If you were to give Megan McCormick's debut album Honest Words a blind listen without knowing a thing about her, without ever having seen her play a show, you could still figure out a lot about her musical identity.
Clue number one: By the time the first couple of tracks — "Shiver" and "Things Change" — are through, it's apparent that this McCormick person might be more than a singer-songwriter. The intuitive interplay between the prominent guitar riffs and the singing is a dead giveaway.
"People aren't necessarily as used to listening [to figure out] 'Oh, I wonder if the guitar player is the singer, and the singer is the guitar player,' " McCormick says. "But I think on some of [the songs], it becomes obvious. You know, the guitar is such an instrumental part of the album. It's a guitar-heavy album. I think eventually you'd be wondering who the hell's playing so much guitar."
The answer, of course, is McCormick.
She's every bit as strong a guitarist as she is a singer and a songwriter. And she has an uncommon ability to meld her dusky vocals with her masterfully moody, full-bodied guitar-playing — an ability she attributes to learning by ear from the albums of sophisticated singing, songwriting guitar wizards like Mark Knopfler and Bonnie Raitt when she was a kid.
There's another significant fact that Honest Words reveals about McCormick: She's a musician with broad interests. Besides jazz-inflected, guitar-driven blues-pop, she's stocked the album with straight-ahead rock ("Addiction"), indie country ("Oh My Love") and lyrical singer-songwriter folk ("Wreck" and "Driveway"). Two-thirds of the songs were co-written with primary collaborator Tami Hinesh. (Disclosure: Hinesh is a friend.)
"I do feel like I've really tried to keep a variety of what I love to do on the album," she says. "That's sort of the minimized version of [what I do]."
Variety's the part of McCormick's story that the album doesn't tell completely.
McCormick's only 23, but she got a running start in music. At age 12, she had a band with her cousins in Idaho that actually gigged. By 15, she'd moved to the same Alaskan town as Sarah Palin — that's Wasilla, if you're not up on your Palin bio — and was filling in with a young, progressive bluegrass band called Bearfoot (who also now live in Nashville and have cut a song of hers) since their guitarist had developed tendonitis.
At 16, McCormick enrolled at East Tennessee State on a performance scholarship. Two years later — at the age that most kids are starting college — she left to go on the road full time with Valerie Smith's bluegrass band. Before long, she'd moved on to splitting her time between the bluegrass-jazz fusion group Missy Raines and the New Hip, and the indie country outfit the Everybodyfields.
So when McCormick moved to Nashville at age 20, she could already semi-legitimately be called a veteran sidewoman. It was at that point she took inventory of her career to date and decided she wanted to do something other than what she'd been doing.
"I think what it eventually came down to was, even though I was really young, I felt like I'd been putting my time in playing for other people," she says. "I think it just takes a certain type of person for each different thing. I kind of eventually decided, 'If I'm going to work this hard, it's going to be for my benefit — not somebody else's.' So I decided that it was best for me to play [for] myself, to [pursue] my own solo career."
First, during a writer's night she'd shown up late for, McCormick was discovered by music lawyer Tyler Middleton. "At the time ... I had no idea what the hell an attorney could do for a musician," she says, laughing. With Middleton's help, and a series of early evening showcases at The Basement, McCormick landed a publishing deal, then a manager and, finally, a record deal with Rykodisc. Given the scrambled state of affairs in the music industry, the way things progressed in McCormick's solo career seems remarkably traditional.
But her skill set isn't at all traditional — the incisive licks she churns out on her hollow-body electric, plus the bluegrass-style flatpicking, plus the fetching melodic pop sensibilities that she easily adapts to a number of musical styles, and so on.
"I'm really in it for the long haul, you know, but I think it's gonna take a lot of time to really be able to incorporate as much as I would like to share with people," McCormick says. "As far as in the [live] show, I'm not gonna have time to get out my acoustic guitar and play some instrumental music that I've written. And at this point, too, there are so many freakin' songs I have that I wish I could share with people. It requires focus, and I'm dedicated to the success of the album. And so you have to be thought-out in the way that you do things."
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