What do you get when you take ’50s-style rock ’n’ roll and meld it with folk-music songwriting?
The answer: You get Don McLean.
The man—best known, of course, for his wildly successful 1971 single “American Pie”—last year released his first new studio album in nine years, Botanical Gardens. McLean will be stopping by Fantasy Springs Resort Casino on Saturday, July 13.
McLean—a Palm Desert resident—has called Botanical Gardens his “most reflective” album, saying the title uses gardens as a metaphor for heaven, in the context of life and death. During a recent phone interview, McLean said Botanical Gardens may be his final original album.
“I may do one more, but I don’t know,” McLean said. “I’m at the end of the road as far as writing and recording. I think I have fairly interesting songwriting ideas that other people can use.”
The material on Botanical Gardens is beautiful, and it doesn’t stray too far from his past recordings.
“I don’t really pay attention to what the times are like—and that’s part of my problem,” McLean said. “I’m sort of an unreconstructed ’50s man. I live in my own world and try to tell the truth, but also try to realize what people are going through. I keep one eye on where people are at, but most of the time, I invent song ideas that I think are wonderful. I have fun trying to make those things happen. What I do is I fuse old-fashioned popular music and rock ’n’ roll, like Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent, and folk music. I try to find a feeling that I want to get, an emotion of some sort, and then I try to get it so when I hear a song, the emotion comes back to me.”
McLean returned to Nashville to record Botanical Gardens.
“I started (recording in Nashville) in 1978, and I immediately had hit records,” McLean said. “I worked with a guy named Larry Butler, and he was brilliant. Unfortunately, he passed away. I didn’t want to go to Nashville, because I was more into Los Angeles or New York, where there was a whole different music scene. The Nashville thing seemed to be pretty cookie-cutter, and I didn’t want that sound. What I found when I got there was they were all so happy to do new things—anything but country. They were just excited about doing Chain Lightning,” McLean’s 1978 album.
“In the studios (in Nashville), I have it together. Everyone knows what’s going on, and they’re swinging with it. In New York, they have a lot of attitude, and the studio musicians have their heads up their asses sometimes thinking they know everything. But these guys in Nashville do know everything and act as if they heard this idea for the first time when you tell them. I ended up recording there for the past 35 years, and it had everything I wanted.”
At a benefit show in 2018 for UCLA Health and Teen Cancer America, McLean performed a cover of his hit song “Vincent” with Ed Sheeran.
“(Ed) is really a remarkable fellow, because he seems impervious to his success, his ego and the pressures that are all around him; he’s like a Cheshire cat,” McLean said. “He’s very mellow and asked me if we could do this. It took two seconds of rehearsal and worked out perfectly. He’s done it his own way, and I applaud him.”
“American Pie” has been covered and parodied many, many times. However, McLean said one of his favorite covers of his music was actually of “The Grave,” done by another legendary artist back in 2003.
“I want songs to be useful for people. That’s the folk side of things. ‘American Pie’ has had so many brilliant parodies, and it’s unbelievable,” McLean said. “I sit there and read these things, (wondering) how people make these things up; it’s terrific! I’m always interested in hearing those. I think one of my proudest moments was when George Michael did ‘The Grave’ to protest the war in Iraq, because no one else had the balls to stand up and say, ‘No! This is wrong!’ But he did, and he sang that song. I was so proud of him and the fact he used my song.”
While McLean is at an age when many people are pondering retirement, he said he still loves the thrill of a tour, even if his show at Fantasy Springs is just a short drive from home.
“I love to get set for the next gig, the next plane flight, and I don’t do well sitting around for too long,” he said. “I get too antsy. For me to do what I did as a kid—playing for a whole week in a nightclub—I think I’d have to hang myself, and I couldn’t do it now. I can’t go to the same place every night and do it again. But I can say that I’m in very good shape; I have a great band; and we’re going to kick some ass.”
Don McLean will perform at 8 p.m., Saturday, July 13, at Fantasy Springs Resort Casino, 84245 Indio Springs Parkway, in Indio. Tickets are $29 to $59. For tickets or more information, call 760-342-5000, or visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.