Q&A with veteran singer, songwriter, guitarist Forrest McDonald - earthshaking, soul-stirring music distilled in the blues

"It’s time to all join hands. We’ve got to live together. It’s time to stand up united as one through the hard times and stormy weather. I say hey, hey, the Blues is all right!"

Forrest McDonald: Blues In A Bucket

Award-winning singer, songwriter, guitarist Forrest McDonald has been performing and recording earthshaking, soul-stirring music distilled in the blues for nearly six decades. His insightful song writing skills embrace the journey of an adventurous explorer who plunges head first into every twist of fate life throws his way. He started playing guitar in 1964 after meeting Muddy Waters at the Café Midnight in Harlem. That same year his father gave him a copy of Two Bones and a Pick by T-Bone walker. He was hooked on the blues. His 15th CD "Blues in a Bucket" will be released February 10, 2020, on World Talent Records. Recorded mixed and mastered at Dogwood Recording & Mastering in Oxford, Georgia, with Ron Benner engineering, Blues in a Bucket showcases Forrest McDonald’s guitar mastery in full bloom, aided and abetted by a stellar cast of backing musicians, featuring the dynamic lead vocals of Andrew Black and special guest vocalist Becky Wright.                                  Forrest McDonald / Photo by Robert O'Neal

Forrest McDonald has been performing and recording earth-shaking, soul-stirring music distilled in the blues for nearly six decades. His insightful song writing skills embrace the journey of an adventurous explorer who plunges head first into every twist of fate life throws his way. The addition of a full horn section and background vocalists to many of these musical tapestries adds remarkable texture as each song unfurls. The result is an array of finely polished, deeply faceted musical gems contained in Blues in a Bucket – reflecting those personal stories that evolve into universal experiences and outcomes. During his extensive career as a musician, Forrest McDonald has recorded with the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. His playing on Bob Seger’s Stranger in Town, Greatest Hits and Ultimate Hits garnered him three RIAA-certified platinum albums, which combined have sold over 15 million copies. That’s Forrest guitar solo heard on Seger’s classic, “Old Time Rock and Roll.” McDonald’s other accolades include his induction in the Boston Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, being awarded “Best Modern Southern Guitarist” by Real Blues Magazine (2002), which also voted his band as “Best Southern Blues Band” for three years-in-a-row (1999-2001). Forrest McDonald has performed with Debbie Davies, Bonnie Bramlett, and Kathi McDonald. He’s recorded with such legends as Bobby Womack, Steve Perry and Doris Troy, and over the years has swapped licks with such guitar greats as Duane Allman, Johnny Winter, Jeff Beck, Bob Margolin, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page and Roy Gaines.

Interview by Michael Limnios         Special Thanks: Mark Pucci Media

How has the Blues and Rock Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I was always a non-conformist and basically an unsupervised child. I first picked up an acoustic guitar in 1963 and began listening to Folk Singers like Odetta, Dylan, Leadbelly and Josh White. Odetta was a Civil rights activist. Although she grew up in the city, she described black folk music and spirituals as “liberation songs" and used this music to “do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.” Both Odetta and Bob Dylan sang at the 1963 Civil Rights March in Washington DC. The anti-establishment counter cultural phenomenon was developing in the United States at this time. The heart of the action began with the beat movement in New York City and then spread to San Francisco. Greenwich Village was where I went to immerse myself in a hotbed of early countercultural activity. In the coming years classic rock bands with a Blues influence hit the airwaves. The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Cream, and others covered Blues greats such as Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and Slim Harpo on their albums. Muddy said the blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll. Drugs such as marijuana and LSD were now embedded into the counter culture.  In 1968-69 I played my share of Moratoriums to End the War in Vietnam. I wanted to be in the heart of the action so I moved to California in 1973. I jammed with many popular band members from the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Playing in the San Francisco bay area was great. There were lines of beautiful women in front of the stage at my feet passing me lit joints and their phone numbers. We took the party with us wherever we played in Europe, Asia, and the USA.  I have found that people around the world are basically the same.  We all want food, clothing, shelter, love and entertainment. I see the world through the prism of music and love. Everywhere I go these days I hear the same complaint in 1,000 different ways we don’t have enough money. That view never changes and people everywhere confirm it.  A small group of very rich people essentially control everything and we are all just trying to get by. That’s why they call it the blues.

"The impact is clear. We started with a line in one place and we crossed it. So, they redrew the line and we crossed that one. On and on it went until society eventually changed. Sex, art, music, video games, violence were expanded to appease the minds of those who had grown tired of the old ways. That’s why I love the blues and blues-rock it keeps me grounded." (Forrest McDonald / Photo by Wayne Gammon)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of Blues, Folk and Rock researches and experiments?

If there was any money in the Blues, they would call it the greens. In the 40’s and 50’s the African-American musicians were confined to the “Chitlin Circuit.”  After the white bands brought notoriety to Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and others they were invited to play venues like the Newport Folk Festival and large concert venues. Listen to Elvis interpret Big Mamma Thornton’s version of Hound Dog. All early Rock and Roll songs are just like blues following the 12-bar format with just a different drum beat. Groups like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, The Who and Jimi Hendrix really moved the needle. The Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock were landmark music festivals. The flower power generation and the hippie movement were all a result of this musical evolution and the new counter culture surrounding it. It is no wonder researchers are consumed with the time period it was the greatest.

What characterizes "Blues in a Bucket" in comparison to previous albums? What touched (emotionally) you from studio's sessions?

Blues in a Bucket is a culmination everything I had learned since I began writing and recording songs. The performances of each song are as good as it gets with your clothes on. That goes double for the sound quality, instrumentation, mixing and mastering.  I have dedicated the CD to my brother, Steve, who I lost in January 2019 to cancer, and to anyone who has lost a loved one to this terrible disease. The song Blue Morning Sun tells that story. A related song, “Go to the light,” was written with positive and spiritual energy for those that have crossed over after passing. “Boogie me till I drop” has a great New Orleans party feel, so I started the CD with it to get everyone in good spirit. I was in China a few years ago and feeling lonely for the USA. I thought about two great blues towns—Memphis and Chicago and that led me to write “Windy City Blues.” It grounded me. I had some low points like we all do and I wrote “Misery and Blues” to relieve some of that anxiety. I was watching a lot of the series “Supernatural” at this time and “Powerhouse” just jumped out of me. The title track “Blues in a Bucket” is a positive classic. I was full of the blues one afternoon, pondering my problems, when I thought of how fantastic it would be to just put them into a bucket and then toss them away. The song tells the story. The closing song “Let the Love in Your Heart” is what we need a lot more of. It’s an optimistic vision inspired by love.

How started the thought of World Talent Records? Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?

When I was 29 years old, I had a vision of one day starting my own independent record label so that I could record my own music and call my own shots. It took me 15 years to save the money but I did it my way. My 9th CD is Titled Nothing Wrong with Dreaming. I am always moving forward. Today "Blues in a Bucket" is the dream project I would most like to accomplish.                   Forrest McDonald / Photo by Wayne Gammon

"If you know what you are doing and listen to all of the players it is amazing what you can play live with no rehearsal. Fortunately for me I love many styles of music and I did my best to master those styles. When you are selling yourself as a studio musician you have to put what you want to do in the back of your mind and listen to the producer or songwriter when they tell you what kind of solo they want."

Are there any memories from Duane Allman, Bobby Womack, and Johnny Winter which you’d like to share with us?

I have several pages in a book I’m writing. I will lay out some of it for you to edit. I was living in Boston in 1970 when I read in the Boston Phoenix the Allman Brothers were coming to the Boston Tea Party November 19-21. Nothing was going to keep me from that show. I brought my 1955 Fender Stratocaster to show Duane as a door opener. He played it and dug it but had just traded a Marshall for a Gibson Les Paul and he was going to play the Les Paul. After the show I told Duane about my 1960 Gibson Firebird and he said to come back tomorrow, Saturday, and bring it with me. After the show on Friday I went to their hotel in Brookline and played acoustic guitars until the pre-dawn hour with Greg leading the way. I left just before the sun came up and returned with my Gibson Firebird the next evening. I also brought Chris Hayward my girlfriend at the time. Our names were on the guest list and we arrived just before the band. We went straight to the dressing room. Chris had strapped on my Firebird and was playing some hot licks when the Brothers walked in. Dickey and Duane were impressed with what she was playing and I felt good having brought her with me. Duane said Dickey listen to this girl play that guitar. She played a few cool blues licks and Duane said, “Dicky you may be out of a job.” Everyone laughed. Soon Duane relieved Chris of the guitar and started playing it. He liked it a lot. When it was show time he had Red Dog their head roadie, bring it to the stage along with Duane’s Les Paul. The set began with great energy and the band was on fire. After the first song they launched into Whipping Post and Duane’s E string broke just as his solo was coming up. I was standing right in front of him on the floor in front of the stage. He yelled “Red Dog, give me the Firebird.” Red Dog tossed him the Guitar. It seemed to sail 20 feet in the air across the stage and into Duane’s waiting arms. Duane plugged it in just in time to begin his solo. It was a great moment. I had friends there that night and they all knew that Duane was playing my Firebird. After the show we retreated back to the dressing room. The cold beer, weed, whites and wine were plentiful.

The afternoon I met Bobby Womack I was walking down the hall at the new Muscle Shoals Sound with my Stratocaster slung over my back like a rifle. Producer/guitarist Jimmy Johnson put his head out into the hall and said come on in here. He introduced me to Bobby who was there Recording “The Roads of Life.“ Bobby said I know the way you wear that guitar that you are a bad ass guitar player. I’m recording down the hall in studio B come give me some solos. So, I did and that’s how my friendship with Bobby began.

I met Johnny July 1969 as the Newport Jazz and folk festival. The three-day event attracted a record crowd of some 80,000, the heaviest attendance figures of 25,000 coming on Friday night, which was devoted entirely to rock. All of these hippies spooked the local authorities who, because of the tension and large crowd on Friday night, demanded that Led Zeppelin be cancelled from the final bill on Sunday.   I loved Johnny Winter’s Set on Sunday. He was absolutely at the top of his game. His vocals were soulful and straight from the heart. His guitar let out a barrage of incredible tones during his slide solos on his Fender Mustang. My family was from Orange Texas and he was from and Johnny was born in Beaumont just west of Orange on I10. I talked to Johnny in his dressing room after his hour and a half set and he let me play his guitar while we talked. Well I tried to play it. His action was set really high for the slide and his strings were ultra-heavy gage. I could barely bend a note. Most guitarists of the day were using a Hawaiian G for our high E string that was equivalent to a 008 and Johnny was using a 013 for his high E string with the rest of his strings equally as thick.  Johnny got the crowd fired up for BB King who came on next. I was sitting with Jimmy Page, Alvin Lee, and Robert Plant during BB’s performance. BB played all of his standards and the crowd loved him. There was talk that Johnny was going to come out and jam with BB. Sure enough BB came back for an encore and invited Johnny to the stage. Jimmy was sitting with a group of us and asked Alvin Lee how he thought Johnny would do playing next to BB.  Robert Plant said loud and proud “BB will kill him.” They played a slow scorching blues “It’s My Own Fault.” BB played with great concentration and feeling. When BB finished his solo amidst the applause, he gave Johnny the nod. Johnny played like he just made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads. He was at the top of his game playing like a true blues master that could shred those strings making them scream and cry. What a show! Johnny blew them all away. Later in life my friend James Montgomery for the Boston Rock Symphony fronted Johnny’s band after Johnny’s health failed. I keep that first memory close to my heart.            Forrest McDonald / Photo by Robert O'Neal

"I was always a non-conformist and basically an unsupervised child. I first picked up an acoustic guitar in 1963 and began listening to Folk Singers like Odetta, Dylan, Leadbelly and Josh White. Odetta was a Civil rights activist. Although she grew up in the city, she described black folk music and spirituals as “liberation songs" and used this music to “do my teaching and preaching, my propagandizing.”

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

If you know what you are doing and listen to all of the players it is amazing what you can play live with no rehearsal. Fortunately for me I love many styles of music and I did my best to master those styles. When you are selling yourself as a studio musician you have to put what you want to do in the back of your mind and listen to the producer or songwriter when they tell you what kind of solo they want. They will reference a solo off a track and ask you to play like that. Being well versed in all of the standards and classics it invaluable in the studio. In 1969 I auditioned for and landed one of the two guitar slots for the Boston Rock Symphony. The other guitarist was a music student at Juilliard named Melvin Wax from Long Island, NY. One day Melvin invited me to his apartment so we could have a jam session. When I arrived, he said I’m just finishing my homework come in and get comfortable. Mel was sight reading a classical piece by Mozart. It sounded beautiful. I thought to myself what I am doing here this guy is great I need to go. Before I could walk out the door Melvin stopped playing and said I’m done let’s jam. I said ok what do you want to jam on? He said let’s jam some Hendrix. I was cool with that and said let’s do it. We started playing and Mel sounded like Mozart and I sounded like Jimi Hendrix. This was astonishing to me. I realized Melvin was all head and no soul. I had learned to solo listening to and learning licks that really moved me. When I played I just blended them together. Our jam was cool but my playing sounded more in the vein I was trying to hit. I said to myself that day I am going to develop my style to the fullest before I learn any theory so that I don’t end up like Melvin; all head and no soul. I played guitar by year for 9 years before entering the Dick Grove Conservatory of music in Studio City California in 1974. Dick is a genius. He played a difficult Be Bop progression and played an impressive solo behind it. Then he casually mentioned I haven’t practiced in 10 years I just know what all the good notes are and I play them. The way he broke down songwriting was inspirational. I won’t give it away here but I strongly recommend his songwriting and composition courses.

What is the impact of the Blues and Rock culture on the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Many of the old hippies of yesteryear are now politicians. As at the end of 2018, 33 states plus D.C have legalized medicinal marijuana. Meanwhile, there are now 10 states (plus D.C.) where recreational weed is legal with others under consideration. Many of the SDS crowd that was feeding their propaganda to the college campuses in the 1960’s are embedded in Government today. There is something called the law of unintended consequences. They are outcomes that are not the ones foreseen and intended by a purposeful action. When I was a 9-year-old boy I often wished some of the actresses would appear topless. We have gone so far beyond that if makes you consider that old phrase be careful what you wish for. The impact is clear. We started with a line in one place and we crossed it. So, they redrew the line and we crossed that one. On and on it went until society eventually changed. Sex, art, music, video games, violence were expanded to appease the minds of those who had grown tired of the old ways. That’s why I love the blues and blues-rock it keeps me grounded. I avoid politics because it is spiritually draining. I don’t buy in to fear mongers on TV news that are shills for the Billionaires who try to pit one group against the other while they get richer. It’s time to all join hands. We’ve got to live together. It’s time to stand up united as one through the hard times and stormy weather. I say hey, hey, the Blues is all right!

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Forrest McDonald / Photo by Robert O'Neal

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