April 15, 2017
David Mallett: Finding the Right Words
by Jim Newsom
When I called David Mallett at his home in Sebec, Maine, the last week of March, it was 75 degrees here in Norfolk. He was in the middle of a snowstorm with the temperature in the 20s.
“I remember when I was a kid,” he said. “Easter was in April, and we went to church in town and couldn’t get back because it was such a blizzard. Once in a while you get a real dumping, even in April.
“I have an expression that’s a favorite up here: the weather’s real fine…in the fall.”
Nonetheless, Mallett, who comes to town on April 29th for a Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music concert in the WHRO Teleconference Center, has chosen to stay in his hometown for most of his life. In fact, he lives in the house he grew up in:
“It’s kind of Irish in a way. It’s a blessing and a curse: A lot of my father’s unfinished projects looking at me. My parents had a lot of land. I’m keeping it because I think land is important. I’ve got a lot of woodland, a lot of trees, a lot of fields. So most of my day is spent taking care of this stuff, and moving ahead to my next gig and perhaps my next album.
“I still have buddies around that I went to high school or grammar school with. People leave and then they come back for some reason. We went to Nashville for ten years. But I found out I’m not a city boy. I appreciate everything it has to offer, but I need a lot more space around me to feel comfortable.”
Dave, who celebrates his 66th birthday the week before his Norfolk gig, has been making music professionally since he was eleven years old when he played with his brother Neil as The Mallett Brothers. His sons Will and Luke carry on the family business these days fronting their own Mallett Brothers Band, one of the best of the younger generation of Americana artists.
Besides his own distinctive recordings, his songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists. His best known, “The Garden Song,” (“Inch by Inch, row by row…”) has been covered by over 150 performers.
“The songwriting was good for a while,” he said. “When John Denver was selling stuff, he was the only guy who really made any substantial money for me. That was when I was young, I had kids and all that. But since that whole thing blew over, I make my own records, I make most of my living doing shows. And I enjoy it. I look at myself as kind of a journeyman: I take my box of tools, I go out into the world. Not unlike what Thoreau did in a limited way. He did a lot of lectures around and he didn’t want anybody to attend. I do! He had no bills!”
Though he is best known for the songs he’s written, he released a superb collection of old favorites in 2015:
“I did a record of covers called The Horse I Rode In On. My wife has family gatherings once in a while and we’ll pull out some old tunes. I thought these are the songs that everyone knows and I can sing in my sleep. I had such a good time recording.
“You know, musicians—half their brain is full of songs. Who knows what the other half is full of? But I could do these records every week. Those were the really early ones. ‘Long Black Veil,’ ‘Saginaw Michigan,’ ‘For the Good Times,’ ‘Old Swimming Hole’…those were songs that my brother and I sang when we were kids. We were a duo, had our own TV show in the ‘60s, toured around, opened for big acts. So I was paying homage to my childhood as a singer and also to the songwriters who wrote those songs.”
His most recent album, Celebration, ranks with his finest work.
“It had been four or five years since I had written anything,” he explained, “and you know you get real edgy. I had a few pieces of songs in my head, but the song ‘Celebration’ came together when my boys were home, my daughter was home and we were all out on the lawn. There was stuff going on, the dogs were barking, and I just said ‘this could be a celebration.’ It was during the Sanders thing. When we thought Bernie Sanders was gonna be elected, I kinda got pumped up for justice. I wrote that song as a battle cry for him and us. The boys helped me write it and it turned out pretty well.
“We were sitting around one day when Will was home. He was plunking on the piano and he had this cool little noodle going on over and over. I sat down with the guitar and came up with the line, ‘Remember that magician when you were just a kid.’ And it just kind of rolled off. It was like I was talking with him. ‘You sat in wild eyed wonder at everything he did; then he pulled that rabbit right out of that hat. This is better than that.’ It’s one of the happiest songs I’ve ever written.
“The joy and the payoff and the challenge is finding the right words that go together comfortably. There are a hundred different ways to say a phrase and to word an idea. It’s finding those ten words in a line that fit together. And when you get them, it’s like polishing a rock and suddenly it unveils itself to you. There’s nothing like it. It’s like suddenly you discovered something in the mud.”
Saturday, April 29 – 7:00 pm
WHRO Teleconference Center
5200 Hampton Blvd, Norfolk