THE READING ROOM: Joey McGee Embraces Storytelling in Both Books and Songs
Henry Carrigan Posted On April 11, 2019 in No Depression
Nicola Gell Photography
Texas roots singer-songwriter Joey McGee loves a good story, and
he’s thrilled when he can put a good story to music. When he’s not
letting an idea for a new song percolate in his mind, McGee’s reading a
good book or listening to Dylan or Guy Clark or Patty Griffin, paying
attention to the ways those writers put words together to tell a story
or to paint a colorful soundscape.
A native of New Orleans, McGee’s personal and musical journey has
carried him from his Louisiana homeland to the Hill Country of Texas to
the industrial corridors of Pittsburgh and back to the Brazos Valley,
where he now makes home near Bryan, Texas. Along the way, he’s been
nourished by the rich musical flavors of Cajun, soul, rock, blues, and
country music. His new album, El Camino Real, traces this
journey through these musical styles. Named for the old road that winds
from Louisiana to Mexico, the album features songs that wind through the
hills and valleys of McGee’s own life — losses and disappointments,
revelations and hopes — and reveal his embrace of the diversity of
musical styles that have shaped him.
Looking back on his journey, McGee notices that his love of
storytelling is the thread that runs through it: “I like simplicity. I
like a good story and I like playing guitar,” he says. “The whole ‘three
chords and the truth’ thing really resonates with me, and I find that
in country and folk. It’s in the blues and gospel, too, and I think
blues and country are two sides of the same coin. I can dig ’em both if
there’s a good story to tell and a good groove to be had.”
I met McGee in Nashville last September at the Americana Music
Association Conference and Festival. We were sitting in a session at
which Charles Hughes was speaking about the intersections of country
music and soul music. After the panel McGee and I started talking about
topics including religion, race, and reading. We continued the
conversation one afternoon over coffee, and we continue it here, in the
context of books, reading, and songwriting.
What books are on your nightstand now?
Well, there are some books I read over and over, so I always have them near at hand: Elie Wiesel’s Night; Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I have a couple of books that I am currently reading. One is As Many Reps as Possible
by a CrossFit guy named Jason Khalipa; it’s a bit of his story and a
bit of a business book, too. The other is Doug Bender and Dave
Sterrett’s I Am Second, which is a collection of testimonies
and stories of how people come to faith. Then I have other books that I
hope to read, or that I have read a little bit and am trying to read as I
have time. One is the new Jeff Tweedy memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back). Another is Charles Hughes’ Country Soul. Then there’s Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism and Ben Myers’ System of a Down: Right Here in Hollywood.
What’s one book you won’t leave home without?
The Bible. It’s been life-sustaining for me for years. There is a
companion that I take with me everywhere and use every day: the
dictionary! I have a copy on my iPhone, but I use that thing multiple
times a day and it is a constant companion, likely more than the Bible,
now that I think of it. The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron,
too, though not the entire book. She has a section called “morning
pages,” and she recommends writing 1,000 words a day. For me, it’s like
therapy. I also take my bullet journal with me; it’s the place where I
write notes. I write every day. Writing has helped me bring to the
surface my thoughts about certain subjects.
Do you always finish books?
Well, I’ve never finished Julia Cameron’s book (laughs). I was listening to a Joe Pug podcast that featured the writer Brian Koppelman. He mentioned Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
He also said that he didn’t finish the book, but started doing “Morning
Pages,” the exercise Cameron encourages. I found that hilarious! Has anyone finished
the book? There are several business books I’ve never finished. I was
almost that way with Tamara Saviano’s book about Guy Clark, Without Getting Killed or Caught. I almost stopped reading the book when it got to the partying.
How have social media affected your reading habits?
Social media are a big distraction to me, so I try to stay away, even
though as an artist I have to be present on media such as Facebook and
Instagram. I like to read print books, though, and I don’t read books in
What writers do you admire most?
Dylan, Patty Griffin — she’s a huge influence in my life. Paula Cole,
Suzanne Vega, Rich Mullins — he was a big influence in my life. What I
love about Rich is that he had this wild relationship with God that came
through his writing and his songs.
What’s the last great book you read?
Dylan’s Chronicles. I really resonated with the book,
especially with where I am on my journey. I have also been listening to a
lot of older music and learning from it.
Can you talk a little about your approach to songwriting?
Songwriting for me is a deep thing. Some people write songs for the
sake of writing songs. I want a song to accomplish something in the
world, something good in the world. Lots of my songs are percolating;
“percolating” is a very good word for me. I have something percolating
in my mind, either a melody or an idea. From the time I was eight or
ten, I wanted to write stories. I’ve always been attuned to words.
Sometimes it’s memories or feelings that are rolling around, sometimes
it’s melodies. “Pining,” from the new album, came about as a challenge
from a friend who asked me if I knew Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice.” I
listened to the song at midnight and woke up at 3 a.m. and the song just
poured out. Some of the songs on the new album I wrote while I lived in
Pittsburgh, over 10 years ago. It was during that time that I came to
love country music. A couple of the songs for the new album I finished
only a day or two before going into the studio.
If you could have dinner with three writers, living or dead, whom would they be?
Alice Walker: she was a huge influence on me when I was young, especially her book Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems.
King Solomon. James Baldwin: I’d love to hear what he had to say. Maya
Angelou: In reading her I get the sense that she was pulling from a deep
well of understanding and profundity. I also love her particular
Southern voice and vernacular. She was astounding. Incidentally, a line
in one of the songs, “Sunday Blues,” on El Camino Real is
rooted in something she said while being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey asked her, “What is the greatest virtue?” Maya thought for a
while and responded, “Courage.” Hence, “Courage is a virtue that is hard
pressed to be found / and wisdom shouts from rooftops / though it’s
hard to hear the sound.” And I find her assessment of courage to be
true. Malcolm X: I would love to talk with Malcolm about the
transformation that happened in his life. Malcolm was a scrappy guy from
the East Coast, a survivor on a number of levels, and I would love to
converse with him about his change and how that played out in his life. I
love stories of transformation and overcoming.