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February 17, 2014IM -
Edwin McCain found the perfect spot to watch. Tucked back stage, where no one could see him, he peered out at the audience from between two stage curtains. It was just after the turn of the millennium, and less than 15 feet away, center stage, Ray Charles played on a grand piano. As McCain soaked up the energy of the concert, he wondered how on earth he landed a gig at this Michael McDonald tribute in Los Angeles, ending up on the same stage as Charles.
McCain’s musical story first began some 25 years earlier, on the other side of the country. As a child in South Carolina, music was about the only thing that he was good at. He struggled to get decent grades, battling both dyslexia and ADD. “Music rescued me from all that,” says the Local 148-452 (Atlanta, GA) member.
When he was seven years old, McCain started singing in the Christ Church Episcopal Choir in Greenville. He was also chosen for parts in operettas and minor theater performances, and soon his talent was celebrated in the community. “Music gave me purpose and identity. I was no longer Edwin the bad student,” says McCain. “I was performing for people and being recognized and acknowledged—it was a great blessing.”
McCain never learned to read music as a child, not because he didn’t have the desire, but because the way he played by ear always made sense to him. When he was 11, his uncle gave him a six-string guitar and McCain began to take lessons. “It just felt natural. I could never read music but it somehow all worked out,” says McCain. “I preferred listening to music and understanding how it was all put together, by ear, and making sense of it in my head.”
As McCain became more involved in music, he strived to write songs that resonated deeply with his audience. He was struck with how his own favorite artists, like Earth Wind & Fire, could tackle complex human emotions and distill them down into perfect three-minute-and-30-second tracks. “I found out how beautiful it is to use my imagination in the craft of songwriting; to give listeners a point of view that provides comfort or joy or solace,” says McCain.
His career began to take off with his hit “I’ll Be” in 1997, followed by the popular single “I Could Not Ask for More” in 1999. His notoriety grew even more when “I’ll Be” was voted one of the Greatest Love Songs of all Time by VH1 and Dr. Phil’s audience of one million also chose it as their favorite wedding song in 2005. McCain says he had to learn how to stay focused on his music and not let the increased stage time and celebrity change who he was.
“There were moments in my career where I let the idea of who I was become more important than what I was actually doing,” says McCain. “There is this PR version of you that gets put out by a record company and then there’s the truth. We’re all flawed but a lot of that is glossed over or overblown, and when that starts to happen, you know you have to slow down and get back to the heart of the music.”
Even though it became a popular couples’ song, “I’ll Be” wasn’t actually written for a wedding. The song was, in fact, meant to be more like a prayer or a reflection on surviving rough times, says McCain. However, it blossomed into a popular single that has re-energized his career several times over the years.
“When people come out to hear me, a lot of them only know that song, but then I have the opportunity to play and hopefully win them over to the rest of my music,” says McCain. “At least once a day I get a letter or an e-mail telling me the importance this song had for someone. It has its own life and means different things for different people.”
His latest single, “Walk With You,” actually was written as a wedding song. It was meant to be a personal gift for a friend’s daughter’s wedding. “It was going to be a one-off, private thing. He asked me to perform it for his daughter and it was just a gesture from one friend to another,” says McCain.
While McCain was working on the piece in early 2009, he and his wife were preparing for the birth of their daughter, Tiller. “Walk With You” took on a fresh, double meaning for McCain, and it became a father/daughter song just as much as a wedding song.
“I had a lot of residual notions about Tiller’s birth swirling around in my mind, and this song just materialized,” says McCain. “It was perfect for my friend and I learned that if you’re open enough, songs will become just what they need to be. The best part about music is those surprises.” The song was scheduled to be released for radio this month.
McCain married his wife in 1999, and the wedding song they chose was “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. During the phone interview, he sang a few bars, and then reflected on the joys of fatherhood, family life, and the new direction his career has taken.
With two sons and a daughter, McCain says that the hardest part about touring is being away from his family. He explains that, when he became a father, he became “far more irresponsible” toward his career.
“I’ve missed more interviews and meetings because I’m tangled up with my kids and in the moment; the business doesn’t seem so important,” says McCain.
With a family to take care of, McCain appreciates the protection the Federation provides for musicians and their music. “Keeping the union strong is vital to our lives as musicians because, at the end of the day, it has our backs and protects us,” says McCain. “The union has been great. I joined for that extra security in my career. Especially now that I have a family to support, its nice to know there’s a greater organization behind what I do.”
McCain plans to release a greatest hits album in March, as a retrospective piece to tie together the last 10 years of his career. It will bookend that moment, when he, as a budding musician, stood behind that curtain watching Ray Charles on the piano, and all he could think was: “Thank God I picked up a guitar one day. Music rescued me. It really did.”