When it comes to writing songs, Mike McGill will take whatever line the universe throws out.
There’s no real rhyme or reason to the delivery of words that turn into the sort of acoustic-driven country of his solo material, or the hard-driving honky-tonk of his full band, the Barstool Romeos. When he sits down to pen a tune, he doesn’t separate the intended results by category or have a preconception of what the final product will even sound like.
He just writes until it’s done. Sometimes that takes 15 minutes, and sometimes a few years. The muse can be a fickle mistress, he told The Daily Times recently, but he just can’t quit her.
“Sometimes, the songs just appear, man,” said McGill, who will celebrate the release of his self-titled solo debut on Friday night at Barley’s Knoxville. “I think I’ve only written two songs that I just got up and said, ‘I’m gonna write a song today.’ ‘Hillbilly Queen’ was an idea between me and another guy, and then ‘Last Call for Heroes,’ I heard those lines and thought, ‘That would make a good song,’ and then I get up the next morning with the intentions of writing and finishing it in one sitting.
“But both of those are from the last Romeos record. For this one, there’s a song on there called ‘A True Story’ that’s three or four years old. I had it probably halfway written and could never find a way to put closure to the song until I was sitting in Hawaii on one of my trips and thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to finish this song. It’s driving me nuts.’ And I happened to look down at the tattoo on my arm, and it says, ‘always and forever.’ And that was it. That was the line. I just hadn’t lived it all yet, and I realized that in that moment, I was coming out the other end of that song. And I finished it in 10 minutes.”
“Mike McGill,” the album, is the latest milestone on a journey that began when he was a kid growing up in a musical family. His brother, David, was one of the founding members of the gospel group The Kingdom Heirs, and after McGill graduated from Carter High School, he set out in search of his own muse. He’d been on the road with his brother’s outfit, and he got his start playing in the band Holston River Grass with his father, Thomas, as well as another band, Straight Ahead. Bluegrass won over his heart when he discovered it in his parents’ record collection, and when he landed a gig in the Gatlinburg outfit White Oak Flats, he thought he’d found his calling.
Eventually, however, he began to hunger for playing music outside of traditional bluegrass boundaries. He and Blount County singer-songwriter Jeff Barbra, also a member of White Oak Flats, started the honky-tonk outfit The Drunk Uncles, which released one album and recorded another, which has yet to see the light of day, at Music Row Studios in Maryville. The members went their separate ways, but McGill teamed up with Barbra’s brother-in-law, Andy Pirkle, to start the Romeos a decade ago, joining the side project Cathouse Prophets, which also featured Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson owner Scott Maddux, for the course of one album.
The Romeos, however, have endured. Over the course of two albums, the band has become one of the higher-profile outfits in the East Tennessee music scene, turning every show into a boozy barnburner of hard-driving country. As muscular and mean as those songs sound with McGill, Pirkle, bassist Josh Sidman and drummer Mark Dunn behind them, they sound just as good when they’re stripped down to McGill’s voice and an acoustic guitar.
“When I started playing at this little pub called Jimmy’s, back when I was really developing my shtick, I knew I had a song when I would be able to do it when it was just me by myself without a band to rely on,” he said. “I was kind of finding my strengths and writing toward those, and I think that’s how a lot of these songs on the new CD really took life.”
Case in point: “Fifteen Miles from Empty,” co-written with a guy named Randy Buckner. Buckner was a regular at Jimmy’s Southern Pub, and he could usually be found on Thursday nights when McGill performed. One particular afternoon, McGill showed up to watch football at Jimmy’s, and Randy told him that he had an idea for a song.
“He said, ‘I was headed down the road and looked down, and the fuel light came on, so I pulled in, but I only had $20,” McGill said. “That was the line: ‘I’m 15 miles from empty and a $20 bill from broke,’ and so sitting there drinking a beer and eating a cheeseburger, we wrote that song in 15 minutes at a high-top table.”
McGill’s penchant for co-writing tunes grew out of those early collaborations with Barbra and Pirkle. Having a partner, he said, can make a good song great, and depending on the lines a co-writer comes up with, a song might take an entirely different direction than the original intent.
“It’s like ping pong: I don’t need someone who can hit it super hard or has a killer backhand or knows all the spin or can crush it; I just need someone who can hit it back to me and get it over the net,” he said. “You just have to realize that not every line is going to be great, and not every line is going to be used. It’s more important to get them out of your head and creating the space up there than it is using everything that comes out.”
Freeing up headspace, he added, allows him to remain more tuned in to the song suggestions that the universe whispers to him in the offhanded comments of everyday people — like the title track to “Last Call for Heroes,” the most recent Romeos record.
“We were up at The Shed one night, having some post-show beers, and my good buddy David Glover, who does all of the album designs for the Romeos, said, ‘I’m going to the fridge — last call for heroes!’” McGill said. “I heard that and was just like, ‘That’s gotta be a song!’ I think I started whistling or humming a melody on the way home, and the next day, I showed up with Andy and had it except for maybe a line or two that just didn’t feel right.”
He’ll play some of the new songs solo during Friday night’s Barley’s set, but he enjoys performing with friends almost as much as he enjoys writing with them. His backing band always has been called The Refills, and this incarnation will feature Barry “Po” Hannah on guitar, Nate Barrett on drums and Jamie Akins on bass. They’re well-versed in the McGill songbook, and they’re talented enough to follow along when McGill “calls an audible” and picks a random cover off the top of his head. Why those impromptu numbers come to mind in the middle of a set is as much of a mystery to McGill as the originals that seem to flow through his pen, but after all this time, he’s learned not to fight it. And sometimes, it’s best not to even question them.
“The songs just hit you because they’re just floating around, and you’ve got to be on the lookout,” he said. “I think this collection has been following me around for a long time, and there’s a lot of songs on this recording that have been around for a while and that I’ve performed live for a while.
“I just kind of write, and wherever I think it needs to go, it goes. I think people would like there to be more science to it than there actually is, but there’s really not.”