The Aspen Times, Saturday-Sunday, January 22, 23, 2000

NIGHTBEAT

"MCCOLLUM LIKES HIS COUNTRY 'SIMPLE AND CLEAR'" By Stewart Oksenhorn, Aspen Times Staff Writer


Aspenite Mike McCollum grew up with a love of music, and a deep affection for country music in particular. In the McCollum home, where Mike's mother Ann - a church singer, pianist and choral director - spread her love of music among the McCollum children like jam on bread, music was a common passion.

In the Southern California town of Redondo Beach, Calif., however, where McCollum grew up in the '60s, county music was not the most accessible sound. In the early '60s, folk music was still riding its revival on the backs of Peter, Paul & Mary and the young folksinger Bob Dylan; by the late '60s, rock music was at a peak.

Still McCollum, with a little searching and a little help, was able to seek out country music. And perhaps he was lucky that country music at the time was not quite so popular, commercialized and slicked-up. The country sound McCollum grew up with was rooted in acoustic instruments and existed in a gritty, earthy atmosphere. Illustrative of McCollum's idea of country music is how he came to love the sound: not through country radio, but through his uncle, folksinger Sam Hinton, and the first bluegrass show he saw, the Topanga Canyon Fiddle Contest, which the 15-year old McCollum attended with his uncle. It was through folk and bluegrass - both at the time, still closely related to country music - that McCollum found his love for country.

"I've always loved country music; it's one of my favorite forms of music," said McCollum, who played in a series of rock, country-rock and r&b bands through high school. "But I'm not talking about commercial country, not the way commercial country is these days. But I love things like bluegrass; I love going to bluegrass festivals."

Those tastes come through simply and clearly on McCollum's new debut CD, "Simple and Clear." The instruments are not the electric guitars and keyboards that mark much current county music; the instrumental lineup - fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitars and stand-up bass, plus piano - is more in line with a bluegrass recording. McCollum's voice is delivered, as promised, simple and clear, easy to listen to rather than attention-grabbing. The production of the CD pays attention to the songs and the essential sounds of the voices and instruments. And the songs themselves - romances like "The Way We Used To," the spiritual "Step Into the Light" the gospel-tinged lullaby "Sleep My Angel Sleep," and "New Fishin' Blues," an updated version of the folk-blues classic "Fishin' Blues" with additional lyrics by McCollum - are written straight to, and from, the heart.

I've been trying to keep my songs as simple as I can lately," said McCollum. "Which is hard, writing a simple song. I want the idea being clear, and the lyrics being clear."

McCollum's journey to recording his first CD has not, however, been the simplest path. After moving to Aspen in 1982, McCollum gave up music all together. "I was kind of burned out on trying to make a living as a musician," he said. "'Cause it's so hard. So I just stopped trying."

Instead, McCollum turned to physical work. He opened his own painting and drywall business which he ran for nine years. Music was barely on his mind; the physical labor left him too exhausted to think much about playing guitar or writing songs. But in 1991, McCollum tired of the construction business, and he turned his attention to more cerebral concerns: He went to paralegal school, with the thought of becoming a paralegal, and possibly an attorney, and he started writing songs with a dedication he never had before.

I didn't take myself seriously as a songwriter 'til this last time, since the early '90s, when I decided I wanted to get people interested in doing my songs," said McCollum, who began writing songs for his bands to play in high school. "I had so much more energy to stay up late and try to come up with lyrics. And once I decided to do it, it was a lot easier to find the energy and come up with ideas."

When McCollum made his return to music, he envisioned himself as a songwriter, not as a performer or recording artist. He hasn't performed since moving to Aspen, and he doesn't have an intention to perform his songs at the moment. What he figured, when he got interested in song writing, was to see if anyone in Nashville was interested in his songs. McCollum began sending his songs off to various Nashville singers.

A few years ago, McCollum went to Nashville to meet some singers he thought might want to cover his songs; soon after, he returned to Music City, U.S.A., to record a demo of his songs. He enlisted the help of a trio of singers: Cheryl White of the vocal group The Whites; Jeff White, a former member of Alison Krauss & Union Station who now sings and plays in Vince Gill's band; and Charles Whitstein, part of the Whitstein Brother's group. All three, said McCollum, he chose for "that pure, unaffected country singing style." McCollum also rounded up a group of Nashville players: pianist Catherine Styron, mandolinist, Bobby Clark, bassist Terry Eldredge, Jeff White on guitar, and Hoot Hester, who plays fiddle and served as musical director for "Simple and Clear."

"The demos turned out pretty good," said McCollum, who has worked as a paralegal at local law firm Garfield & Hecht for the past six years. "So I decided to make the album myself. I had such a tough time getting people interested in doing my songs, I figured I'd just do them myself."

McCollum is pleased with the result. He will still use the CD as a means of getting other singers interested in his songs, but he also has another - simpler - purpose for the recording.

"The idea of the CD was to make songs to make people feel good." said McCollum, whose son, Jeremy, did the cover design and computer graphics, and brother, Allan, did the photography for "Simple and Clear." "Because that's what I like about music, how it can completely change your emotions. And I think I've accomplished that. A lot of people have told me it's got a good feel to it."

Adding to the good vibe is an acoustic gospel feel that runs through the CD. "I've always liked songs from hymnals," said McCollum , who will donate his proceeds from local sales of "Simple and Clear" to the local non-profit organization RESPONSE. "I've gone to the library to check hymnals, to get ideas for songs, because they have such positive images and messages."