by Craig Harris
When you’ve written one of the “50 most famous folk songs of all time” (“The Garden Song”), and songs that have been covered by Emmylou Harris (“Red, Red Rose”) and Kathy Mattea (“Summer of My Dreams”), and released 13 albums of original songs in 20 years, what’s left to say? That was the problem facing David Mallett.
“I went through a real writing block,” he said, “and I couldn’t seem to jar myself loose.” The Maine-based Mallett, 57, has recently released his first CD of original songs in six years, Alright Now.
Mallett found new meaning in the written word when he took a respite from his own songs to compose music for a spoken-word release, The Fable True, based on naturalist/author Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)’s book, The Maine Woods. “[Thoreau] made me realize again the value of words,” he said of working with the book that was published two years after Thoreau’s death. “He gave me a sense of place, of being in the here and now. His descriptions of where I live were so profound.”
For Mallett, songs are more than just poetic words set to a melody. “[Songs] are conversations that I have with the world,” he said. “They’re three or four-minute observations. When I wasn’t writing, they began to get backlogged.”
The first song written after he picked up the pen again, “Beautiful,” was composed for Mallett’s daughter. “She’s half kidded with me, over the years,” he said, “that I had never written a song for her. Finally, I jarred that one loose, and it set the wheels turning.” Before he knew it, Mallett was writing more than ever. “I was working on three songs at the same time,” he said, “and I was really into it. [Songwriting] is like body surfing. It’s a struggle at first, but once you get caught up in a wave, it’s a lot of fun.”
Recording the CD required a further leap. “I wanted to expand my vocals,” said Mallett, “so I tried some different things. It’s intimate sounding, but we turned the guitars and drums up a little. Some of the guitar sounds were definitely out of the 1950s or early 60s. I’ve always liked James Burton’s solos on Ricky Nelson’s records—that dry, Telecaster sound. We used some of that. We even threw in a couple of 12-string Rickenbacker solos. I’ve always loved the sound of the Byrds. With this record, I allowed myself to move more in that direction.”
One of the most striking tunes on the album, “Ten Men,” took more than a decade to be written. “I started it way back,” said Mallett. “I had that line—‘ten men in black hats got together one night,’ 10 to 15 years ago. But, it’s so pertinent, so applicable, to right now, when everyone is feeling that the world is being taken over by a few people. That song wrote itself. It came out in a couple of days.” Another song, “North And South,” reflects the optimism Mallett felt after the inauguration of President Obama. “The melody came first,” Mallett said. “It sounded like the theme song for an old Western, or an old Civil War movie—something like ‘Shenandoah.’ It was in a different meter, kind of a slow 2/4. I was really into the election and the ‘we’re in deep shit but we have to unite to get out of it’ mode. That song came out of that. I’m tired of all of the bickering. We have a huge potential to do great stuff, but some people like to whine and hold things up.”
Recording the album at indie folk-pop singer/songwriter Sonny True’s studio, Truesound, in Augusta, Maine, about an hour from his home, Mallett had to adjust to unexpected circumstances. “I rely on my car stereo,” he explained. “That’s my favorite way to listen to music. But, about two-thirds through recording the album, my car broke, and I didn’t have that point of reference. When it came time to mix, it was strange. I had to wait to get my car running again so I could mix the album properly.”
The CD marks the first time that Mallett has worked with his sons, 25-year-old Luke on vocals, and 23-year-old Will on guitar and vocals. “Will is a real fine guitar player,” he said, “and Luke’s a great singer. They came along and jumped in on a few things, gave it a little depth.”
Mallett’s sons, who recently formed their own group, the Mallett Brothers Band, are continuing in a tradition that their father set many years before, when he formed a similarly named band with his brother, Neil. “We’d come home from school every day,” he remembered, “and sit around playing guitars and singing.”
By his 10th birthday, Dave Mallett and his brother were performing throughout northern New England. Though their group was best known for their renditions of country tunes by Buck Owens and Johnny Cash, they also included a large number of folk songs by Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Kingston Trio.
Soon after leaving home to attend the University of Maine, Mallett began performing as a soloist, yearning for an opportunity to devote his focus to music. That chance came after reading in a local newspaper that Noel Paul Stookey, of Peter, Paul and Mary, had begun building a new recording studio in Blue Hill, Maine. “[Stookey] was my savior,” said Mallett. “I was fed up with playing in bars and thought I had more to offer than playing background music. He was so gracious. I called him out of the blue, and he said, ‘Come visit.’ I dropped in, and they were doing some carpentry on his place. I handed him a tape and, by gosh, he listened to it. When I went to see him again, he said, ‘Let’s do a record.’ He provided me with a free studio and a small budget. He also mailed the album to all of his friends and spread the word.”
With Stookey producing and promoting his first three albums, Mallett found success quickly. Among the first songs that he recorded, “The Garden Song,” written while working in a garden on his parents’ farm, has gone on to become a modern folk classic: John Denver, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Muppets are among more than 150 artists who have recorded it. “It’s a unique song,” said Mallett, “a song that can never be duplicated. It’s kind of like ‘Happy Birthday’ in that way. ‘Inch by inch, row by row’—it’s the most popular garden song in the world. Every week, I get a request from someone wanting to sing it in church or a wedding or print it in a school newsletter. My songwriting has evolved, musically and message-wise, but there’s a purity in that song that I’m so proud to be associated with.”
Maritime, folk, and country traditions remain at the foundation of Mallett’s music. “There’s very little blues influence in my work,” he said. “I deal with the I-IV-V chords—G, C, D—and it’s pretty simple. These are dance rhythms and fiddle melodies that we grew up with, that are adaptable to popular music.”
The cool winds of northern Maine continue to blow through the clear purity of Mallett’s vocals. “My voice is very much a Yankee voice,” he said. “Not all instruments can support it. I’ve never sung with horns. I don’t think it would work. I’ve done some records with almost too much production. I think keeping it intimate and up-close is more of a Northern thing. It’s like Leonard Cohen’s approach, almost anti-singing, more speaking than singing.”
Canadian bard Gordon Lightfoot influenced Mallett’s early work. “He was the first one that I thought I sounded like,” Mallett said, “when I was 21. I liked those kinds of melodies and that kind of guitar playing.” The songs of fellow Maine-based balladeer/shipbuilder Gordon Bok had less of an impact. “Gordon’s a great guy,” Mallett said, “and I owe him a visit. But, he writes a lot about the sea—the ocean, the people who work on the sea and live by the sea. I didn’t have that experience, having lived inland. A lot of my songs describe the people who work on the land away from the ocean.”
Relocating to Nashville in the early 1990s, Mallett spent nine years living in Tennessee’s Music City, co-writing songs with country music songwriter Hal Ketchum and recording a country-folk album, This Town. “It was a foray into country music,” he said, “and it was pretty successful. It got me out into the world a little more and connected me with some of my peers.” Mallett’s approach to music, though, set him apart from most Nashville songwriters. “There’s really a push for collaborations,” he said. “That way you get two publishers working the same song. But I realized that my songs are too individual.”
Mallett returned to Maine with his wife and three children in 1997. “My kids were entering high school,” he said, “and it was time to get out of the city. I had always planned on moving back.”
Although Alright Now has temporarily satisfied his need to write new songs, Mallett has already begun conceiving his next album. “I’d like to do [an album of] classic country songs,” he said, “similar to what Van Morrison did. That would be fun—to get a little band together and just do an album of old classic tunes, for the fun of it, make an album as though I had a bar gig and put together a country band.”
Whatever direction he decides to go, Mallett’s creative juices are flowing anew.
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