I’m pleased to launch this blog with a piece about one of my old colleagues, Jack McMahon. Jack’s been a fixture of the singer-songwriting scene in Portland for many years and is well-respected in that pocket of musicians. Originally an East Coaster, Jack migrated to Portland with a couple of Jersey pals and has performed in a variety of contexts ranging from solo with acoustic guitar to full rock instrumentation.
Jack mostly fits into the country/country rock genre, which is how I’ve thought of him if I had to pick a niche, but I was surprised to hear a wide streak of R&B/soul on the most recent of his three albums, “The Man that Love Forgot.” This streak is highlighted by producer Ron Stephens, who adds quite a bit of guitar and vocal bling. For example, Jack covers the 1966 Johnny Rivers hit “The Poor Side of Town” with an R&B flavor, and his original “Angel of Mine” goes even deeper, helped along by Mark Spangler’s fabulous lead guitar. The soulful streak in Jack's music comes naturally, though, because early in his career he sang many demos for the Brill Building songwriter Gerry Goffin and other NYC songwriters providing material to both black and white pop singers.
Instrumentally, Jack reflects a value Portland songwriters seem to hold in common: clean, crisp guitar work (of which I’ve always been envious, because I cannot seem to flatpick or fingerpick with much accuracy). Also unlike me, as a songwriter Jack doesn’t try to do too much and then get swamped by the details, preferring simple but solid song structure and a direct vocal style. His voice has an angular resonant depth that melds perfectly with the same quality in the acoustic guitar, showcased nicely on the dark story song about a freeway murderer, “All the Way to Hell.”
Jack can definitely put words together. In the musically straightforward country two-step “License to Drive Me Crazy,” Jack offers up one of those perfect phrases:
I know there’s no use trying to convince her
It would not do to make my concerns known
‘Cause in the end I fear she’ll only leave me
Crying on the shoulder of the road
“Crying on the shoulder of the road”! So obvious, and so perfect, yet it had never occurred to me. I wonder how many songs there are out there with that phrase in them (hopefully only one).
It is always a joy to hear an artist achieve proper representation of his/her creative self. This happens much less often than we’d like, even to really good artists. Getting good players helps a lot, and on Jack’s recordings you can hear a goodly number of Portland’s talents, who are as good as anybody anywhere. But you also can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear; the artist has to have a glowing core to propel the songs. Jack’s core burns with a steady glow like coals banked up in the fireplace against a chilly morning.