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  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain: Big Dave McLean

Big Dave McLean

Every edition of Behind The Curtain begins with a brief explanation for the newly initiated reader; the purpose of this article is to offer readers something more than the regular press release or bio provides about artists at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective.  The regular method for accomplishing that goal in this column is through investigative research, followed by a direct interview.  After thorough research, remaining curiosities about the artist under investigation are addressed in a direct conversation with the artist, and put ‘on the record’ for readers to gain insight.  It is always encouraged for readers to investigate featured artists outside of this forum; the biographical information offered here is not a full account of the artist’s career, and its purpose is to justify the investigation, and the exclusive content provided.


In this edition of “Behind The Curtain”, curiosity was piqued after learning that veteran Blues guitarist, harmonica player, singer, and songwriter Big Dave McLean is a recipient of The Order Of Canada.  By my own recollection, he is likely the only living musician to have the Order of Canada as an acknowledgement of his contributions as a Blues musician. Understanding that McLean’s contributions to Blues in Canada (both in his musical offerings and mentorship) have been extensive and well received, there’s merit in putting his words on the record.  In addition to his acknowledgments (McLean has also received recognition via a Juno Award win with two additional nominations, 5 Maple Blues Awards, a Lifetime Achievement award, and Great Canadian Blues Award, to name a few), McLean has been a performer in his Blues music career for over half a century, and has been active in music mentorship programs.  In 2016, Billboard noted that “He’s done more to shape the Western Canadian Blues scene than perhaps any other artist.” (citing Wikipedia).  Although there is much more to mention about the career and acknowledgements of Big Dave McLean, what is provided here is enough information to justify a deeper investigation. 


Knowing that Big Dave McLean has been dedicated to the genre of Blues throughout the course of his career, he was asked what led him to the Blues:

“I started out listening to Folk music with my brother Grant, who was also an exceptionally skilled guitar player.  My brother and I went to Mariposa (folk festival) in, I think, 1972, and I heard John Hammond playing, and it stopped me like a deer in the headlights.  The way he was playing guitar and harmonica on the rack stopped me in my tracks.  After his performance, I told him that I found his music deeply moving…and I asked him if he could show me something on the guitar I had with me – I had no idea how to play.  He played me “I’m A Man” by Bo Diddley, and I was hooked from there – that gave me my first guitar lesson, and I’ve been going ever since.”


     Understanding that McLean’s career has lasted for two generations (it is widely accepted that the general/modern definition of a generations is 20-30 years), he was asked what he thinks has contributed to the longevity of his career:


       “I love being in the music business.  I don’t like the business end of it – I like the people.  I like the music.  I like the process of living it. The experience is in living that lifestyle – especially in Blues – and that is something that helps.”


In continuing the conversation about longevity, McLean’s thoughts about his

own career naturally turned his experience into advice for aspiring Blues artists:


        “If you really want to be a Blues performer, and it’s something you really want – just go for it.  Self confidence, and believing in what you want to do – you have to be able to stand behind every lick you play and believe in everything you’re playing – give it everything you’ve got.  The guys who really made it put everything they had into it.  It’s not about playing a ton of notes either – if you’re in the groove, you’re in the groove.  The feel, and the groove, and the way in which you play is what’s important.”


Another relevant topic to actively touring musicians in Canada is geography; by comparison to other parts of the world, the size of Canada (and respectively low population) can certainly present challenges to touring costs and scheduling.  When asked about his thoughts on the topic, McLean’s experience permeates his reply:


        “You gotta drive six and a half hours in any direction to get anywhere.  I’m 76 years old; I have nothing to prove in this business, so I’m just trying to play the music I love.  It’s a tough business, no matter where you live.”


        As the conversation started to come to its conclusion, McLean was asked if there was something exclusive that he would like to have put ‘on the record’ for readers around the world.  He takes people ‘behind the curtain’ by offering:


“Music is the greatest contribution that can be offered to the world.  It has an effect on living things, for the better.  It makes me proud to be in the music business; it’s contributing to people who need it, and it’s very rewarding.”


           As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation.  Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates these conversations.  In Big Dave McLean’s case, there is merit in learning more about the Canadian Blues Collective through his professional experience and personal perspective.  This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Big Dave McLean

Photo Credit: Nick Harding.

Erin McCallum

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres. 

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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