Northern Virginia musician keeps rock and roll dream alive with tireless touring, great songwriting, and staying true to what got him here.
By Steve Houk
To say that Northern Virginia-born rock stalwart Pat McGee is a disciple of rock and roll is, to say the least, an understatement.
Not only did he grow up bleeding classic rock, living and breathing artists like Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, James Taylor and others, but Pat McGee tailored his evolution as a serious musician after the familiar sounds of these rock n’ roll legends. He began what is now a highly successful musical career as, yes, a classic rock and roll devotee.
“When I got a guitar, I would learn how to play a song that I actually had a recording of; I could play a Led Zeppelin tune, and wow, I kinda sounded like it. That’s when to me, it clicked, I wanted to do this with every song that I love, I want to learn how to play Eric Clapton, James Taylor, all these tunes, so I just kinda chased that whole thing, and before I knew it there were two or three hundred songs that I had amassed, and then I went out and played bars, and it was a blast. I never thought it would be a career, it was just like, I’ll just keep playin’ bars, playin’ this music, this is fun.”
Decades after he cut his rock and roll teeth at home in Northern Virginia, rocking out in high school bands and then in college bars playing the music of his heroes, Pat McGee has established a truly successful career of his own as a rock musician, with a rabid loyal following across the country, an ongoing busy touring schedule, more than ten solo and Pat McGee Band releases to his credit containing his own original excellently-crafted music, and sharing the stage with some of those legends he grew up listening to. It’s been a solid and lasting career to be sure and shows no signs of slowing down, even with his life now as a family man.
First, the NOVA roots review: McGee was born in Alexandria, moved to Annandale when he was six, and went to Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. Can’t get much more local than that.
“My brother had played guitar, and he and I had a little band going when I was in high school. Then I got a guitar when I was 16 so it wasn’t like I was on it early, but I played piano earlier in my childhood, played a little bit of clarinet, kinda goofed around, I wasn’t totally into the band thing at school, so I didn’t really read music, I enjoyed playing by ear and I found out I had a small talent for figuring out how to play, you know, whatever song it was.”
When McGee got to college and started playing his favorite rock songs at various local haunts, he quickly realized his intended path as an occupational therapist might be taking another road. And it was Dave Matthews, a local musician back then who has since gone on to worldwide fame, who unknowingly gave him the confidence to pursue his own yet-untapped songwriting talents.
“I guess it all started when I got to college and was playing bars, back then I was just playing cover songs, I was that guy that played back in the corner of the bar, there was only one bar in town so they were forced to listen to me. It didn’t occur to me to write my own music, that felt like something that classic rock bands that I worship were only able to do, making your own CD in 1993, not a lot of people did that. So I ended up playing in Richmond and seeing the Dave Matthews Band across the street playing to what seemed like a packed house, I had no idea what their music was like, I was just a classic rock junkie. If it didn’t have screaming electric guitar or didn’t sound like James Taylor I wasn’t interested. But I was like ‘Wow, these guys actually write their own music, that’s kinda cool.’ I mean, to me they were a local band, and I was like, ‘Here’s a local band that writes their own music.’ And then quickly they became enormous. It definitely opened my mind to saying, you know what, you should write your own music, because you don’t want to be playing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ for the rest of your life in a bar. The DMB was certainly not a musical influence on me, but they were an influence in the sense that you could write your own music and people just might be into it. So that’s what I did for two years or so, and then eventually once the first record came out I hit the bars and the college scene really heavy. I moved to Richmond, and played every college that would have me.”
Clearly, McGee took his well-honed classic rock musicianship and began to tailor it into his own sound, writing his own music that borrowed from his heroes, but that was a sound all his own. And he didn’t hesitate to get that music out to the fans, taking it to the streets himself.
“I was like, well, I love classic rock so much, why don’t I just channel that into my own. So I booked a studio in ’94 on my Christmas break from college, and then wrote the songs after I already booked the studio, which was backwards, kinda ridiculous. And I put the record out right before I left college, and was hoping that, you know, the people who saw me on Wednesday nights for two dollars would drop ten bucks and check out my record. So instead of going to my exams, I decided to spend three days selling CDs door to door, and I sold a thousand records in three days. It was more money that I’d ever seen in my life, and nowadays that wouldn’t happen because of the digital world, but back then it was like, you can’t even copy a record, you’d have to put your cassette deck in and tape it, so it was a really big deal for me to move that many records that quickly.”
McGee’s first professional music experiences truly fit what he was all about: touring a lot and releasing independent records as you weave in and out of gigs, gaining popularity from your live shows and pulling people in with your music that way. But he found once he started playing with the big boys, the major record labels, that his way of doing things clashed with theirs and he had to reassess how he would go forward.
“In the early stages, the independent record thing was just a freight train; we were doing great numbers, we were selling a lot of tickets at venues, we were selling over a hundred thousand of our own records. The jump to getting signed was the natural thing that everyone sorta did, it was exciting at the time and I don’t regret it because we made a couple great records with Warner, but the experience of them slowing down that freight train – I mean, we’re a touring band, I grew up loving the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers and bands that just were always on the road. You saw ‘em a couple times a year. That was our mentality: don’t go off the road ever, and just keep putting out records. And when you get to the major labels, back then they wanted us to just chill out for second, you’d finish a record and it might not come out for nearly a year, and we were used to when the record was in the can, in four weeks, it was in the hands of a fan. It was all about, just keep going, and keep giving out more music, and keep giving them a live show that really shows our sound. “
As McGee’s fanbase expanded, the touring schedule increased and he was releasing new recordings on a pretty regular basis through the early 2000’s The Pat McGee Band became one of rock music’s most rigorously touring bands. As well as growing his own popularity, this also enabled McGee to share bills with some of those classic rock heroes he grew up listening to, and even playing for a President, all experiences which he still has trouble believing really happened.
“Looking back, the major highs were touring with people I worshipped. We did a couple James Taylor shows, and I did two summers with the Allman Brothers which was just ridiculous. It was around 2000, 2001, and it was a dream for me, a dream come true. Then we got to play with The Who on the West Coast, and that to me also was just otherworldly. They offered us four shows opening up for The Who, so we did The Gorge outside of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and it was crazy. It was not even real. I remember hanging out with (Who bassist) John Entwistle at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in LA, and it’s still not even real, I can’t even believe I talked to the man. We definitely had a lot of amazing things fall into our lap because we were that band that did 98 shows in 103 days one time, and that was only in a van. Once we got a bus and were bus touring it got even crazier. We even got asked to play for President Clinton, it was a 9:30 Club show for him, a private show, that was pretty crazy to stand up there and the secret service came up to me and said, ‘You have to go announce the President’ and I’m like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.’ Never in my life did I think I’d be saying those words.”
McGee is very thoughtful when he talks about how music has changed since he was a teenager spinning vinyl, waiting breathlessly for that new album to come out and then immersing himself in it, like many children of the 70’s and early 80’s did. He doesn’t begrudge newer generations who have endless catalogs of music at their fingertips online for only a few dollars, but he certainly longs for the days when growing with a band meant giving their album a bunch of tries on the turntable.
“It’s just different today than it was when we used to buy an album and treasure it. It dawned on me that people just are treating music like, ‘Oh yeah I kinda need it, but I’m not that interested.’ The value of it is not as important as it used to be. These sites like Spotify where you can pay five bucks and listen to every record on the planet. I mean I get it…back in the day, when I walked into a record store when I was 12 to buy the new Van Halen album and if someone told me then that I could get every record in the store for five bucks, I mean, are you kidding me? But I saved my $17.99 to buy the Scorpions new live double album, and would take it home and ingest it into my body, it’s such an experience, like, ‘I’m so into this band,’ as opposed to now, people just don’t have or make time in their day anymore to say, ‘I’m gonna check out this record over and over and over’ and ‘I’m gonna drop ten bucks just on the pure fact that I love this artist and I’ll probably come around to loving this record.’ I just feel there’s a lack of investment goin’ on, and we’re fortunate in the band to get in there and get fans that are not just fans because they saw me on some TV show, or they heard one song in a movie, or they liked the way the band looked. It’s that they like the SONGS. And so if I go play a show, I can choose any fifteen songs in my 80 or 90 song catalog and they’re gonna be pleased with it because they took the time to get to know the music. It’ll remind them of a time in college when they listened to that record a hundred times. But I remember buying Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA the day it came out and I didn’t even have a record player, my sister did, so she cleared out of her room so I could experience it. That just doesn’t happen today.”
McGee cares so much about the music fan’s overall band experience that he has founded ‘Down The Hatch’, an entity that provides intimate up-close-and-personal concert experiences with McGee and other musicians revolving around different concert dates, a refreshing concept in an era where many musicians have become even more detached from the average fan, and the concert experience to many is a real drag, with expensive seats, overpriced beer and exhausting post-concert traffic.
“Fifteen, twenty years of touring has taken me around the country so many times, and I’m the guy who always gets out of the tour bus or the van and runs around a city and checks out what it’s got to offer, where to eat, what to drink, rather than just getting on stage and saying, ‘Where the hell am I?’ You can lose track of where you are, so I just felt that with all the money people lay out for tickets, and then so much for beers and traffic, they don’t want to deal with all that. And people don’t get to know the band much or what the songs mean. So with ‘Down The Hatch, I’ll pick a city that I think is really great and hold this overall event there, like, it’s not only the concerts, but I’m gonna take you to the restaurants that I love, I’m gonna be hangin’ out with you, it’s a couple hundred people, they all sign up for these things. I’m gonna be givin’ guitar lessons, songwriter workshops, totally hands-on, they can access me at all times. There’s no, ‘Hey I’m the rock star and I’ll be in my suite and I’ll come play the concert and disappear.’ It’s a very intense, intimate experience for three days. It encompasses the food element, the drink element, , the music, you’re just ingesting all this stuff, sometimes I’ll bring in 3 or 4 artists and even other bands in my genre. I know people are leaving there totally invested in these artists.”
Having released his latest album last year, the stellar country-tinged No Wrong Way To Make It Right, these days Pat McGee still lives and breathes his music, but with children to look after and a family life to lead, his priorities have shifted some. But he still deeply loves what he does, is tremendously good at it, and undoubtedly, some of his best music is still to come.
“First and foremost I am the father of three daughters, a fourth grader, a third grader and a kindergartener, three beautiful girls that monopolize my life in a fantastic way. There’s always going to be them, but I also want to make the music work with this. My life is in a different place. It doesn’t mean that if presented with an opportunity to kick it back to a level that it was at ten years ago that I wouldn’t entertain that, but it would have to be an extremely attractive offer to do that. I’m really more focused on making this life work for the next twenty years, and as far as the music, making the songwriting being the main thing. I feel like my last two records are the best songs I’ve written. And I’ll keep in that direction, keep putting out records that are even truer and truer.”
Visit Pat McGee’s website here.
Steve Houk lives and breathes music. He is not only a marketing and media professional but an accomplished music writer as well as a blogger on midliferocker.com. He is also the lead singer of Northern Virginia cover band Second Wind.