by Lahri Bond
It has been a busy time for Dougie MacLean, who after nearly 40 years as a professional musician, could have easily sat back and rested on his formidable laurels. Early in his career, MacLean made waves playing guitar and fiddle for short stints with two of Scotland’s mightiest traditional bands the Tannahill Weavers in 1976 and Silly Wizard in the early 80s. He was also part of a celebrated early duo with Alan Roberts, and a trio, which included Roberts and the great Alex Campbell; both groups producing one album each. Among his other early and rare recordings were two solo albums for the Plant Life label (Snaigow  and On A Wing And A Prayer ). While containing an embryonic rendition of his signature song “Caledonia,” these early records only hinted at the more mature and staggeringly beautiful music that would follow.
His true solo career coincided with the formation of his own label Dunkeld Records both in 1981. The company was formed with his wife Jenny MacLean, who among her many duties has also provided graphics for all of the label’s many releases. MacLean’s own Craigie Dhu was the label’s first release, and contained a mix of traditional and original songs. Among those songs was the definitive version of his “Caledonia,” which has gone on to have a life of it’s own, being covered by many artists, becoming something of the unofficial anthem of Scotland and even having a superb single malt whiskey inspired by it. Seventeen more albums have followed (not including compilations) and MacLean continues to tour the world; sometimes with a full band, but most often with a single guitar, harmonica, occasionally a fiddle or a didgeridoo, and always with his honey soaked, tenor voice, and a head full of amazing songs.
Recently, he has released a lovely new album called Resolution, and he is working on yet another with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO) backing him. A new DVD called Songmaker is available, and he even has his own 10-day, multi-venue event called the Perthshire Amber Festival in Scotland. In 2013 he received the BBC Folk Lifetime Achievement, has started his own live streaming site on the net, and just to round things off, he was just awarded an OBE (The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) and it was pinned on his chest by none other than herself, the Queen of England.
We caught up with Dougie MacLean this March, via phone from his home base in Butterstone, near Dunkeld in the beautiful Tay Valley in Perthshire Scotland, as he was preparing to leave for a tour of Australia
Lahri Bond: Tell about the making of your new album Resolution, which is your first album of new songs in six years.
Dougie MacLean: I’m in a nice position, where I don’t have to make albums all the time. One of the best decisions we made about 25 years ago was setting up our own independent record company(Dunkeld Records). Where I live is, what was the old village school in a little town with about 12 houses in it. My father went to school here, and I went to school here, so we’re really independent. A new album comes along when I have ten new songs and I think that makes for a better kind of album, it’s a nice organic process.
LB: It seems like the new album and many of your last adventures have been a real family affair, with the album produced by yourself, Jenny and your children Jamie and Julia.
DM: Yea, my son Jamie produced it, and played most of the other instruments on it, which is fantastic. Basically it’s just me and him.
LB: On certain songs there is almost a neo-country feel to it.
DM: We have some dobro on a few of the tracks, that was the instrument of the moment when we were doing the record. Jamie had just got himself a dobro, and we were playing around with that a bit. It’s got a nice feel. That’s one of the nice thing about the way we make the records, it has the feel of a particular time. It’s whatever’s in Jamie’s head and my head at the time.
LB: Tell us a little about the Perthsire Amber Festival, how it evolved, and what’s it like to have your own folk festival.
DM: It’s become a monster now. Next year will be my fortieth year as a troubadour musician, which is pretty scary. I’ve played at festivals all over the world. I thought it’d be quite cool to have a festival back here in Scotland, in the area where I grew up, and in the area that inspired all the songs, and have everybody come to here, and hear the songs in context. That’s basically what it started off as, and now it’s a ten day festival, with all these shows in all these unique venues, like castles and cathedrals, as well as the theaters and all of that. We do all kinds of things to educate people about the wonderful county that Perthshire is. I get to play with all kinds of musicians I might not get to tour with or take on the road. I get to invite all my friends to come and hang about for two or three days, in Perthshire, all these great musicians. It’s pretty cool to be a musician and have your own festival.
LB: It seems like it has been a particularly productive time for you. Among other things, you just received a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award.
DM: It was a really big thing for me to get. It’s Radio 2 which is the main radio station that goes across the whole country. The awards were held this year in Glasgow.
LB: I saw the video on-line of the all-star cast singing “Caledonia” behind you, it looked like you had Barbara Dickson, Rab Noakes, Martha Wainwright, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eddi Reader, Ralph McTell, Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Dick Gaughan, Phil Cunningham, Aly Bain and Steve Knightley, if I counted everyone.
DM: (laughs) That was a bit cool as well. I’m singing out to whole of the UK and I turn around, and everybody’s there behind me, which was pretty amazing.
LB: Any chance of an official release of the song or video with that cast?
DM: We’re very bad about following up on these things over here, I think. That would be a great release, yea, but I suppose it would be too complicated to secure all the rights, and all of that. It was a great thing to do; it was one of the more interesting versions of Caledonia I’ve ever sung.
LB: Tell us about how you are now doing live streaming from your own Butterstone TV.
DM: I’m really excited about that. Luckily both my son and I, and my daughter are kind of teckie in that front. We were looking at the world, and were looking for a new model of how a musician deals with his public; ’cause technology has changed everything, and the CD has lost its value. For a while, music had become devalued, because it was the type of thing you swapped on the internet for free. We were just thinking how a musician would go into the future with the technology available. We discovered a way of broadcasting in high definition on the internet, and it’s fantastic. I do a one-hour live show, every month from the school here, or we’re mobile, so we can take it out. During the summer last year, we did a couple of shows from various places up on the western isles. We have all the cameras and the equipment. My daughter Julia does all the vision-mixing, and we have a little team of technical people who are friends of my kids, well, they’re not kids, they are all in their late twenties. We are broadcasting live to the whole planet. After doing these shows, I tap into the email at the end, and I get emails from people in Florida, Alaska, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Sydney Australia, it’s the whole planet just watching live.
It’s subscription-based, and I also do guitar classes on it, and show people how to play my kind of style of guitar playing, and we put up some archive video. I’m just getting geared up to start doing little documentaries of my own, and put it up there. So there’s all kinds of interesting things, it’s not limited. Because it’s micro economics, you don’t have to have thousands of subscribers to make it viable. It becomes this really interesting little place to go to meet the fans, meet the people who are interested in what you are doing. I’ve not been so excited about something as I have about this, in the last twenty years probably. The main broadcasters are quite fickle, they decide when they come and film you. This way, I suspect every musician will have his own broadcast channel, and do things with his musician friends It’s a lot more interesting stuff to have happen; I don’t know of any other musician in my field who is doing something like this.
We’ve done 12 shows; that would be a year now, just to test that the technology would work. I invite special guests along and we chat away and we talk about things you’d probably never find on the real television, and it’s much better quality than YouTube. You can plug it into your television and it’s just like watching TV, because it’s high definition. People don’t seem to mind paying, it’s like seven pound a month. Even for the one hour of live show, that’s much cheaper than going to a gig, and you can sit in front of your own fire and watch it. Its very personal, and I like that.
LB: And now you can sit by your fire drinking your very own Dougie MacLean inspired Caledonia Whiskey.
DM: That’s right (laughs), I’m very lucky. A few years ago, our local distillery, which is a beautiful little distillery, it’s the smallest distillery in Scotland, very very old, called Edradou, they decided to put all their 12 year old malt over to what we call Dougie MacLean’s Caledonia. It’s got the words of the chorus of my “Caledonia” song on the back of the bottle. It’s excellent, it’s a beautiful whiskey. The smaller distilleries make the best whiskeys, because they have a small still, so they can take their time to make it. They don’t manufacture it like the big people, so it’s a real classy 12 year old malt. I do have to go in and sample it from time to time (laughs). If you drink half a bottle of Caledonia, you can sing the song with a beautiful tenor voice, and if you drink the whole bottle of Caledonia you get the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra playing along with you in the background. It lovely and it’s a real thrill to have the whiskey associated with the song. It’s sold all over the world.
LB: To top everything off, you also awarded recently an OBE.
DM: That was a big deal. Not just for me but for the whole musical, folk genre that I work within. To get recognized by the establishment in that way was really a big deal. You don’t get these things on your own; it’s all the really good people who have helped me over the years, and my family, that culminates in something like that.
LB: So do we call you Sir Dougie now?
DM: Noooo, no, no. no, no. I get to put OBE after my name. It’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire; it’s an ancient thing really. The Beatles got MBE which is a Member of the British Empire, the officers are above the members, and then there’s a thing called the CBE which is a Captain or something. It’s very bizarre; it’s a very British thing. The Queen presented it to me down at the castle, down at Holyrood Palace, which was amazing, cause I’m from a very working class, rural family.
(Photographer, The Herald)
LB: And you got to bring your mom. . .
DM: I was allowed to have four people with me, and I phoned up my mother, and I said “Mom go buy a hat, because you’re going to meet the queen.” She had a great time, for her it was very, very special. The queen was a lovely lady. I really admire her for being able to do all that stuff and not appear to be bored. We had a good wee chat about music, and it was lovely. It was all done it Holyrood Palace, so we didn’t have to go down to London, it was all done in Edinburgh, which was pretty cool. I’m a great champion of Scottish independence, but I love the history of that monarchy and our own monarchies.
LB: So what’s next besides touring?
DM: Well, I’m planning on making a new record this year with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra (RSNO). I’m working with an arranger at the moment, and we’ve got like half of the songs done, both old and new songs, with full orchestral arrangements. I’m having fun with the arrangements, because I love French horns, so I keep getting them to do these French horn things.
Dougie MacLean will be touring the US in May and September. Information on his recordings, videos, songbooks, live streaming, the Perthsire Amber Festival, whiskey and more can be found at: http://www.dougiemaclean.com.