Mary McGuire Interviews with Riveting Riffs Magazine and Joe Montague

RR LogoSinger - Songwriter - Musician Mary McGuire Is A Blood Sister

Mary McGuire Photo One AMichigan singer-songwriter and musician Mary McGuire may be one of the most underappreciated, yet most gifted artists in America today. Now living on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan and raised in suburbs of Detroit, such as Ferndale, Oak Park, Royal Oak and Berkley, Mary McGuire writes songs that reach deep into the soul of both the individual and of society to express what many of us feel, but are seldom eloquent enough to express. McGuire, who has toured /opened for / shared the stage with a stunning and eclectic group of artists including, BB King, Rickie Lee Jones, Patty Griffin, Anni DiFranco, Neville Brothers, Lou Reed, Susan Tedeschi, Dave Matthews Band, Taj Mahal and Pat Benetar, can easily hold her own as a solo artist, but she also is one of the founding members of two incredible Michigan based bands, Blood Sisters and Calamity Jane. Mary McGuire’s vocals are very good and her skills as a guitarist are excellent.

McGuire explains how the band Blood Sisters came to be, “Michelle Chenard was in a band called Leaving Dodge and we met at Mackinac Island a number of years ago. She was playing at one bar and I was playing at another one across the street. We became big fans of one another. She is such a powerful vocalist, guitarist and songwriter and we always wanted to work together, but we never really had the right moment. We organized a remake of The Last Waltz and the next year I did Festival Express. That was the year that Barbara, Michelle and I were all together, because I was playing Traffic Tunes, Barbara did Janis Joplin and Michelle did “I’d Love To Change The World,” by Ten Years After. We got to know one another, we had so much fun together and we had so much in common. It was just like hey do you guys want to come up and play with me for a weekend? We saw what beautiful influences we had. We hung out for a few days, we got to know each other and we decided that we had to become a band. Michelle is a powerhouse on her own.  She lived in Florida for a while, she lived up here in the UP (Upper Peninsula of Michigan), she was in Leaving Doge for a long time and she was out doing her own thing. She was also performing with another musician called Pete Kehoe and songwriting with him. She received an Emmy Award for some film work that they did. In any event, she is a powerhouse and she is great.”

The Blood Sisters “Come Out,” featuring the powerful vocals of Barbara Payton and some spectacular guitar playing by Chenard and McGuire is a sensational song.

Mary McGuire talks about another one of her songs, the poignant “I Believe.” “I got married in 2002 and my husband was going through a really rough time in his life. I wrote that song to him and it is incredibly sad. I don’t know how to really talk about it. When you get married you really believe in the whole situation and you work really hard for it. Then there comes a day when you turn around and you go, I did believe in that, but I don’t believe in that anymore.  I think it is a universal thing for a lot of different relationships, whether you are married, dating or divorced or together or apart. You can even apply it to your livelihood, your job, your career. You go I don’t believe in that anymore and you have to find out what you do believe in.  I think that song is about the moment when you realize that you don’t believe in what you thought you did.”

Calamity Jane’s song “Welfare State,” opens with acoustic guitar riffs by Mary McGuire that get your foot tapping, your head nodding and your body swaying to the music. Erik Gustafson serves up a fabulous electric guitar solo and Gary Rasmussen is strong on bass, while Donny Sorenson wields the drumsticks. The blue collar song makes your ears perk up and pose the question, why the heck don’t more people across the country know about this band? Calamity Jane is a band that you should be listening to on radio stations across America.

McGuire talks about the song and the formation of Calamity Jane, “I (began) living on Mackinaw in the summer in the early nineties and the Governor of the State cut the funding to the arts. One day I was very angry about it and I remember hearing about it in the car. I played a gig in the afternoon. I think it was at the Rooster Tail a super fancy place and then that night I played over at Mr B’s Goat Farm, which is a blue collar bar. Later that night we went and played in this after hours joint in downtown Detroit. The next day I heard about the funding for the arts being cut. I just felt at the time the state was going through a lot and it was a bad recession that happened back then, so I wrote the lyrics in my car. I did this cool riff and I wrote the song pretty quickly. It has stayed pretty much the same ever since. Everybody loves it and sometimes we will play it for a really long time in Calamity Jane. We have played it for about twelve minutes with lots of solos and people come and sit in, harmonica players or whatever. Everybody can solo. It is a real straightforward, “It’s Alright Mama,” kind of a thing.”

As for her bandmates McGuire says, “Erik is my favorite guitar player on the planet, Gary is definitely my favorite bass player in the world and Donny is such a monster drummer it is a pleasure to play with him. It is such a fun band and we laugh constantly, while we are playing.”

The songs “I’m Not An Angel,” and “Love Struck,” look at the different nuances of love. Mary McGuire says the message of the former is, “I am here to lift you up. I can’t be the one who makes you do whatever, you have to do it yourself and I’ll fly with you,” whereas with “Love Struck,” she says it was more a result of research that she did about love and how it has been manifested in different cultures down through the ages. That gave birth to a song about what it is to be love struck.

Mary McGuire grew up with three brothers and on her maternal side she has ten aunts and uncles, while on the paternal side her father had just one brother. She says her family was quite involved in the Catholic Church, while she was growing up and they took care of foster babies until adoptive parents were found. Her mom cooked at a convent.

“I left Catholic school in the fourth grade and I went to a public school. A nun went ballistic on our class and my mom decided, because they wouldn’t boot the nun, she would pull us all out of school. We got shifted from going to a Catholic school to going to public school, which was probably the best moment ever in my life, because the musicians from the high school came over and played for us in the fifth grade, all the band musicians, trumpets, trombones and all of that. My next door neighbor played trombone and I loved the trombone, but I had never seen them play it. I loved it. When they came to play I was, I want to play that! They were all, no you’re a girl and girls play the flute or the clarinet. I said, I don’t want to play the flute or the clarinet, I want to play the trombone.  Mr. Parker, Joe Parker was my band director and he said stretch your arm out. I was stretching my right arm out and twisting my body out, so I could reach each position on the trombone and I just made it, so they let me play it. My dad took me to Sparks Music and we got my trombone. That is where I really began as a musician in the fifth grade.  I was just in love with the trombone.

“I was really fortunate as a teenager, because my high school band director had played in Glenn Miller’s band, so he started a Jazz band. We were really fortunate to tour down to Disney World and Florida at old folks homes and then we came back to Detroit. When really cool musicians were passing through town our high school Jazz band got to open for them.  Back then I was sort of a novelty and they would think, oh there is this girl trombone player and they would let me sit in. I got to sit in with Dave Brubeck. I got to sit in with the Count Basie Orchestra and all sorts of really cool (musicians). The musicians were so helpful, so inspiring and so encouraging,” she says, describing her mid-teens music education. Mary McGuire Photo Two

“If I had never had these opportunities I would never have thought about (a music career) or touring as something that I could do or that it could be a lifestyle. Also one of my best friends in high school was a guy named Dave Ramsey and his stepdad was a trombone player Fred Grant who also played in the big bands. He would have music parties at his house all of the time with professional musicians who would come over and jam. We just lived and breathed to go over to Ramsey’s house, to hang out and to play with these guys.  I really got to cut my chops musically on the trombone with professional Jazz musicians, but my heart really lay in Classical musical and I started studying with Bob Jones who was the principal trombone player for the Detroit Symphony. I studied with him from the fifth grad through my twenties.  That was a great experience for me.

When I went to Michigan State I majored on trombone, music theory and composition. I had a lot of fortunate moments playing with the Detroit Symphony playing as the backup brass player and with all the regional symphony orchestras. What I found with the trombone is you are the last one hired and the first one fired.  It had nothing to do with your ability and it had everything to do with budgets. When I looked around in my early twenties and I looked at all of these guys who were in their forties and fifties, I realized it would be twenty years, before I could even get a chair. Also, being a woman was a real, real problem in the symphonies, they just weren’t hiring women in the low brass sections, so I decided to focus my interest on guitar. I gave up my major love for the trombone, but I saw the writing on the wall and that it was impossible to get work.

When the Blues thing happened in the early eighties people wanted horn sections again, saxophone players were getting hired everywhere and then they would get a trumpet player. If they had enough money they would get a trombone player, but it wasn’t very often. I just didn’t get the kind of work that I was hoping for and I was getting it on guitar, so I started playing solo acoustic. I was in a couple of different bands. I saw interestingly enough that it was less sexist and less stressful to play in Rock bands and to play guitar, but even that world had its own issues against women back in the day. People always used to say you play guitar pretty well for a chick and I was like, what does that mean?

In high school Mary McGuire was in a Progressive Rock band called Transilence and she played twelve string guitar, as well as bass pedals. In 1981, McGuire became part of the band Temptress, which included bandmates, Cora “Benny” Benjamin, Juanita LaTasha Garcia and Beth Miller, all from Detroit and Dori Reynolds from Lincoln Park. Following Temptress McGuire played solo for a while.

“When I was twenty-five I was working in a vegetarian restaurant and playing music and the owner of the restaurant and another woman that I worked with, Camille Price who is a fantastic singer, handed me the Metro Times newspaper. There was an ad for a band called Voices In The Room and they were looking for a singer. (The band) was influenced by Crosby, Stills and Nash and so was I. (Camille) gave me the dimes and said call on this ad and get in that band. I auditioned and I didn’t get in, but the guitar players JC Whitelaw and Billy Brandt and I had such a special thing that they quit the band and we started our own band called Ash Can Van Gogh. We were songwriting, recording and we were doing really well. We got a lot of radio play and we were playing really big shows. That band was from about ’86 to ’90. During that time we played in a place in Birmingham called the Mid-Town Café and we were the house band for Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

We ran the band like a business and we put all of our money in the bank and we worked on recordings. During that period I opened a music store. We started rehearsing there and we got all of our gear cheaper. I shut the music store down and the band broke up, so I started playing solo again. I was in a band called Cosmic Dali and that was the band that we moved out east. We moved to Martha’s Vineyard and then those guys moved to Alaska. I stayed on the Vineyard.

It was really cool and when I moved out to the Vineyard all sorts of things started opening up, because there were a lot more opportunities out east than there were in the Mid-west. Definitely at Martha’s Vineyard there were a lot of celebrities and a lot of people were coming and going. I was called on to open for people like Lou Reed and Taj Mahal. I started getting some really nice opportunities there to do stuff.  That is just how it worked out. I didn’t play in those bands at all, we were on the same bill and considered as equals or we were opening for those bands or I was by myself. I made myself available and I worked really hard with the radio stations. I just put myself out there, so I was fortunate to have a chance. 

The reason I wanted to go back to Harvard is because I didn’t graduate from Michigan State and I always felt that was a missing component of my life. I was living in Martha’s Vineyard and I was going up to Boston and playing in a club called The Plough & Stars, which was about one-half mile away from Harvard. I was managing a gallery called The Golden Door and my boss would go to Southeast Asia and sometimes I would go with him. I would have to research a lot of the antiquities that we had. The curator of the Chinese art was a man named Bob Mowry. I would take things up to him in Cambridge when I was playing my gigs at The Plough & Stars and Bob suggested that I enroll at Harvard. He said you are really into art history and you are really into research, why don’t you consider a career in the museum world. I thought that would be an awesome retirement thing to do. I said how do I take a class? How do I get into Harvard? He said just enroll in the Continuing Ed department. You can take a class, get credit and then you can see if you want to apply formally to the university. My first course was Baroque Architecture,” she says.

While at Harvard Mary McGuire was the recipient of several scholarships and she was on the Dean’s List throughout her entire time at university.  

“When I was bartending my way through Harvard University I didn’t want to tell too many people, because (when they found out) they thought you were smarter than them or something. They would think, what you went to Harvard, what are you doing here? Why are you doing this? Shouldn’t you be a lawyer?  What Harvard did was to teach me how to think. It taught me how to rethink.  It taught me how to write and how to view the world through many different lenses. I did not have that before. It made me have more empathy and compassion and to not look so much in the mirror, which is a danger when you are a musician. There is the potential for narcissism every time and I didn’t want to be that person.  Harvard humbles you and the professors are the best in the world. The difference between going to Michigan State and Harvard, I can’t even compare the two. Michigan State is a very good school, but Harvard is like you are in a cradle of the ability and the encouragement to think,” she says.  

There are a lot of experiences that have shaped the life and the music of Mary McGuire and the result has been a superbly gifted songwriter, singer and musician who has the ability to attract other gifted artists who want to perform with her and collaborate with her.

You can visit Mary McGuire at her website.                     Return to our Front Page

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