"Steady" - Remembering Jerry McCain

Jerry McCain died this week in his hometown of Gadsden, Alabama. I heard about it on Facebook, but it must have been on the wind. I had just been talking to one of my students about him. The previous week we had started working on “Steady,” the downhome harp instrumental widely regarded as a standard, and I told him some stories about going to Gadsden to visit Jerry, or Mr. McCain as I quaveringly called him, in 2009.
Paul and I were on one of our usual haphazard tours through the South on our way to Memphis for the Blues Music Awards, formerly known as the Handy Awards. We had recorded one of McCain’s songs, “Bad Credit” on our live CD, A Night in Woodstock, and I had been in touch with him by phone to arrange royalty payments for our use of the song. It was amazing to talk to him and learn a little about his life and his sense of humor. His phone messages and his critique of our version of “Bad Credit” had me crying with laughter. I still have them saved on my phone and I need to figure out how to record them onto a more permanent medium, the way the late great Gary Primich did when he recorded “Ding Dong Daddy.”
We released the live project as a DVD the following year, which required a separate royalty contract, and as these proceedings coincided with our trip to Memphis I decided it was my best excuse to impose myself on Mr. McCain’s good graces and visit him in person to deliver an embarrassingly small check. So we drove the several hundred miles south from Boston to our little wayposts, gigs in Johnson City and Nashville, Tennessee, workshops in Asheville and Atlanta, and then westward to Memphis, with a little detour into Gadsden.
Alabama was much prettier than we had envisioned. Interstate 20 is a busy truck route, and in Western Georgia the terrain flattens out and the landscape starts to look desolate. Soon after we crossed the state line, however, we were deep in the heart of the Talledega National Forest, surrounded by tall pines and a sense of quiet majesty. We found the turnoff to Gadsden and my calm evaporated as we neared the Great Man’s house. When we got there he was sweeping lizards off his front porch. The house sported a hand-painted sign by the door that said “Home of the Blues” and in front was a well-tended garden blooming with zinnias that featured another hand-painted sign that said “Geraldine’s Garden - in loving memory” I assumed at the time that it referred to his mother. I learned much later that Geraldine was his daughter, who was murdered at the age of 47.
At this point my memory becomes unreliable because I was shaking in my boots to be meeting one of my all-time heroes, this tall, lantern-jawed man standing there dressed from head to toe in black, in the Alabama heat. I couldn’t say much because the only thought going through my head was “don’t say something stupid” - this eliminated most of my options. I do remember his house was small, with several smaller rooms. The TV was blasting at top “old-guy” volume in one room. We walked past that and turned left into a little parlor. The walls were coated in red and black leather fastened by metal tacks, like a 1950s lounge. There was a bar, or what had been a bar, also covered in leather and holding a lot of miscellaneous stuff. There was stuff all over the place, not in the Collier Brothers sense, just more or less what you’d expect from a man who has lived alone for a while. I noticed an amplifier with the controls wrapped in masking tape inscribed with warnings not to plug it in. Paul was amused to see a candy dish with a half-dozen .22 long rifles in it.
Mr. McCain led us into the center of the room, near the defunct bar (I imagined that he kept a few pistols stashed behind it - maybe his black cowboy hat gave me the idea that he moonlighted as a gunfighter). I looked up to see harmonicas hanging from the low ceiling, suspended by fishing line. A small sign up on a shelf proclaimed “Harmonica Graveyard” and featured a cartoon of a ghost flying heavenward. Another harmonica was enclosed in its case, on which was written “This one’s dead, I KILLED it!” I got the impression that Mr. McCain’s house and his life were his museum, and he was the full-time curator. His music, his recognition, his bitter experiences with the music industry, these were his permanent exhibits. He played us a gospel ballad he had just recorded at Muscle Shoals with the studio musicians. It was called “I’m Waiting on Jesus.” It was Jerry McCain all the way - thoughtful, clever, each verse a vignette told by a master storyteller who has developed his own character to star in a lifelong series of homespun tales.
Finally we sat down and played together a little bit. I was still holding back, not wanting to overplay and insult him. The moments of listening to a master player are like memories of the sun on my back - little burnished thoughts that warm me in a way I can’t describe. He threw in some riffs that reminded me of “Steady.” I had always thought it was a much better song than Little Walter’s "Juke." Partly because I heard “Steady” first, on a compilation cassette a friend made for me that I listened to over and over as I was learning to play, and partly because as excellent a record as “Juke” is, that’s what it is: a recording. It’s a great dance song and it has a great story to tell, but the story was perfectly told in a moment and preserved in its perfection. “Juke” is crisp and jazzy, with a syncopated dialogue between harp and guitar, conjuring up a dancing couple in front of a jukebox. In “Steady,” though, the guitar marches forward while the harmonica lopes along, like a kid holding his parents’ hands and letting his feet lift off the ground. It’s warm and crunchy and sly, lanky like the Talledega pines and Mr. McCain himself. I finally knew what to say: “Mr. McCain, a lot of harp players talk about 'Juke,' but I’ve always thought “Steady” was the best harp instrumental out there and...” he started smiling and cut across my stuttering: “That’s right. That’s what I did. ‘Cause I could play what Little Walter played...” and he paused to play the signature 6-note harmonica riff that opens “Juke,” then proclaimed “...but I had to take it my own way.” and he played it again, this time continuing the riff to complete the opening phrase to “Steady” with a twinkle in his eye. I was gratified and confused. Here was one of my heroes, a public figure whose private life I had invaded for the afternoon, and I was aware of how little I knew about him beyond his recordings and his stated troubles in the record business. I was just an insect, one more person benefiting from his talents while paying him far less than he deserved, and he had just given me a gift beyond measure, another brilliant sunbeam. I could feel my mind melting.
We talked a little longer, invited him to lunch. He thanked us but told us “I got more people coming to see me” and before I knew it we were walking through Geraldine’s Garden, admiring the flowers and the scattering lizards, and bidding farewell to Jerry “Boogie” McCain. I don’t know if I once had the courage to call him Jerry, or the audacity to address him as “Boogie.” I only knew that I could never learn enough from the man, and that I would probably never have another chance. It was the highlight of the tour, not even eclipsed by Bonnie Raitt’s kissing Paul on the forehead at the Cook County Auditorium in Memphis the next day, although Paul may feel differently about it. A story for another time...
-Annie Raines, 3/29/12