Q&A: Edwin McCain plays City Winery — and DC could not ask for more

He’s responsible for two of the greatest love ballads of the past 25 years.

You can now see Edwin McCain at City Winery in Northeast D.C. on Nov. 13.

“This will be our second time at the D.C. City Winery,” McCain told WTOP. “We’ve played most of them: Nashville, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, New York. They’re great sit-down venues. It’s a nice environment to play. Nice and quiet, a perfect listening room. … It’ll be two acoustic guitars, electric guitar and saxophone.”

What can we expect to hear?

“The first rule of the business is give the people what they want,” McCain said. “People always go, ‘When are you putting out a new album?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not.’ I have a core group of songs off 10 albums that I know people want to hear, so I work off of those. … Then people yell at me to play these obscure, old songs that I can’t remember how to play, so I’ll make them bring up their phones and hold up the lyrics and I’ll try to hack my way through them. It’s pretty fun actually.”

Born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1970, McCain grew up loving music.

“My dad pulled out this crazy audio recording a couple Christmases ago of he and I singing that Peter, Paul & Mary song ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ [when] I was little, like 3 or 4,” McCain said. “It was singing first, then like every other kid, I had piano lessons with a piano teacher. I still cringe a little bit thinking back to those piano lessons, then church choir, which I jokingly call southern day care.”

His biggest influence was his uncle, who studied music history in college.

“He went to the University of North Carolina … studying Eastern Appalachian folk music that they called ‘old time,’ which is a precursor to bluegrass,” McCain said. “It’s a living oral history of the Scotch-Irish people who immigrated here and populated western North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains. … That’s what planted the seed that music is this echo of our experience. The idea is that we try to improve where we come from and songwriters become a thread in that fabric.”

He then began to interweave that personal fabric with other genres.

“I heard a songwriter called David Wilcox, then you underpin all of that with me listening to Earth, Wind & Fire and all of this R&B stuff,” McCain said. “For me, Maurice White and Earth, Wind & Fire were trying to do the same thing as far as speaking in this uplifting way and trying to share a message that was unifying and powerful and doing it worldwide. You combine the idea of songwriter and global good will and that was sort of the crucible that I came from.”

Soon, McCain began touring with Dave Matthews and Hootie and the Blowfish.

“It was timing,” McCain said. “Grunge was [fading], everybody was tired of staring into their own belly button feeling bad about themselves. Dave Matthews and Hootie and the Blowfish were exploding. I remember at W & L University one weekend, it was Dave Matthews at one frat house, Hootie and the Blowfish next-door and we were playing the next frathouse. … We were all coming up at the same time. I opened up for both of them as they exploded onto the scene.”

In 1994, he signed with Lava Records, an offshoot of Atlantic Records.

“[Record executive] Jason Flom had just started Lava,” McCain said. “It was looking like I was going to go onto Atlantic proper, but Jason came and we met and I have a healthy dose of operational defiance. I just loved Jason and I wanted to be on the little startup label. I wanted to go fight, so I went with Lava and ended up with all the little fighters like Kid Rock, Sugar Ray. … We had this little gang of malcontents, we supported each other and we built that little label.”

Lava released McCain’s debut album “Honor Among Thieves” (1995), but it was his second album “Misguided Records” (1997) that made him a household name.

“”Flom called and said, ‘I just came from a meeting and you’re getting ready to get dropped unless you turn in something good.’ So I was like, ‘Okay, okay, hang on. I’ll tune it in and give you something good.'”

That song was “I’ll Be,” the lyrics of which he pulled from life experience.

“I was dating this girl way out of my league [and] I said, ‘No matter what happens, I’m always going to be a big fan,’ so that line was in my head,” McCain said. “Then I heard this drunk guy at a bar fumble over his words. He was trying to say, ‘Shoulder to cry on,’ but ‘crying’ came before ‘shoulder’ and I was like, ‘Wait a second, let me write that down!’ I threw that on a napkin, I had all these little scraps of paper in my bag, I got home and put them all out on the coffee table.”

After recording it, he pulled out all the stops to promote the record.

“The real truth about that song was how hard we worked it behind the scenes at radio,” McCain said. “There was nothing I wouldn’t do. I played hot dog parties at people’s houses and rode around on top of vans doing low-powered radio stuff. I was the biggest prostitute for the record label. I thought it was fun, I didn’t care, it was like, ‘Hey, this is my last shot, I’m gonna leave it all out on the field.’ We did everything we could possibly do. Atlantic threw us a bone and put it on ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ That was the final catalyst that got it to launch. Thank God for them.”

But he wasn’t done there. His third album “Messenger” (1999) featured another ballad for the ages; this time penned by the prolific songwriter Diane Warren.

“I didn’t even know who she was,” McCain admitted. “They came to me and said, ‘Diane Warren wrote you song.’ I was like, ‘Who’s Diane Warren?’ They were like, ‘You don’t know who Diane Warren is?’ I was like, ‘No.’ … They sent me the song and I said, ‘I don’t want to do it.’ I was 26 or 27, I didn’t understand how this business works, I was like, ‘I’ve got plenty of my own songs.’ They didn’t know what to say. They said, ‘What if we pay you to do it?’ I said, ‘Alright, I’ll do it.”

This time, the song was put on the film soundtrack for “Message in a Bottle.”

“It blew up,” McCain said. “I had nothing to do with the success of that. I was an unwilling participant in my own good fortune. … It’s kind of that ‘success breeds success’ thing. If you’ve got something like ‘I’ll Be’ that’s out there cooking, it’s a lot easier for the program directors to put your next song on. So that was really kind of what happened there.”

The song reached a new audience with its country cover by Sara Evans.

“I loved it!” McCain said. “She did a great job. Her voice is awesome.”

Through it all, though, McCain never liked the spotlight of celebrity.

“I’ve just never been really good at the whole [celebrity] thing,” McCain said. “I love the radio promotion part … the used-car salesman kind of stuff, but the whole being photographed and being on TV stuff, that was always weird to me. There are some people who are just made to be famous, like Darius Rucker, but I always felt weird about it. I love playing music for audiences, but I don’t like having a persona out there in the world — and it’s obvious too. It comes across.”

Even so, he loves the intimate feel of live shows like City Winery.

“The odds are that there’s going to be something you like, and if not, I pick on our saxophonist mercilessly and that’s always fun,” McCain said. “So come out, have some laughs, it’s a good time and it’s a nice room if you haven’t been there.”

Find more details on the City Winery website. Hear our full conversation below:

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