Spotlight: Brian McGee

Philly’s Southern Gentleman

Somewhere in the city of Asheville, North Carolina lives Brian McGee, a folk singing, punk rock influenced, guitar building mountain man who recently released his latest album, The Taking or the Leaving.

McGee wasn’t always a Southern man, though. He grew up in Philadelphia, where he started his first band with his cousins when he was only 12 years old. He continued to sing and play guitar throughout high school where he formed a punk rock band called Plow United, influenced by the likes of The Clash, The Ramones, Screeching Weasel and Social Distortion – rebellious territory for McGee and the other members, who could all be found playing in the wind ensemble of their high school’s marching band. Even though McGee’s musical talents were now spread across both classical and punk, he was still searching for more musical diversity, more sounds – something different.

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Enter folk rock music. After Plow United disbanded in 1997, McGee’s then-girlfriend gave him his first banjo. He was infatuated and immediately began taking lessons, listening to both Woody and Arlo Guthrie, and even studying the anthology of folk music. In the late nineties, McGee made the move to North Carolina where he attended John Campbell Folk School. It was there he learned how to build his own banjo and where he performed at square dances around town with friends. It took McGee five years before he decided to write music again in a more serious manner. This was when he formed Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed, recorded his first album, and remembered his passion for writing songs and playing in a band.

Today, Brian McGee and the Hollow Speed are known simply as Brian McGee, but the name of the band isn’t the only thing that has changed. Brian McGee’s newest album, The Taking or the Leaving, is a step into a more playful and toe-tapping direction. Recorded at Echo Mountain studios, known for acts like Azure Ray and Gary Jules, McGee’s latest LP was engineered by Alex Hornbake and was produced by Pete James of The Honeycutters, who also played guitar on the album.

“The title of the album doesn’t really come from a concept,” says McGee, “I wouldn’t let myself name the album after a song, that would be too easy. So I started combing through the lyrics, and ‘First Kiss’ was where I found the line ‘the taking or the leaving.’ It really stood out as something that summed up where I was coming from on the album.”

The record is a batch of catchy songs that are easy to both dance and sing along to. “First Kiss” is a pop-influenced romp about finding new love and taking a risk that might get your heart broken, with a chorus that belts out powerful lines like “no matter how you do me, please don’t do me wrong!” The Hammond organ adds great texture to “Let’s Bleed,” and “Diving Horses” is a rollicking country jam that propels the album forward with passionate momentum.

“I really like ‘Here I Am’ – the double vocals throughout the track, and Pete’s guitar are both incredible,” McGee says with excitement. It’s easy to see that a lot of love was put into this record, and while listening to it you can hear the band having a great time.

Brian McGee will be playing several shows in support of the new record. After his recent CD release show in Asheville, the band opened for The Burning Angels at the Flicker Theater in Athens, and there are more confirmed dates (both solo and as a full band), stretching into 2011.

McGee embodies the feel-good spirit of American folk music. The Taking or the Leaving is just the latest chapter in his story, but it is a story definitely worth reading.

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