The music industry can be a rough and tumble environment. It's no place for the timid. Competition is strenuous, music can be stolen, contracts are voided for no apparent reason. And that's just what takes place in the genteel confines of the music industry offices. Living on the road can be even tougher — especially for the blues musician. Booze and drugs are staples for performers, roadies and hangers-on. Womanizing is a competitive sport.
Sam McClain can tell you from first-hand experience. He has experienced the ups and downs of life. He's taken part in all the rituals and rigors of the nomadic life. He's lived on a park bench. He's contemplated taking his own life. McClain has not only survived, but he has become a well-loved figure, not only as a musician, but as a man. McClain is on a mission. He has survived as a result of his abiding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and he is sharing his faith with all who will listen — and many who might not hear the Word in a more conventional manner. One music reviewer described McClain this way: "Mighty Sam McClain is a blues artist. He's also a servant of God, a keeper/promoter of faith, and a survivor."
Growing up in rural Louisiana, there was one thing Sam McClain knew for sure — he didn't want to pick cotton. He says, "I used to stand on the side of the road and watch the Greyhound buses and smell the fumes. Those fumes were freedom to me."
Sam McClain didn't pick cotton. In fact, today the Mighty Sam McClain is a blues singer of some note, an entrepreneur, and the owner of his own record label. But McClain is no overnight success. His road has been long and rough. His life has included plenty of pain and disappointment and heartbreak. He knows the blues, because he has lived the blues.
There are many things that distinguish Mighty Sam McClain from other blues singers. His voice is distinctive. His lyrics are haunting. His band, including the horn section, is exceptional. But what separates Mighty, as he is known to his friends, from the rest of the field is that he knows who the truly Mighty One is. A follower of Jesus Christ since 1973, Mighty says it's his mission to talk about Jesus in his music "without preaching at people.
Much of blues music is about pain, alienation, separation and leaving town. McClain says that he's "been leaving and arriving all my life." At 13 he left home to escape the abuse of his stepfather. "All I ever really wanted was for him to love me," he says of his abuser. Love was not what his stepfather had to offer, however. Instead he fed Sam a constant diet of discouragement, telling him often that he would never amount to anything. If he hadn't left, McClain says, he might have killed his stepfather. "It would have been an easy thing to do," he explains. Everybody hunted and had guns. An accident would have been easy to explain. God had other plans for young Sam McClain.
Ending up in Pensacola, Florida, a few years later, McClain started playing in local clubs. It was here that the name Mighty Sam McClain was attached to him. According to McClain, it was all an accident. Using the name "Good Rocking Sam," McClain was gaining some local notoriety. When one of the local clubs had some flyers printed up, however, they mistakenly dubbed McClain "Mighty Sam." It stuck.
Fame was not swift. Nor was it necessarily kind. McClain kicked around — and got kicked about — for many years on what's called the "chitlin circuit." He was befriended by several notable musicians and taken advantage ofby more than a few of them. He went through a couple of marriages and plenty of alcohol. Even after attaining some notice as a musician, he spent part of his life living on a park bench.
In 1973, Sam McClain's life changed forever. On a storm-filled drive to Monroe, Louisiana, to visit his parents, he was confronted with Jesus Christ. The way Sam tells the story, Jesus "didn't have to raise His voice. He didn't have to roar. All He said to me was, 'I love you. Don't do it no more.' I knew then how much I hurt Him; how much I hurt His people." He had to face up to a lot of things in his past, says McClain. The first thing he did was to go and reconcile with his stepfather. In 1975, a new Christian, McClain moved to Nashville. He said it was time to get serious about the business end of music. He bought books about business and he sat down to write some songs. He says of that time, "I wrote more than 200 songs. About five of them were worth letting somebody see." It wasn't until about 1993, McClain says, that he began to feel that he could write songs.
Faith For All of Life
The blues can be thought of as the poor man's existentialism. This very American form of music, which grew out of the spirituals of the slave experience, is all about coping with life. Life is hard; nobody loves you when you're down; my woman is cheating on me; I just got laid off, again: these are the themes of the blues. The bluesman sings aboutcoping with life — with no direction, no meaning — and no salvation.
The Bible, in some places, sings the blues too. In Psalm 73, for instance,we read Asaph's blues. A priest of the temple, Asaph was obviously a lonely, depressed, and hurt man. He felt cheated and left behind. Everybody else — even the charlatans and fakes — was getting ahead while Asaph languished. It's a common theme. Full of envy, self pity and a distorted view of his situation, Asaph was crying out. Asaph had the blues because he was green with envy.
But Asaph was not without hope. As we read verses 23 to 28 we see that Asaph came to his senses. He recognized that God's love and His goodness last forever. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus!
That is the message that Mighty Sam McClain brings to his music. Just like the rest of us he still feels pain and hurt. A few years back, while he still struggled with alcohol, he lost his driver's license. He was embarrassed. He was inconvenienced. But McClain took this as an opportunity. He explains that "Between Jesus and that man in the black robe, I got moved. I had to give that [alcohol] up." He hasn't touched a drop since.
McClain still sings some of the old, classic blues songs. Most of the music he writes, though,is rooted in victory and hope. He is not a man without direction. Mighty Sam sings in one of his songs, "I'm a singer, I'm a man with a song, and I've got a message for you." The message McClain explains, is, "Life is real — deal with it. But there is hope, there is victory in Jesus." McClain says that he doesn't consider himself a songwriter. "I'm a servant," he says. "I just follow the directions. It's amazing how God has allowed me to figure out how to serve Him and make a living."
Being on the road can be a hard life. Being on the road as a Christian among hard drinking, hard living people can be even tougher. "There's a lot of dope, a lot of alcohol," McClain says. Sometimes there's some verbal abuse, too, for someone who doesn't conform. People get uncomfortable and they strike out at those seeking to follow Christ. "It's spiritual warfare, being on the road," the mighty man says.
The Mighty Message
Many songwriters write out of their own experience. Mighty Sam McClain is no exception. In Hanging on the Cross, one of his most poignant pieces, he deals with pain and a crisis of faith. "I didn't want to participate in that song," McClain explains. He had been hurt by some family members trying to take advantage of him. "I got stung again," he says. "Then the song came. I surrendered to it. I didn't want to tell nobody." Like Asaph, McClain knows where to turn for answers. Even in his pain, he concludes the song praying, "Lord, lift me up." This is the blues with resolution.
Mighty Sam's message is getting out. In fact, many people who have never heard his name, may have heard his music — and his message. Anyone who has ever watched the television series Ally McBeal may recognize the tune New Man in Town. That's Mighty Sam McClain. He says he was "blown away" when David Kelley of the Fox network called to discuss using the song. He was so nervous while the negotiations were going on that he was afraid to answer his phone.
"It's funny," McClain says, about what the network people will buy. "They don't even know that song's about Jesus," he says. The new man in town is Jesus Christ. He's the Mighty, Mighty Man. "There's a man coming around — and he's trying to free your soul," the song proclaims. That's the new man in town. That's Jesus. This is the kind of tune that people hum and sing along to. This is uplifting music. That's Mighty Sam McClain's message.
Things are looking up for Mighty Sam McClain these days. He's married to a wonderful woman and living on a small horse farm in New Hampshire. That, of course, is the subject of some of his songs.
At a blues festival in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, just a few years ago, McClain had a dream come true. Headliner and music legend Bobby Blue Bland called him up on stage to sing with him. McClain later said that this was one of the highlights of his life. "I've been seeing that in my mind since I was 13," he exclaimed.
McClain recently cut a new CD. This time, however, he did it at his own studio, on his own label, Might Music. One More Bridge to Cross was released in February, 2003. This is his music, his way, according to McClain. When we asked McClain whether starting his own label had anything to do with the treatment he received in the industry because of his faith, his response was, "Yes, yes, yes, yes."
People respond to McClain's music. His concert schedule is very busy. Things are definitely looking up for Mighty Sam McClain. But McClain has not forgotten where he's been. Even more importantly, he also hasn't forgotten where he's going. He knows pain, but he also knows victory. Mighty Sam McClain is a bluesman with the answer.
- Curt Lovelace
Curt Lovelace is a small town pastor and a student of history. He has finally moved to Maine where, when asked if he would like to declare a political affiliation on his voter registration card, he politely declined.