It’s a lengthy divide between the Land Down Under and the expanse of terrain that encompasses America’s heartland, but stylistically at least, singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer Rod McCormack breaks those borders down entirely. Well known for his work behind the boards as well as his efforts in support of his wife, Australian country superstar, Gina Jeffreys, he recently stepped out on his own with Fingerprints, his first individual album of a decades long career.
Recorded in Nashville with an all star backing band — Dave Pomeroy (upright bass), Andy Leftwich (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Aubrey Haynie (fiddle, mandolin), Rob Ickes and Justin Moses (dobro), and McCormack himself on guitar, banjo and vocals, the album effectively distills the varied influences McCormak’s acquired over the years. They include James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Gordon Lightfoot, Tony Rice, New Grass Revival, and all the others that have contributed to his own seminal sound. Bluegrass remains at the heart of his efforts, but the new release finds McCormack putting his own stamp on the proceedings and making this unceasingly melodic music his own.
“It’s a weird thing to me because I spent my life in the studio producing so many people, so it got to a point where I was writing all these songs and often pitching them to other artists,” he reflects while detailing the decision that led him to go out on his own. “I went through a little phase where I fell out of love with the music I was making, and I wasn’t happy. It seemed like a case of the tail wagging the dog. I was trying to predict the market and I had to sort of stop and say, ‘That’s not why I play music.’ I had all these songs, and I really wanted to record them, but even as it evolved, and I started writing more songs, it really didn’t become an album project. Eventually though, it did get to a point where it was clear that this would probably become an album. It was the first time in my life where I felt really comfortable and that the music really represented who I am.”
In a certain sense, McCormack could be viewed as a representative of the budding bluegrass scene in his native nation as well. “There are a lot of great bluegrass groups in Australia,” he insists. “It’s a very small niche, but there are a few guys who were responsible for bringing bluegrass there, and the more I got into it, the more I realized how important those people were.”
McCormack himself became fascinated with the sound from the time he picked up his fist guitar at the age of five. “Fortunately for me, my father had incredible taste in music,” he recalls. “He was listening to the folk singers of the day — Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan in particular — and then he switched off to Gordon Lightfoot, which is the music I grew up listening to as a kid. By the time I was 11 years old, he said to me, ‘You move your fingers so well, maybe you should give banjo a try.’ So he bought me a banjo and three LPs. Two of those were tenor banjo things and they didn’t really do it for me, but the third one was the Carl Jackson banjo record that featured Glen Campbell. It’s an incredible piece of work. The moment I heard Carl Jackson play Smoky Mountain Breakdown, that was life-changing for me.”
To fuel his passion, he began ordering more import records from America. “In 1985, it caused me to jump on a plane and come to the States,” he says. “I had never heard bluegrass like that. I’d already won the CMAA three times, but when I got here, it was life changing. I went to the festivals and did all the campfire jams, and it was incredible. I spent four months traveling across the States and I go to hear Hot Rize, Tony Rice, New Grass Revival… and it was the most incredible musical experience I ever had. It became a huge influence on me.”
McCormack later got to spend time with his heroes back home. When Glen Campbell and Carl Jackson came to Australia to tour, McCormack got the call to join their band. “That was another life-changing experience for me,” he insists. “Louis Shelton was playing guitar. He was the producer for Seals and Crofts, and played all those great guitar riffs on the Jacksons’ song, ABC, and the Monkees’ Last Train to Clarksville, as well as that spectacular solo on Lionel Richie’s Hello. It was an incredible experience that I’ll never forget.”
With Fingerprints behind him, McCormack says he feels inclined to pursue a solo career and make his own efforts a primary priority. “I can’t imagine not doing it,” he suggests. “It just lands exactly where my musical passion is. I can’t imagine not doing this now. To have become part of this incredible bluegrass community in the States, and being able to get to know all my heroes and having the chance to play with them just seems like the greatest thing I can be doing right now. It feels exactly where my heart is. It’s music I just love to play, and sometimes you just have to do what your heart tells you to do. It feels like full circle, like I’ve come home.”
For McCormack, however, the music means so much more.
“It exudes so much joy,” he reflects, noting that he’s already planning his next album. “You get to pick a banjo at a million miles an hour, and it makes people so happy. It’s about the storytelling and the down home feeling and the realness of the way that music connects. Any songwriter will tell you that the hardest songs to write are the simplest ones, and I think bluegrass artists have got that down pat. It’s real life and it’s not pretentious. There are no tricks. There’s no place to hide.”