David Mallett – Still In Search of the New

dave-mallett.gifDavid Mallett brings folk music with a northern perspective to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday, but listeners would be surprised at where the Maine native goes for inspiration.

“I don’t have time to listen to anything I’ve already heard, I just want to hear new stuff,” he says.  He’s a big fan of  the Link, a music video outlet that shows  “stuff from Russia, India, Brazil – it’s really cool to watch that stuff.” 

This eclecticism extends to Mallett’s family.  HIs son fronts Lab Seven, a Portland-based hip-hop band that’s built a strong regional fan base.   You’d expect a folkie who cites the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash and Stephen Foster as influences to run screaming from  the room at this, but not Mallett. 

“I’m very excited by it,” he says.  “In a way, rap is  the folk music of the current generation.  This is where they get their words out, you know what I mean?  When I was a kid folk was for young people,  Nobody understood it.”

Mallett thinks Woody Guthrie would approve of this urban sound, which he terms “a modern take on the Dust Bowl ballads.  The rappers and hip hop guys are simply describing their own experience, their own Dust Bowl.”

David Mallett’s own musical journey began as a teenager, when he and his brother performed as the Mallet Brothers and made music inspired by the family team of Don and Phil Everly.  They recorded a few 45s, and hosted a variety show on a Bangor television station. 

“It’s  nice to have your own TV show when you’re 16,” laughs Mallett. “It kind of spoils you for the rest of your life.”

Mallett befriended Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame in the mid-70’s, and made his mark  with “The Garden  Song,” a tune that’s been covered no less than 150 times, by everyone from Arlo Guthrie to the Muppets. 

“It was amazing,” Mallett says of the song’s success.  “ I wrote it in 1975, mostly just as a way to pass the time.   I was working in the garden with my father, and it came up as sort of a little work song.”

Over the years, it’s been used to sell garden equipment in Spain, fertilizer in Ireland, and it’s also a regular on the Today show, which uses it for a recurring gardening segment.

“It came from this land I live on and from my father teaching me how to plant corn,” he says.  “It came from very little effort, and those are the best kind of songs.  They just sort of say ‘I’m here.’”

Mallett spent 10 years in Nashville among a songwriter’s clique that included  Lyle Lovett and  Nanci Griffith (who recorded some of his songs).  He co-wrote a few successful country tunes with Hal Ketchum, and had a small hit with “This Town” in 1993.  But as soon as his kids reached high school age, he headed back to Maine.

“If you can go to Nashville and adjust your perspective to make it a little more southern, they really like that,” says Mallett, but “country music is addressed to the working class of the south and the west.  I’m such a Yankee I had a hard time adjusting.”

“My turf is New England, it’s my own little backyard,” he says.

His home state acknowledged this in 1999, naming him one of Maine’s key figures of the 20th century. 

“That was pretty mind blowing,” he says.  “Being a musician is a fragile way to lead your life, You don’t know where the next song is coming from or the next gig, but to have something like that in your backpack is pretty nice.”

Mallett’s amassed quite a catalog of songs over the years, but as his personal tastes suggest, he’s always looking forward.  Asked to name his favorite song, he says simply that “it’s always been the next one, the one I haven’t written yet.”

Mallett expects to showcase a few of his new songs Saturday night.  No doubt he’ll also be watching in the wings when Harvard valedictorian and rising country singer/guitarist Liz Carlisle opens the show.  Carlisle made a strong impression opening for Hal Ketchum in October, so fans should welcome her return to the Opera House stage.

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