Q&A with Canadian veteran blues musician Big Dave McLean, the quintessential behind-the-scene bluesman

"I feel that not just Blues, but all music is among the greatest gifts the human race can give to the world, we are all equal and deserve to live a life on this planet!"

Big Dave McLean: Yes! This is a Blues Life

Big Dave McLean is a true icon of the blues in Canada. Having received the Order of Canada in 2019 - one of the very few Blues artists in Canada to receive the honour - he has influenced generations of musicians across the country with his supportive nature and authentic delivery of blues and his original songs. Is it possible to still be underrated at age 71, and after a five-decade career in which you’ve inspired just about everybody in Canadian blues? Big Dave McLean is about to offer an emphatic “yes” with This Old Life (2024), an album that’s poised to finally shine the light of mass acclaim on his mighty talents as a singer, harmonicist and slinger of the National guitar—skills that, among his many other accomplishments. The new record is a 14-song collection of immediately indelible, classic blues, combining supremely authentic covers of tunes by legendary artists like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and Little Walter with three new McLean originals that can stand proudly with the best the art form has to offer. Versions of Waters’ “Honey Bee” and Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” are among the smartly chosen, impeccably performed tributes that round out the record. Meanwhile, McLean shows his more romantic side on his own “You Mean So Much to Me,” gets wistful on “Sometimes” and spins a yarn of escalating neighborhood violence on the regretful, world-weary “Billy Canton’s Bulldog.”

(Photo: Big Dave McLeana, a true icon of the blues in Canada)

In true traditionalist style, the album was recorded in just four days at The Ganaraska Recording Company in Cobourg, Ontario, on a purist’s arsenal of vintage instruments and equipment. And most of the performances are first takes, with all of the core guitar, bass and drum tracks cut live “off the floor.” The approach was hugely satisfying to co-producer Steve Marriner, a Juno and Maple Blues Award-winning musician in his own right who counts himself among McLean’s biggest fans. The Saskatchewan-born McLean has been earning that respect since 1969, when he received his first guitar lesson from the legendary John Hammond after a gig. After that, you couldn’t stop him: He became a regular presence on the Canadian club and festival scene, where his profuse talents and obvious love of the blues won him the support of further mentors like the aforementioned Waters, whose friendship ended up inspiring the title of McLean’s debut album, Muddy Waters for President. Is the mainstream finally catching up with the tastemakers? Everything about This Old Life points to a big breakthrough— ironically but rewardingly, since it makes no compromises in its warm embrace of everything that’s always been great about the music.

Interview by Michael Limnios         Special Thanks: Big Dave McLean & Eric Alper

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

I’ve had the opportunity to travel through several countries over the course of my career, it has always amazed me how every diverse culture and group of people have responded to the Blues, it truly is a music form that has affected the world. I am very proud to be part of that!

How do you describe your songbook and sound? What touched (emotionally) you from the slide and resophonic guitar?

I would have to say the song book and sound that I play would be mostly connected to Mississippi Delta and early Chicago Blues. My biggest Hero’s and inspiration were these men and women who wrote the original play book. As for my emotional connection to the sound of the resonator guitar and slide, I was heavily inspired by so many of the greats like Muddy Waters, Bukka white and John Hammond. However, the list of slide players goes on and on and on ... Hearing someone play with pure passion and emotional conviction still gives me goose bumps.

"I’ve had the opportunity to travel through several countries over the course of my career, it has always amazed me how every diverse culture and group of people have responded to the Blues, it truly is a music form that has affected the world. I am very proud to be part of that!" (Photo: Big Dave McLean)

How do you think you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

When I first fell in love with the blues, I realized how deep and personal this music is, and how you can trace the blues men and woman back through history, decade by decade. You can also tell what region they came from just by listening to the style of blues they were playing.

I think my music making process has developed over the years depending on the style of music, I‘m listening to, I don’t really have a blueprint formula for this, I just play or write what moves me at the time.

Currently you have one more blues release. How did your relationship with blues come about?

When I was a teenager I would listen to my older brother Grant, He was an exceptional guitarist and had a great collection of records, He would perform songs by the likes of Blind Blake, Fats Waller, Scott Joplin and many others, but when I heard him play songs by Leadbelly, something inside me clicked. Leadbelly played work songs in a style of folk blues, this got me interested in finding other artists that played in that style. After that it was a matter of listening to any of the old blues artists I could find. As time passed, I would just go further down the rabbit hole.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the new blues album “This Old Life“ (2024)?

I found the interesting thing about the making of” This Old Life “was the fact that Steve Marriner and Jimmy Bowskill were not only incredible producers of the CD but also played most of the instruments on it. I played guitars, harmonica and vocals. Steve played Drums, Harmonica, Guitar and (backup vocals on “Done Got Over IT“), Jimmy played Doghouse bass, Guitar, Bass Harmonica and backup vocals on (“Done Got Over It“). Playing with these two gentlemen was like going into a candy store every day we entered the studio. Then recording with my good friend Dave Mowatt live off the floor and adding JESSE O’ Brian just put the Icing on the cake!

"The similarities are both the old cats, and the new generation of blues woman and men love the blues. The difference is the old blues cats are the ones who wrote the book we all study from." (Photo: Big Dave McLean, celebrates five decades with the blues on his latest album This Old Life)

What touched you from Blind Lemon, Willie Dixon, Little Walker and Muddy’s tunes?

What touches me about the music of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Willie Dixon, Little Walter and Muddy Waters is… the heart and soul of their songs as well as the amazing groves they set the lyrics too. I could easily go on and on about each one of these men, but that’s the condensed answer.

What’s the balance in music between technique and soul?

I feel technique can be very important, however, if you can’t put in the soul … You got NOTHIN’!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Back in 1980 I wrote a song about Muddy Waters entitled “Muddy Waters for President”, that night I performed it solo in my opening act for a Muddy concert, Muddy liked the song and wanted to record it. We talked on the phone about doing that. Everything takes time, well Muddy passed before we could make this happen. I ended up recording it myself in 1989. Being the first song, I ever wrote, it made my life that Muddy Waters would even consider it, I named my album “Muddy Waters for president”.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

What I miss mostly from the blues of the past, is the times I could meet and talk with so many of my Blues Hero’s, to be able to hear them perform and tell stories of their life experiences. As for hope and fears, I’m hoping that future generations will honor and respect the men and women who created this music form and the times they had to endure to create such heart felt music. Now as for fears, I don’t really focus on future fears for the blues, I think the blues is the cornerstone of just about all music styles except for maybe classical (?). You can probably trace any style back to ground zero in Mississippi. The Blues will always stay strong in whatever Style it is being expressed in!

"When I first fell in love with the blues, I realized how deep and personal this music is, and how you can trace the blues men and woman back through history, decade by decade. You can also tell what region they came from just by listening to the style of blues they were playing." (Photo: Big Dave McLean)

Why is it important that we preserve and spread the blues?

I feel it is important to preserve the blues and keep it going because it is the people’s music with a history you can trace all the way back.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Aside from my friends and some local favorites I would say that John Hammond and Muddy Waters have been the two acquaintances (friends) that have had the biggest impact on my playing style, as for the best advice I’ve received  (other than that of my mother), it came from Muddy Waters: “always play like it could be your last performance, put your heart and soul into all of it, and stand behind every lick”.

Are there any memories from John Hammond which you’d like to share with us?

All I’d like to say about John Hammond is,... He is one of the most talented and kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

Are there any similarities between the old cat bluesmen and the new generation of blues musicians?

The similarities are both the old cats, and the new generation of blues woman and men love the blues. The difference is the old blues cats are the ones who wrote the book we all study from.

What are you doing to keep your music relevant today, to develop it and present it to the new generation?

Well I’d have to say, I’m more selfish I guess, I’m trying more to preserve the Old school blues, then I am presenting any kind of change to a new generation.

"Personally, I think that the Blues is a pure expression of true heartfelt passion and emotion, it is not a paint by numbers kind of a music, it HAS to be felt!!" (Photo: Big Dave McLean, a slinger of resophonic)

If you could change one thing in the Canadian blues scene and it would become a reality, what would that be?

If I could change one thing on the Canadian Blues scene and make it a reality, I would have to say “more venues and better pay!”

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Personally, I think that the Blues is a pure expression of true heartfelt passion and emotion, it is not a paint by numbers kind of a music, it HAS to be felt!!

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

I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in the past 45 press years that I’ve been playing is: not everyone is going to appreciate your music, your songs, your sound, your appearance or even you. BUT ... if you strongly believe in yourself and the musical message you are trying to communicate, STAY STRONG, do what you feel you are meant to do

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

I feel that not just Blues, but all music is among the greatest gifts the human race can give to the world, we are all equal and deserve to live a life on this planet!

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

My WEDDING DAY!!! (THE BEST), and since we have a time machine I would also go back to when all three of my children were born!!!

Black Hen Music - Big Dave McLean

(Photo: Big Dave McLean, Canada’s heartfelt master of the Delta and Chicago blues)

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