scientific study of plants), with McLean supplying a more romantic tone to the beauteous surroundings. It was inspired by one he visited in Sydney, Australia:“I take a walk in botanical gardens/And look for the faces of pretty young girls/Just like the flowers that bloom all around me/I fall in love in this colorful world . . .”
Of course that and 11 other cuts were composed by McLean, not known for simple  country themes dealing with death, divorce, drinking, dogs, trains or honky-tonks, his being more complex, poetically presented, sometimes as paradoxical prisms that only come into focus upon conclusion. “A Total Eclipse Of the Sun” is a story song of a July encounter with a woman who had rocked his world a decade earlier, and had left him lost and lonely: “She was the infliction/Of my own crucifixion . . . In the total eclipse of the sun.”
Don, a gifted vocalist, doesn’t take a backseat to others, though legends have covered his creations, notably Garth Brooks (“American Pie”), George Michael (“The Grave”), Fred Astaire (“Wonderful Baby”), Madonna (“American Pie”), and Perry Como, Bobby Goldsboro and Elvis Presley (all did “And I Love You So”).
The sole song he didn’t pen here is his last track “Last Night When We Were Young,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg – featured in the 1949 MGM film “In the Good Ole Summertime” as sung by Judy Garland – but was deleted from the final product. McLean gives it a poignant performance, as well.
Another standout is the mournful “Waving Man,” whose subject is a war hero, confined to a wheelchair, after waving goodbye to his buddies on the front, his wife in later life, and finally the children they raised: “He’s a waving man/He’s a waving man/And he doesn’t know anybody’s name . . .”
Probably the most country-sounding song is “Grief and Hope,” which boasts three chords and the truth, as its author warns, “Grief and hope, they walk together/They’re side by side, but they’re not friends . . . And when we see better days/They go separate ways.” Expressing everything but the twang, his “King Of Fools” May to December love affair, fades fast when mi’lady favors fickle fun with another. McLean performs with powerful, emotional immediacy in his interpretations. Similarly, there’s “I’ve Cried All the Tears That I Have,” trying to pick up the pieces of a broken heart.
More uptempo tunes are “Rock ’n’ Roll Your Baby” and “Ain’t She a Honey,” bookends to erotic feelings conveyed by the singer-songwriter. Then there are a few songs, similar to those he once described in concert as “sorta slow, hand-holders . . . smooching music,” the ballads “Lucky Guy,” “When July Comes,” “You’re All I Ever Had” and “You’ve Got Such Beautiful Eyes.”
Recorded at Jim Dineen’s Watershed Studio in Nashville, under the watchful eye of executive producer Paul Charles, McLean also contributes acoustic guitar licks, with exceptional backup from such as Mike Severs on electric guitar, ukulele and drums; Patrick Severs on electric, acoustic and slide guitars; Tony Migliore, keyboards; Jerry Kroon, percussion; David Smith, Brad Albin, Mark Prentice, basses;  and Vip Vipperman, electric and slide guitars.
Despite early success, Don McLean was well aware that stardom wasn’t something to take for granted. He’s been a man completely immersed in his music, and considerate of fans, including when time permits taking time to sign autographs. He knows success in any field is the result of talent, hard work, determination and dependent on the level of support received.
This type of attitude has served him well throughout a lengthy career, spanning nearly six decades, and now at 72, McLean can look back proudly on “American Pie,” a tribute to the late Buddy Holly, and seemingly a surrender of American rock ’n’ roll dominance to the British rock invasion led by The Beatles and Rolling Stones. “They were singing/Bye, bye Miss American Pie/Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/Them good ole boys were drinking whiskey and rye/Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die  . . .”
It’s now in the Grammy Hall of Fame and in March 2017, was designated an “aural treasure” by the U.S. Library of Congress, and thus preserved in the National Recording Registry.
No one-hit wonder, Don’s celebrated for additional creations, notably “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” “Dreidel,” “Wonderful Baby,” “Since I Don’t Have You,” “Castles In the Air.” In recognition of his writing prowess, McLean was inducted into the National Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, with presenter Garth Brooks doing the honor.
“American Pie’s” original manuscript garnered Don a $1.2 million auction bid, but did you know there was a deleted verse by McLean, provocateur par excellence? Here it is: “And there I stood alone and afraid/I dropped to my knees and there I prayed/And I promised him everything I could give/If only he would make the music live/And he promised it would live once more/But this time one would equal four/And in five years four had come to mourn . . . and the music was reborn.”       – Walt Trott