By D.C. Bloom
(LSM Oct/Nov 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 5)
Noel McKay will never forget the day he opened that can of whoop-ass at the Jimmie Rodgers Festival in Kerrville back in 1993.
Because as he and his brother, Hollin, launched into a song about the folly of settling matters with fisticuffs, paying close attention was none other than festival headliner and venerated Texas songwriting legend Guy Clark.
Recalling the moment today in an East Austin vegetarian hangout, the ever-humble McKay still seems a tad astonished, yet rightfully proud, that Clark “kind of flipped out on my songs, particularly ‘A Can of Whoop-Ass,’ which he thought was really funny.” So much so, in fact, that after the McKay Brothers set concluded, Clark walked over to introduce himself.
“Here was this huge, towering guy with Lee press-on nails on his right hand, and he gave me his address and said, ‘I want you to send me as much of your stuff as you can.’”
Clark also gave the young Noel, then just 23, a copy of his latest album, Boats to Build. McKay admits that although he wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Clark’s music at the time (you don’t split your formative years between Lubbock and the Hill Country aspiring to a songwriting career without knowing the basics of Texas Music 101), it wasn’t until he gave the album repeated close listens that “the gravity of him sort of taking me under his wing began to dawn on me. I began to realize that this was a big deal.”
A big deal, indeed — and one that, over the years, has allowed McKay the opportunity to learn firsthand from the master craftsman himself how great songs, if not boats, are built with meticulous and tender loving care. “I’ve heard him say things like, ‘It isn’t how clever a line is or makes you seem — if it doesn’t serve the song, you’ve got to throw it out,’” McKay says. “And I’ve just sort of begun to live by that, because he’s right.”
It’s an apprenticeship that has served McKay well throughout his own songwriting career, from his days performing with Hollin as the McKay Brothers to his present solo endeavors and duo work with girlfriend Brennen Leigh. McKay and Clark have co-written four songs together over the years, including one that ended up on Clark’s first Grammy- winning album, last year’s My Favorite Picture of You.
That particular collaboration began during a phone call with Clark telling McKay, “Hey, I got a song idea for you …” A few days later, McKay was handed a lyric sheet and the general framework for a song that would become “El Coyote,” a powerful ballad about the rapacious ways of the smugglers enlisted by families seeking better lives across the U.S./Mexico border. McKay recalls his trepidation about turning in his homework, and “the huge relief that lifted off my shoulders when Clark listened to it and said, ‘Good work.’” Not that it was finished by a long shot, though; that would still require months and months of subtle tweaking and the wholesale moving around of major sections.
“Really, the only way that I knew Guy considered the song finished was when I finally heard him do it live,” McKay says.
While Clark went on to record “El Coyote,” another co- write between the mentor and mentee, “Blue Wyoming Mountains,” makes its debut on McKay’s own new album, Is That Too Much to Ask. He released it in August, just shy of a year after Before the World Was Made, his Gurf Morlix-produced duo record with Leigh (an accomplished songwriter and solo artist in her own right.)
Not surprisingly, Is That Too Much to Ask features a couple of co-writes with Leigh, including the album’s title track (actually a three-person co-write with David Olney). Leigh also lends a hand on guitar, mandolin, and harmony vocals, along with additional instrumental assistance from friends Ray Bonneville, Rebecca Patek, Ricky Davis, Ethan Shaw, and Jonathan Milton. But it’s still very much a DIY affair, made resourcefully “on the cheap” and with minimum fuss in every aspect except for the writing.
“I just took this little Silvertone guitar that I got for free and laid down a bunch of songs with just me and my guitar and some of them with Brennen playing guitar and singing on them,” McKay says. “I just made sure they were songs that I was really proud of. They’re mostly songs about the sort of people that make some less-than-stellar choices in life.”
If McKay himself has made any such less-than-stellar choices in his own life, partnering with Leigh certainly isn’t one of them. Although they both maintain separate solo careers and work and record with others, they can count on each other for support even when they’re not in official duo mode. “It’s nice when I have a gig and Brennen can be my accompanist, and the other way around, too,” he says, then adds with a grateful laugh, “It keeps us working!”
And that goes for writing together as much as it does performing.
“Brennen and I are in a constant state of songwriting,” says McKay. “We have so many unfinished songs right now. Eventually, we get to ’em and write ’em. Maybe we’ll write one today in the car heading to Tennessee.”
It’s a 15-hour drive from Austin to Nashville, but McKay and Leigh have probably made the trek enough times now to have enough songs for a whole album’s worth of car tunes. But McKay’s got another visit with Guy Clark waiting for him on the far side of this particular trip, so foremost on his mind at the moment is one last errand he needs to run before leaving town.
“He always wants us to bring him barbeque from Texas,” McKay says with a smile.