Look around a New York City subway train on a Saturday evening and it might seem that you're stuck inside a shaky, clickety-clackety green room carrying extras to the set of a Fellini flick. But when Mary McBride observes the kaleidoscopic slice of humanity, she thinks up the next line in the second verse of a new song.
"New York is a trippy place to live. For character-driven songs, there's no place like it," she says. When McBride holed up in her Brooklyn pad to write songs for her debut, Everything Seemed Alright, on the very day of the 9/11 disaster, it was her characters who helped her avoid the cloying approach taken by country chart-toppers capitalizing on the nation's wounded psyche. Instead, on "Going Down Fast," she viewed the surreal catastrophe through the eyes of a man dubbed Crazy Glen, who walked 60 blocks in a daze with a beer in his hand: "Going down fast, Crazy Glen said / Buildings exploded and it went to his head / Called from a pay phone on the corner downstairs / Can't breathe anymore, he wakes up and stares."
McBride deep-sixed some of the songs already prepared for the record in favor of the products of her frenetic, 18-day period of writing. She wanted to capture the "apocalyptic vibe" of the time, to bring out an extra degree of edginess to her lyrics, the way an actor might draw on past experience to beef up a role. And aided by the vision of producer Lou Whitney, some inspired co-writers and a cadre of notable musicians, McBride created a critically acclaimed record that crackles with emotion and over-the-top visual imagery while still kicking up a cloud of dance-floor sawdust with three-deep harmonies to boot.
Everything Seemed Alright is an impressive accomplishment, especially when you consider that McBride, an aspiring actress, playwright and off-Broadway producer, happened upon her career as an alt-country rocker by accident. (She started a band four years ago partly to impress her hipster friends.) McBride, 32, has written four plays, and is collaborating with playwright Karen Houppert in a new off-Broadway production titled Tragedy in Nine Lives, about the bizarre relationship between Andy Warhol and the radical feminist/ prostitute Valerie Solanas, who wound up shooting the pop-art icon in 1968.
McBride calls her plays language-based, and in doing so she's not just stating the obvious. It's the same kind of understatement a football coach employs when he says his star running back is a player. The same could be said of McBride's lyrics, which put a homey spin on big-city imagery and play out through a backdrop of simple, countrified hooks. Though sometimes jarringly anachronistic, the lyrics fit right into the alt-country sound track. A hidden track about her adolescent days at Camp Kweta-T, where Christian counselors sold "Jesus and s'mores," is one of those campfire sing-alongs in the Robert Earl Keen vein that seems destined to be a nightly concert request ten years down the road.
A ragged, whiskey-tinged Southern accent drifts in and out of her 12 songs but completely disappears during conversation. McBride comes across this cross- cultural interplay honestly. While New York has been home for the past 15 years, the Louisiana-born singer spent most of her summers in her home state after her parents moved to the East Coast. The Southern accent and literary bent are already stirring up misplaced comparisons to Lucinda Williams. (Maybe in 15 years, but not yet, okay?).
Still, the seeds are there. "My parents were big readers and were very musical. They listened to all kinds of stuff, like Willie Nelson, Joe Cocker and Linda Ronstadt. And I became addicted to Southern writers," she says, rattling off a list that includes Flannery O'Connor and Shelby Foote (though not the Southern romance writer with whom she shares a name). She says she has just finished reading Alice Sebold's "spectacular" novel, The Lovely Bones and keeps a copy of Nine Lives by poet Billy Collins on the bedside table.
But McBride says that for her the most influential people of all are her co- writers, which include the likes of Mojo Nixon, Fred Eaglesmith, Dan Baird, Eric Ambel and her current bass player, Don Pifer. "What I like about writing songs is the degree of brevity that you work within. And [the co-writers] are my brutal editors," she adds with a laugh. "They'll tell you straight up if something doesn't work or not."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
At the moment, Eaglesmith is her favorite cohort. Besides teaming up for the title track, McBride also leads off the CD with Eaglesmith's roadhouse rocker "Rev It Up." "I met [Fred] about six years ago, but we really didn't get together until a year ago in Virginia," she says. "Some co-writers are into head trips, or are pretty territorial about their own idea for a song, but not Fred. He can tell an honest story in an honest way and has a good sense of humor."
When asked if she would like to become famous as a playwright or a singer, McBride doesn't drop a beat when she votes for the band. "I just think it's a better way to be exactly like myself," she says.
But extricating one from the other is not always easy. An Eaglesmith co-write called "The Book Man," about a guy McBride met in Utah who drove a portable library to scattered Mormon communities, is a classic example. "Since we did the song, I've started fleshing out the ideas even more into a script based on the character," she says. "I like it when that sort of synergy comes along."
Sort of gives a whole new meaning to "playing" a song.