Megan McCormick is a superstar guitar player and songwriter in a town that’s crowded with talent. It’s not easy for anyone trying to make it in Music City--especially for women--since the music industry in Nashville has traditionally been a boy’s club. But when McCormick starts to pick, even the hard-boiled execs have to pay attention. McCormick can sing, write, arrange, and seriously pick. She's the whole package. In 2006, McCormick won the International Bluegrass Music Association Award for Recorded Event of the Year for her album Back To The Well and won again in 2009 for Proud To Be A Daughter of Bluegrass. While eying a hard fought opportunity to start a new album later this year, Megan will continue as a member of Jenny Lewis’ all star band, playing rhythm and lead on her cherished Epiphone Casino. For the spring tour starting April 7, the band will also feature Epiphone artist, Tristen Gaspadarek. Epiphone caught up with Megan on a rare break from the road to discuss her influences and her new found appreciation for the music business.
You’ve been on tour with Jenny Lewis who is supporting her latest album, Voyager, The album is getting a great reception. How is it going?
It’s great. It took being out for a year with Jenny to realize I almost needed to be nursed back to health to find that childlike discovery, that undeniable buzz you get when you play with people. Whether it’s that crazy feeling of being in a room with 10 people the first time you’ve actually played someone a new song or if it’s standing just behind Jenny at the Boston Common Festival and there’s 18,000 people there.
It took me almost a year and a half to get out of my old record deal and then a separate publishing deal. So I needed to do this for a year before I could remember why I wanted this life for myself, too. When you’re signing a deal you’re excited. You’re not thinking what is the worst, worst, worst case scenario that could come of this contract actually coming true. You’re thinking the likelihood of that is small (laughs). It so happened I was really worn out by that point and my artistic cycle was off. I had been creating but I couldn’t let it go and put it into the world. I needed to recalibrate myself. So, I’m gonna play with Jenny this year. And it’s great.
You’re playing guitar and singing in Jenny’s band. Do those roles give you new insight into your music? You’re not in the limelight this time.
It’s an amazing thing for me because I’m 28. Jenny’s 38, and I’ve known her music for 10 years. So to know her as an artist, as a fan, and then to become actually involved and knowing her on friend-level and a business level, I find this to be the most beneficial opportunity for a mentor that came out of thin air.
I feel like this lifestyle and this particular gig for me is perfect--just being a musician and a touring musician. I’m a studier. Life is this sociological experiment and I’m studying people—our band, our 10-person crew that’s just lived together for 9 months. But also that study of watching Jenny, how she plays off of us in the band and how we interact with her. It’s so amazing the way she captivates people. There’s so much to learn from her as a performer at that level. For me, I can really involve myself in that—I can understand that. But when you’re watching someone set the hook and keep these people on the edge, I can’t think of a better mentor for me at this point. And I needed something really not Nashville. And that’s no diss but this (Nashville) is the only place that I’ve been experiencing lately and I think there’s a way-different and equally valuable side to the independent approach like Jenny’s. In Nashville you’ve got a be a picker, picker, picker. I can hang with that but it was important for me to go out there and craft the sound of either her old player’s parts or see what happens when I’m motivated by tone and texture instead of playing everything I’ve ever learned about guitar on the gig. There are certain guitar players I have insane respect for in this town that I can fill up on really quickly.
With Jenny, I’m in a role where I’m the second guitarist. In my own music, I lead the guitar side of things. So it’s been a very important experience—starting with a fresh perspective, starting on a level and realizing it’s all about trying to make the people around you sound better. And most of all it’s all about making Jenny’s music come across. It’s all about setting her up for success.
And you’re singing a lot, too.
The singing is a huge part of my gig with Jenny. She’s always had females in her band unlike a lot of female artists and band leaders. Lots of women wouldn’t want other women in their band. Jenny really is motivated by finding other talented women that she can help get some exposure. And she’s seemingly the kind of artist who would prefer at some point that you grow out of her band. She wants to aid in that.
So, this role is very much supportive at all times and is even a more simplistic job on guitar than I’ve had before. But then there are also a few moments in the band where I get the license to open up. There’s a song I kick off where Jenny gives that me opportunity.
How did you start on guitar?
Watching my family play music. My mother’s Dad was an incredible guitar player in more of a country and swing kind of style. Bob Wills –those kinds of things. Also, my grandparents are in the Western Swing Hall of Fame (the Bells). I have a tape I still will put on and get into some of their solos. My Dad’s Dad had every issue of Jazz Guitar magazine. And he’s learned every piece. His background is more classical and jazz. He has studied. Even both of my uncles are great guitar players. My Mom is a drummer. Everybody was encouraged to play in our family. It never seemed like I shouldn’t do what my uncles and grandparents were doing. I think I was 8 years old when I started to get serious. But maybe I messed around on mandolin. That was a first instrument in our family.
Where did grow up?
I was born in Idaho and lived there until I was 15. Then my family moved to Anchorage, Alaska. I moved to Tennessee two years later for school and was in Nashville by 19.
Is Nashville where you wanted to end up?
I think so—I know so now but when I came to Tennessee, I was just wanting to get here because I was really into bluegrass and flat picking guitar. And eventually I went through that phase and did the IBMA thing. I was in school in Johnson City but then I got a gig with someone in Nashville who was based here so I said: “Ok, I’m done. I’m leaving Johnson City.” It was still cheap enough here that I could do it. It was only $100 a more to live here than Johnson City. Now I think Nashville is going through growing pains. Despite that, I’m not sure what would be a better fit with better people for playing music.
You mentioned wanting to get back to the joy of writing and recording. Are you able to write on the road?
You do find time during a tour to yourself. When we have a day off, I’ll bring my recording equipment and I’ll take my Casino and pretty much set up my stuff so that it’s ready for me to work on something.
How has your writing changed with this break from being out front?
What the Jenny gig did for me was give me a big affirmation I have a skill set that I can offer that is real. One year I might make music with Jenny, another year I might teach music and mentor. It’s about finding my peace in what I’m doing. I’m participating in a life I always intended. What is motiving now to be a creator is different from what it used to be. Sometimes too much critique and too much affirmation can be hard. As long as you get enough fuel to keep going, you have to keep writing. Keep playing guitar.