Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Musician Doug McFarland talks Cadbury Eggs, performs live Friday

Doug McFarland plays upward of 110 gigs a year at various local venues, including Wilmington Wine, which will host him Friday, Oct. 16, 6-9 p.m. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Doug McFarland)

WILMINGTON — Doug McFarland’s passion for music didn’t begin at an open-mic in some watering hole or coffee shop while in college—or by busking a corner in his hometown of Marcellus, N.Y. It began later in life when he was 36. McFarland started custom-writing songs for people that illustrated funny bits of info from their lives. In each tune, he would blend reverence with irreverence to provide a unique sentiment for anniversaries, weddings, birthdays or even fundraisers.

“The first was for a cancer support group in Austin, Texas, for a benefit golf tournament with celebrity baseball players,” he said. “I sang it at a private party the night before the event. I got a high-five from a player I had seen play back in the ‘80s. Pretty wild.”

McFarland pursued this niche of songwriting in 2008 and still gets commissioned to do half a dozen or so songs a year. For $300, buyers send him verbs, nouns, snippets of memories or information from their lives. They then approve the lyrical draft before getting the final product: framed lyrics, a CD of the song and a digital copy. 

“I decided long ago I was unlikely to have a big hit that would be meaningful to a lot of people, but I found I could write a song that would be incredibly meaningful to a small group or even one person,” McFarland said.  

Yet, the acoustic guitarist has evolved, covering blues, folk, rock and jazz across three CDs he’s released over the last 15 years. While playing live, McFarland’s setlist often mixes originals with covers.

“Sometimes, I’ll even do a cover of a cover,” he said. “I think a new twist on a song is refreshing for the audience and me. If you want to hear the original, it’s always there, but I like live music that has some surprises to keep you engaged.”

No genre is off limits. McFarland has put his stamp on Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” the Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive,” Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” and TLC’s “Waterfalls.”

“[On] ‘Waterfalls’ I do a looped version of [The Beatles’] ‘Come Together’ that starts a little unexpectedly,” he described. “I’ve just started doing a medley of Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Possession’ and Chris Isaak’s ‘Wicked Game.’ . . . I do it in a higher range than the originals. It builds slowly, so no one really sees it coming.”

McFarland decided to put out his first CD, “Trite and True,” in 2005 to represent what he calls a “sampler of weird songwriting.” He doesn’t compose music or write lyrics in a normal structure, but enjoys word play to bring levity to the process, much like a few of his favorite musicians Lyle Lovett, John Prine, David Wilcox and John Hiatt. 

“They throw in humor almost as a release of tension,” he explained. “But I’m not really into full-on joke songs; parodies usually make me cringe.”

Instead, McFarland focuses on little pockets of memories that bring a smile, as heard on “Cadbury Egg.” The song came about after McFarland visited a friend one October, years ago, while attending a trade show. On top of the refrigerator sat a bag of candy, with a Cadbury Egg tucked inside. 

“This was back when they were only available at Easter,” McFarland said. “I ate it—this sugary chocolate mass that was months old. I survived to tell the tale. And I’d do it again. I’ve made peace with my choices.”

Today at shows, fans bring McFarland 12 packs of the chocolates as gifts. “I’m lucky if any make it home—I’ll eat them on the ride from a gig,” he said.

Doug McFarland’s “Cadbury Egg” was remastered for his 2020 release, “Find the Ground.” (Port City Daily/Courtesy Doug McFarland One)

McFarland plays upward of 110 gigs a year at venues like the Shuckin’ Shack in Surf City, Porter’s Neck Slice of Life, and Waterline Brewing downtown. Naturally shy, his light-hearted performances aren’t without moments of revelation. According to the musician, performing has brought him out of his shell—his craft bringing out the best of his emotional makeup. 

“Aside from being able to make someone cry, in a good way, getting them to laugh or smile is a close second—even if it’s just one line, or twist of some words,” he said.

In 2010, McFarland turned his cheekiness inward and created a more personal second LP, “Rescue.” His music evolved deeper into instrumentals, too. Another five years passed, and over the summer McFarland released his third LP, “Find the Ground.” The songs were written over the last five years and recorded in his home studio on a digital 8-track. 

On “Find the Ground,” McFarland revisited “Cadbury Egg,” and made it jazzier, “sexier,” he said. Still, he kept its two-part kazoo.

He also offered fans a more intimate look into his life in “As Far As I Can See,” written for his girlfriend, Ally. He stripped down the tune to just two guitars and played up the warmth in its musical progression. 

“The first line is, ‘You’re perfectly broken in all the right places,’” he stated. “When you find someone who embraces what you see as a flaw or a weakness, and they love you more for it, ultimately, it sets the foundation for a life together as far you can see.”

McFarland penned a song for another special lady in his life, his mother. “Dear Roanoke, VA,” where his parents retired, was written as a tribute to his family for his mom’s 80th birthday. 

“I just wanted something simple,” he said. “It made my mom cry, so that was a win.”

McFarland approached it like an Irish folk song, musically and vocally. It mentions Roanoke’s neon star, which sits atop a mountain and overlooks the city. 

“When you first move there, and if you don’t live there, it seems, let’s say … unattractive,” McFarland explained. “But when Roanoke is home, and you go on a trip or move away, you see the star in the distance as you get closer to the city, closer to family. It starts to mean something.”

Today McFarland balances playing gigs, managing his full-time job at Porter’s Neck Country Club and overseeing his own company, TrunkPump. Covid-19 certainly sidetracked his connection to a live audience. Yet, McFarland slowly has been immersing himself back into the swing of things, even if his shows take place on a smaller scale, with smaller audiences.

“[They’re] appreciative of the music,” he detailed, “just happy to have somewhere to go and enjoy what they used to.” 

At his solo shows, McFarland (who also plays in a duo The Awkward Silents) uses a looper to create a full-band sound with acoustic guitar and two-part kazoo. He doesn’t store the sounds either, claiming part of the magic (and risk) is creating it live. 

“I do generally keep it guitar-based,” he clarified, “using a few pedals for distinct sounds, an ‘electric’ sounding lead, tapping on the body for percussion, scraping the strings for a shaker effect. I’ll use my voice as an instrument at times, and the kazoo, while often derided (rightly so), can actually be pretty musical, giving off a trumpet/trombone/saxophone-like effect.”

McFarland’s next stop is at Wilmington Wine in the Castle Street Arts District from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 16. It will be the official reopening of the wine shop, which has undergone renovations, since Covid-19 closed it for half of the year. 

Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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