Chuck McCabe is Cookin'
His career has spanned the 1960s folk revival, USO tours in Vietnam during the war, the California rock scene, the Pet Rock scene (he wrote the theme song), major label deals, lounge circuits in Cape Cod, Colorado, and the Bay Area, not to mention weddings, corporate events, and nursing home gigs. (Did I mention he dated the Smothers Brothers' sister and skinny-dipped with Juice Newton?)
Now Chuck McCabe is producing his best songs and his best recordings ever. He's old enough to have co-written with a "gangly kid" named Kenny Loggins, but the career of this northern California based singer-songwriter is at a creative peak these days, with the release of Chicken Dinners, his third CD for the BlahBlah WoofWoof label. "The ideas are pouring out," he says, "and I have so many good songs started, I wrestle with which ones to finish first."
Chicken Dinners is a delight. It blends witty, insightful, lyrics, swinging, eminently hummable melodies, expressive vocals, and first-rate musicianship, including appearances by Mary McCaslin, Joe Weed (David Grisman), Bobby Black (Asleep at the Wheel), and James Shupe (Dan Hicks). Fans of Lyle Lovett, Randy Newman, Maria Muldaur, John Pizzarelli, and even Julia Child will love this record.
Yes, it's true - Chuck McCabe writes a lot about food: "Food is one of things we all have in common. The people who prepare and serve food and drink are among the hardest-working, under-appreciated folks in the world (that includes your mom, by the way!). So call your mom and tip the waitress." There's "Burgers and Champagne" (the title song from his 1998 CD), and "The Flavor Comes From Fat," and "Don't Be Rude (to the People Who Bring your Food)" from Chicken Dinners.
But anyone who mistakes Chuck McCabe for a writer of novelty songs is one meatball short of a sandwich. For one thing, he plays a mean guitar. The elegant, almost flamenco-like acoustic guitar solos on songs like "Don't Be Rude" and "Our House," along with the muscular fingerpicking of "The Flavor Comes from Fat" and "Tears Ran Down My Cheeks," attest to a serious musician at work. He has a warm, evocative voice, and the lone cover on the CD, Bing Crosby's 1937 classic "Blue Hawaii," gives him a chance to show off his vocal range.
"Mama Read the Bible (Through My Daddy's Whiskey Bottle)," the opening cut on Chicken Dinners, is an ode to down-home religion, but it takes a while to appreciate exactly what mama is doing - transforming Daddy's empty whiskey bottle into spectacles of a sort by filling it with water and using the resulting optical magnification to enlarge the word of the Lord: "That's a chaser for the devil/When you're thirsty in your soul." It's brilliant, funny, and touching all at the same time.
"Fred" is a banjo inflected shaggy dog story. As his owner tells it, complete with comic voices, the canine Fred was a true friend, sharing the house chores and sometimes taking the truck into town for groceries. But true love and a speeding trucker hauling dog food bring Fred to an unhappy end, flat out on the highway, as the chorus cheerfully switches from "Fred/You are . . ." to "Fred/You were a good dog"). This may not win McCabe any PETA awards, but the message is that life goes on, as George Harrison might have said, within Fred and without Fred.
Like most comic artists, whether John Prine or Mark Twain, Chuck McCabe knows that you can't really separate the mind from the body, so his songs celebrate survival and persistence and ingenuity (like Mama's) and plain goofy luck. He values generosity, hospitality ("Our House," "Don't Be Rude," "You're Always at Home in a Bar - Tom Waits does the Clancy Brothers"), and simple pleasures ("The Flavor Comes from Fat") over simplistic moral codes and philosophical pieties. His songs are full of remembered tastes and sounds and textures. He believes in love and truth, but he can't help noticing, in a genial send-up of Willie Nelson's singing and guitar playing, that "A Wild Hair" up the nose produces effects hard to distinguish from deep emotional feeling.
"Tears Ran Down My Eyes" seems at first just a pleasant tale of bad first experiences with smoking, but the delicate guitar lines, with a segue into "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," and the rueful truth that "Some folks should know better/Some folks never learn/Some folks will try anything/If you tell them it's your turn" (hello Abu Ghraib guards!) give the performance a surprising power and poignancy.
"Our House" lists an expansive set of things you are welcome to do in his house, because "when you come to our house/our house is your house too," but it doesn't end without slipping in a sly warning that "next time we'll come to see you." Generosity is not about being good – it's also a survival tool. As the singer of the wonderful, western-swing "Don't Be Rude (to the People Who Bring Your Food)" reminds those who would send back a steak, "If you send it back twice/You had better ask nice/Or they'll roll it on the floor for you."
The haunting, 2001 Woody Guthrie Award-winning "Minimum Wagers," from his 2002 CD, Bad Gravity Day, provides ample proof that Chuck McCabe can be serious, but as all comics and all tragedians know, comedy is serious business, and vice-versa. After all, this is someone who witnessed the absurdity of war first hand: During his USO tours in Vietnam, McCabe recalls, "We were constantly reminded we were in a war-zone by artillery fire, explosions, and firefights at night that were close enough that we could see the tracers flying around. Every 5th round is a tracer, and by some weird custom or agreement, the US troops used red tracers, and the Viet Cong used green."
But does he feel torn between an impulse to be funny and a fear of not being taken seriously if you are?
"There's a prejudice against taking things too lightly, but you can get a lot said with humor that folks wouldn't accept otherwise (in some countries the cast of MAD TV or Saturday Night Live would be lined up against a wall and shot). The honesty is brutal, and that's what makes it funny, not that it's nonsense.
"I think you're brave if you can poke fun at yourself. Often, I'm laughin' to keep from cryin'. I haven't written a lot of love songs lately, but love is a profound emotion that sweeps you up and changes your life when it comes along, and I cringe to hear it trivialized."
For my money, "Don't Be Rude" is the best cut on the CD, but maybe it's the loping, Jimmie Rodgers-like "I Miss My Moustache," where Chuck lists the all the things he misses (girls that got away, the last train to Clarksville, the correct spelling of Mississippi), and the reminders come "When the cold wind blows/Around my nose," culminating in a witty musical invocation of Billy Shears at song's end.
Chicken Dinners is deeply satisfying, but you'll be hungry for more. That's good, because Chuck McCabe is cookin': "My creativity is at an all-time high right now. I'm more excited about the future than at almost any time in my life since I was in my 20's. Big difference is, this time I have a plan, and the ammo to back it up. I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing."
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