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Ruminations from a Soul Survivor  An interview of Mighty Sam McClain
July 6, 2002
Holiday Inn
Davenport, Iowa
By Mark Thompson, President, Crossroads Blues Society, northeastern Illinois

Mighty Sam McClainís listing in the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music gives The Phantom Tollbooth primary credit for bringing Mighty Sam McClain to the attention of the contemporary Christian music community, while further stating, ď . . . he is still much more acclaimed in the general market than in that little subculture.Ē It would make sense, then, for a fine interview with McClain to appear in the Crossroads Blues Societyís fall newsletter. An acclaimed artist whose five-decade spanning mainstream career includes fifteen years of drunken homelessness, McClainís forthright language may shock some readers but the Tollbooth is very pleased to reprint this interview.

This interview was conducted the morning after Mr. McClainís great performance on the main stage of the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival. 

Thompson: Thank you for taking some time to talk with me.

Mighty Sam McClain: Thank you for the interest. I apologize for my slow movement this morning. Really moving slow- I guess it's called life. I had a talk with God this morning. Iím not too content. Iíve got some questions for the Big Master this morning. And I donít think Iím being very satisfied with the answers.

Thompson: Well, we have to have patience.

McClain: Weíre not always satisfied with the answers God gives us.

Thompson: Sometimes God wants us to wait for the answers.

McClain: We donít have much choice about that!! (laughter) Thatís the part that got me a little slow this morning. Iím not surrendering too easy, fighting the battle but Iíll be all right.

Thompson: It didnít look like you were fighting a battle last night. You gave an outstanding performance.

McClain: Thank you very much. I was somewhat enjoying myself. I wasnít totally where I would like to be musically or spiritually. Iím always looking to take to a higher level. Maybe sometimes I expect too much from myself, my wife and everybody around me. But, overall, the performance was ok but I wasnít really satisfied with it. I was thankful to be there. Iím trying to be thankful just to be alive. Sometimes I get very disgusted, frustrated with it. So itís been tough. Itís just one of those times. You asked me how Iím feeling- have a seat!! (laughter) Iíll tell you how Iím feeling this morning! But Iím all right. God is good, God is faithful. His servant is just having a hard time this morning. (more laughter)

Thompson: We all have those days.

McClain: Amen! Itís all good. It will all come out good I trust that. But this business is so fickle. People are people. Thatís what that song I wrote, ďHanging on the Cross,Ē is about. People are only human and thatís all theyíll ever be, I guess. And I guess Iím one of them, too. But itís frustrating sometimes.

Thompson: I donít think too many people are used to being at a blues festival and hearing the blues about Jesus on the cross.

McClain: I bet! (laughter) I know thatís right. Thatís one of the questions right now. God, why have you chosen me for this? This is a tough one. People do not want to talk about Jesus. I can choose to do it. I tell people all the time, it wasnít my choice. I didnít choose God, God chose me. Itís not the way I planned it. Back when my career started, I had some other plans. Iím still in the surrendering process. I know itís a shock. I canít talk without talking about God. You walk into my room and the first thing out of my mouth is about God, whether itís Iím questioning God, Iím happy about God. Ití still about God, because I know God is the ultimate. And I also know that he understands whatever it is Iím going through. Itís real small, real small in Godís universe. I understand that, so I know heís going to forgive me and everything is going to be ok. And he understands when I get frustrated or angry, very uptight. God got angry, he got mad. Thatís what I tell people. They try to put God and Jesus somewhereís different and heís right there. Itís real simple. The longer I live, the more simplified itís getting. He heard it and he got pissed off. If you donít think Jesus had the blues when they hung him on the cross, let somebody nail your ass to a piece of wood and see how that makes you feel. He picked me because Iím bold enough to say it. Iím not scared to say Jesus had the blues and you all better listen up! 

Itís not easy and it wasnít promised to be easy. They killed him. Iím not dead yet, so I should be bouncing up and down. I do enjoy bringing this music to the people. I really do. I know that it is my mission; itís my calling and where itís needed. People are always asking the question, what it is I believe, so I get a chance to say whatís on my mind and in my heart. Iím trying to do the right thing. But the hardheaded rascal that I am, he smiles at me, come on Sam, get up, get up. I know that God has a great sense of humor. When you leave, I got to get on my knees and beg my wife for forgiveness. Apologize. Iíve been a little tough this morning. 

Thompson: We all have to do that with our wives once in a while.

McClain: And I just finished writing a song, too, called ďMost of All.Ē Itís thanking her for believing in me, in the music, believing in God. When I got up this morning, I was scowling like a bull. Oh, wretched me! But sheís a wonderful lady, a forgiving lady, so Iím sure sheíll forgive me one more time. Life is good.

Thompson: Earlier in your career, from what Iíve been able to see, you didnít write your material. Now, almost everything you do, you wrote. Where did the songwriting come from?

McClain: When I met Jesus. When I met Jesus, life became serious. The first thing that was overwhelming to me was that I was using and abusing so many people and wasnít even aware of that fact, especially the ladies. It was a painful thing. God just showed up and said, these are my children and you cannot do this. Thatís when I started asking for forgiveness. I realized that I had hurt people. So I guess I really finally had something to write about. I could feel what was going on in my life. I guess thatís what I write on now, my emotions. I canít just get up and say Iím going to write a song. Itís got to move me, somethingís got to be happening. I have to say that discovering God was the foundation for me, stopping and thinking and realizing that life is not a game, itís for real. And I do have something to say now that Iíve discovered Jesus and Jesus discovered me. Itís real, itís really real, God is real!! All of my friends thought I was a fuckiní nut case! (more laughter) 

So Iíve been walking that mission ever since that day. I was going home to Louisiana, heading home to see my parents. My mother and stepfather were still living at the time. I left home before I was 13 years old because of my stepfather. He hit me a couple of times with a walking stick and a hammer. So I left; I was getting ready to kill this guy. And I really wanted him to be my father real bad. I really loved him. I saw my mom go through a couple men trying to find the right one. My momma had thirteen children between four different men. Iím in the middle; Iím five from the top. So I got a chance to witness a few things. This particular guy, I really wanted him to be the guy. Anyway, I headed back home in í73 and this was the time I first met Jesus. I got home and my stepfather was laying in his bed dying. He was so peaceful.

And I got more love and appreciation from that man in those 5-10 minutes than I could ever have imagined. I couldnít even imagine what it would have been like, the love I was seeking as opposed to the love I got in those few seconds. He was full of God. Those things, you write about that. I have a hard talking about that because people think youíre nuts when you tell them about the experience you had meeting God on the side of the road. Thatís what I write about, the real things that happen, a special time for me. I might get sidetracked, so you may have to steer me back on track, because I get to talking about this stuff and it is very emotional. I donít get the chance to talk deep, deep , deep on this most of the time because I donít feel that anybody really wants to listen. Itís the story of my life. One day I hope to tell it in a book. It would take the right questions, the right situation to even bring this stuff up because itís been buried for years. I havenít had time to think, Iíve been busy surviving. Iíve been out here since I was 13 years old. Itís been interesting and Iím alive today to talk about it--eating out of garbage cans, selling my blood and my plasma just to get money to eat. Itís taken all that to make me who I am today. God, if I had known, I might have taken another direction, if you had given me a little hint. I might have tried to make a deal with you. Can we do it like this instead of like that? But itís all good.

Thompson: And now youíre going to start your own label?

McClain: Iíve had this label for about five years. Iíve just been waiting for the right time. Iíve had a couple producers, one in particular, Don Schroeder, who produced my very first recording in 1966. Itís hard to talk about Don and not talk about that he was a crook. I try real hard though! I hadnít seen Don in thirty years or so. I decided to cut ďSweet Dreams Again,Ē which is a song he took me to Muscle Shoals and recorded. I went there to record a song called ďGeorgia PinesĒ and a couple other things. Dan Penn and Spooner (Oldham), a couple of session musicians there, introduced us to ďSweet Dreams,Ē so we decided to cut it. And it went on the charts. So Iíd been thinking about cutting this thing over for years. A few of my friends and people Iíve known have been going on saying you got to cut that tune again. So, last year, Iím cutting it and I go home and thereís a message on the machine. And itís from Don Schroeder! I couldnít believe it. The message said, ĒHey, I got this song, ďSweet Dreams (of You),Ē hey Sam, how you doing, itís Papa Don.Ē And I ainít heard this manís voice in 30 years. There he is, I get back from cutting this song and his voice is on my machine. Itís almost eerie! I called my wife and said come here and listen, because she had never heard Papa Donís voice. She had heard me talk about him over the years. And heís saying, Sam, I want to produce you again, blah, blah, blah. It was two weeks before I called him back. It made me angry that he would call and act like everything was the same. I really prayed hard before calling him. I decided that I was going to be open to this. I am a child of God and I can forgive Don, because I truly love him. I just got hurt because he screwed me like he did and treated me like he did. So I called him up. And it was like walking into a time warp. He hadnít changed - he started talking about the same stuff with the same attitude. Papa Don this, Papa Don that. You ought to tell that little record company of yours to bring me in and let me record you. Heís not asking me, how are you, whatís going on in your life? 

I couldnít believe it. I got angry. And after the anger subsided, I realized that I had moved and this man hadnít. I found the joy in the call. I found some peace. I really have grown and this guy sitting in the same place. He donít even realize, he wouldnít stop to listen, to say how are you doing. Finally, I had to scream at him to shut up! He started telling me how many good songs Jesus been giving him and he knew Jesus was going to send him a good singer and he knew I was it. He was just running. And I said, but Don, you must realize that Jesus stopped by here, too. He didnít just stop by your house; he stopped over here, too. It was great to stop him. And I said, Don, Iím not in a hurry to do anything. Iíve got screwed so much in this business. And he says, I ainít never screwed you!! I said, I didnít say you screwed me. He just walked right into that one. He felt guilty. I trusted him with all my heart. I didnít know anything about the business. At the time, I didnít really care. I donít hold him responsible for my ignorance and lack of enthusiasm for taking care of my own business. But that still doesnít give him a reason to screw me, because I was ignorant. 

Itís funny. I produced this record on a guy, Weepiní Willie, out of Boston. Willieís about seventy-six years old. I produced it about two years ago. It was my first production and I had to teach Willie everything. He had to learn how to be a songwriter, how to become a member of ASCAMP. It was such a joy that I did that. I realized God was showing me that this is what Don should have done for me. It was a pleasure to help this guy and to see these royalty checks that I know heís been getting. I know I helped his life. I take great pride in that. At the same time, thatís why I hold Don responsible for his end of it, even though I didnít know. He still should have done the right thing. So Don called and another guy called, Thomas Ruf, of Ruf Records. And he came in with the attitude of, I like your integrity etc, etc but you need some more songs. I said, excuse me! All that combined was like the Devil himself was on my trail. Somethingís going on. Don comes out of nowhere and hereís another man coming out of nowhere talking about how much he love me but now he tells me that my songs are shit. This ainít nothiní but the Devil on my ass! 

So, we just got back from Europe. When I was I was there, thatís when this came on me like a ton of bricks. My guitar player and I had just written this song called ďOne More Bridge to Cross.Ē I couldnít figure out what it was about. Iím not going to die yet, so whatís this about? In Europe, it all came to me. Itís time to produce your next record, time to do it yourself. Thatís going to the title of the CD. I didnít have to be subjected to their thoughts and opinions, because they call themselves producers. That was the decision I made and it was a wonderful, wonderful feeling. It was like a peace came over me. 

That was the thing that forced me to realize that God and the Devil got on my ass. You better step it up cuz their on your trail! This coming to tell me that my music wasnít happening was an insult. Especially since during the time he was telling me this crap, one of my songs that you may know, did very well on this television show, Ally McBeal. And just recently, they called again to use my song. This one of the popular television shows in the country and at the same time I got this guy telling me I donít have any songs. Iím talking about songs that paid me over six figures worth of money. Big money, more money than I ever talked about in my life. So thatís what made up my mind. Iím going to do it myself and do it on my own label. My wife said to go for Mighty Music. Weíve already got the songs written. Weíre working on them now and when we get off this tour, we go into the studio. Iím excited about that. And I know God sent you, Iím feeling better already. Youíre taking me out of that funk I was in. 

I feel very good that we will have great success. I think itís what God had intended all along. This used to be dreams of mine to one day see my name on a record. I used to look at James Brownís records. Youíd see James Brown production, written by James Brown, performed by JB, published by James Brown. And praise be to God, heís let me live long enough to see it. Iím not rich but every little thing out here associated with Sam McClain, IĎm thankful to say Iíve as much control as I possibly can. Iím very proud of that. It wasnít supposed to be. I was always told that I wouldnít and I couldnít and I shouldnít even think about it!Ē

Thompson: On the way down here I was listening to Sweet Dreams (Samís recent Telarc release). I was really listening to the song ďLiving My Dreams.Ē I know something about your background and some of the stuff youíve gone through, the tough times. I was really happy for you listening to that song because it sounds like you have found a good place.

McClain: Thank you, thank you. Yeah, it is pretty good and Iím living in a different place and Iím aware of it. Iím not rich. But a lot of things, I just think about it and pray about it. I have them. Iíve already achieved them. If I drop dead tomorrow, I shouldnít be bitchiní and moaniní to God. I am living my dream. God has let me have a little bit of control in my life, freedom to choose and direct my career myself. I donít have to let somebody walk in say they know what I need to do, just because they have money or they have the name, they have the clout to do that. I feel very honored because I have this opportunity to do it myself. And I am so ready for the challenge, Iím so ready!

And the music is so ready! Iíve been smart enough and wise enough to pay attention and pick the right people. Iím surrounded by a great, great team of people. I realize that and I know it was put together by God. Iím just part of the ride. I understand that. This is the best that itís been for me physically, spiritually, musically - the whole trip.

Thompson: I had a couple more questions. One, you mentioned Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham (songwriters/musicians). Thatís pretty special starting out with those kind of guys when you were cutting your first records. And I understand that you even had Eddie Hinton playing guitar?Ē

McClain: Yeah, and I didnít have a clue who they were. Iím just now starting to get an appreciation for what was taking place then. I tell people right now, why didnít somebody wake me up, why didnít they just pinch me or something! I was playing places like the Apollo Theater. My very first day at the Apollo, I was late and got fined. Very first day! Had the biggest gig in my life, I couldnít get there on time. That tells you where I was. But it was special. We cut ďSweet DreamsĒ(Samís original version-1966) at Fame, Rick Hallís studio in Florence, Alabama. At that time Dan and Spooner, they were house staff, musicians, writers, etcetera. When we got finished with the song, somebody came in with a Billboard magazine and opened it up and there was this guy, low and behold, was from Alexandria, Louisiana, right up the road from Monroe and his name is McLain! He just spells it with one C I spell mine with two. He has ďSweet DreamsĒ already shooting up the charts! That knocked the wind right out of me. Plus he was a white man! This was 1966, so my career is over. Thatís what came into my head. I havenít even got started and itís over! It was just so strange.

Anyway, we took off for Nashville with ďSweet Dreams,Ē Papa Don and I. He knew Buzz Cason and we went by Buzzís studio. Buzz said, ďLarry Uttal (head of Amy/Bell/Mala Records) is flying in and Iím going to the airport to pick him up, why donít you guys hang around until I get back. Let him hear this track, I think he might like this.Ē Old Larry came in and he loved it. He let us do it in spite of Tommy (McLain) already having it on the charts. And there were places in the country that Tommy and I were getting played on the same station. He was #1 on FM and I was #1 on AM. It was strange how it all worked out.

It was very interesting being around those kind of people. Buzz these days has done very well. Heís writing some great, great songs. Dan Penn I havenít heard from in years. Dan sent me some songs five years ago. That was the last I heard from him. I feel very fortunate to have been graced with songs from these gentlemen.

I was in Muscle Shoals when Martin Luther King Jr. got killed. The night he got killed I was recording. It was very eerie time. The whole world just stopped, very eerie. 

Itís amazing, man, how some of us are still here. Iíve been looking back and reflecting on so many people dead and Iím here. I was with Bobby ďBlueĒ Bland the other day. Bobby knows that heís been a big inspiration in my life. Iíve been trying to sing like this guy all my life. I just finally realized that I couldnít sing like Bobby Bland. I told him, you know, I really thought that I sounded like you for a while. We laughed, we laughed big time! It was great to meet that man and have him be so gracious. 

The first time I saw Bobby I was thirteen years old. He was playing in Monroe, Louisiana. To go from there to having different guitar players he had over the years come and work with me. As Iím telling these stories, Iím looking at God and we how ended up at this moment, me and Bobby ďBlueĒ Bland. I had Wayne Bennett worked in my band. Johnny Jones worked in my band. I had Clarence Holliman. And all of these people were marvelous guitar players. It was amazing to have these people come into my life. I didnít know Bobby at this time at all but all of his guitar players were coming into my life. It was leading me up to this. Bobbyís bandleader, trumpet player Joe Hardin, married my first cousin. Since thatís taken place, that gave me a whole other toehold with Bobby. So Iíve been staying in touch with Bobby over the years through Joe. About a year ago, Bobby came to Portsmith, New Hampshire, which is about 30 minutes from my house. 

That was very spiritual to me. God brought Bobby Bland right to my doorstep! This man whom I admired, been admiring all my life, he brought him to me. And Bobby looked around and looked right at me and said, ďSam, come up here and shake my hand, letís sing a little bit.Ē I couldnít hardly move. I was just stuck in my tracks. I wasnít expecting that. That was very humbling. I cried. I laughed. I prayed. He said, man, Iíve been hearing about you, Sam. I was shaking in my boots. It was quite an experience. And most of his stuff, I knew, because Iíve been singing Bobbyís stuff all my life. 

But he went on something and I couldnít quite remember where to go, so what I did, I just made up something on the spot. I sung it to him and let him know how I felt about this moment and what he meant to me in my life. It just came -I donít even know what I said. Right with the music I just sang and talked about him and being grateful. I look at that as certainly God-sent. All these years, Iíve watched that man since I was a child. That was heavy, heavy, heavy, heavy. 

Now, how did I get started on Bobby Bland? I went somewhere. How did I get on Bland? Iíll tell you, you got to stop me, man, cuz Iíll go from one thing to another. I know there was a question and Bland got in there. ď

Thompson: You mentioned some of the people that have passed. When you look at Sam Cooke, Johnny Taylor, those guys started out singing gospel, singing spirituals and then went into the secular world, especially in the case of Sam Cooke. There was a big scandal with the gospel people that he would leave to start singing pop songs. In your career, you started out singing blues.

McClain: No, I started in gospel.

Thompson: But I mean your recordings. And now youíve gone to singing your version of the spirituals.

McClain: Yeah, the only difference I would say in myself is that Iím refusing to be pigeonholed. I wonít let no church group, no gospel, no any kind of group pigeonhole me. Because I know Jesus sets you free. You donít have to be a part of any secular group to be a believer in Jesus Christ. And you donít have to sing no certain music no certain kind of way to be a believer in Jesus Christ. And so, thatís why I find myself standing alone out here. But I donít put no name on this music. I just call it my music and I let everybody call it what they want. But I donít consider it gospel or spiritual music, I consider it my music. 

I sing the blues like we all gone to hell. I have the blues - I had them when you all came through the door this morning. It heard last night the very first song, Jesus got the blues.

Jesus is very real, very human. I think thatís where most of us miss that. We find it too awesome to believe that you can be the brother, or the son, or the friend of the Creator. 

Iím trying to be part of that spiritually. I just want to stay connected. So I just do what I do. I donít call it anything except that itís my music. 

We have had churches, different radio stations and people go to shakiní, want to pray for me - get the Devil out of him, Jesus! (laughter) What is he talking about? What you mean Jesus got the blues? If you donít think Jesus got the blues, let somebody nail your ass to a piece of wood and see how that makes you feel! Thatís how I came up with that particular statement. A guy ask me, what do you mean Jesus got the blues? I said, you know Jesus became human like us. Donít you think that hurt him, to nail something into a limb? You think it made him happy? You donít need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. That shit hurt. If you ainít been to the cross, you ainít seen Jesus. They killed him, killed him. And itís my job to talk about it. Not in a preaching, condemning kind of way; I donít have to do it like that. Thatís not the way God came to me. He didnít come to me preachiní, cuz I wouldnít listen to that shit no way and he knew I wouldnít. He just met me on the side of the road- hey, I love you, letís get on with it. 

I ainít here to condemn Iím here to share. This is what happened to me. I met somebody and now I have a different tune. You like it, weíll all be friends. If not, God bless you and Iíll see you. 

I'm just hoping my music will be uplifting and give people a little hope, as well as myself.

I mean, I love myself as I speak. Just by talking to you guys this morning, my own voice, my own spirit has uplifted myself, by sharing and communicating. Thatís what I hope my music does. I get letters from people all over the world, places I never heard of, countries Iíve never heard of. And I donít know how the music is getting out there, especially with the way Iíve been treated by the record companies. Iím just surprised that this music is out there in the places itís gotten. Only God could have done that. 

David Kelly (producer-Ally McBeal TV show) called me. David Kelly heard this song ďNew Man in TownĒ off a record that didnít even sell. Yet God put it in his hands. God was saying, use this song. People ask me all the time, how did that happen? I say, in the name of Jesus. Itís no big deal for Jesus to have David Kelly call Sam McClain. Itís so small, itís a materialism thing we have in hereÖ 

I say I can, they say no you canít. I can, man, if itís in accordance to Godís will, I can. Oh yes I can donít tell me I canít do this. Thatís the way my whole life has been, standing on that faith. I know God has been with me all this time. I just knew that I could and I would. Never had no plans but I knew. I knew there was going to be a lady who would love me, love my music, be my partner and my friend.

I bought that tour bus out there a couple of years back. And I donít know anybody, nobody on this earth who would have signed or helped me get that damn bus! Nobody except Jesus! Everybodyís talking to me saying, do you know what those things cost? God meant for it to happen. An artist on my level is not supposed to have a $300,000 tour bus! They ainít paying me that much money. Like this tour Iím on right now, Iím not making money. God gave me some money to support this tour.

Thompson: I was wondering about that. You have some big gaps between dates.

McClain: Yes sir. Weíre staying in this hotel for a week. Iím taking care of eleven people. This isnít supposed to be happening. Iíve got a $300,000 bus sitting out there and a driver to boot! And youíre looking at the man that comes from eating out of garbage cans, that was told all his life that he wasnít ever going to amount to shit! Thatís why I give God the glory and I give God the grace. 

I moan, I groan why have you forsaken me? God gives us a big task the challenge of surrendering to do Godís total will. Thatís what I pray for but I find itís tougher than I want it to be. I know if I do his will, Iíll be right on if I get in sync with Godís will


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