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Profile: Dougie MacLean

Published March 3, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

Technically, Dougie MacLean is a "Scottish singer-songwriter." But that minimal moniker doesn't tell half the tale. At age 50 the Perthshire native can look back on a hugely successful recording career with more than 15 albums. MacLean is not only a musical celebrity in Scotland; he's better known internationally than fellow countrymen Archie Fisher, Dick Gaughan and Andy M. Stewart -- all prolific musical geniuses and composers.

MacLean toured as a member of the rocking Scottish folk supergroup the Tannahill Weavers in the 1970s and was briefly a member of Silly Wizard, another legendary traditional band from Scotland. But his popularity was assured in the early 1980s with his solo album, Craigie Dhu. This recording contains MacLean's ballad "Caledonia," a love song to his homeland that has become a veritable Scottish national anthem. A cover version of the song even hit number one on Scotland's "Top of the Pops" in 1992.

MacLean and his wife Jennifer founded Dunkeld Records in 1983 -- the label is named after a Scottish town on the River Tay, where the artist lives and operates his studio, publishing company, a retail outlet and his own pub featuring live music. Dunkeld is one of the most successful independent music labels in Europe. In addition to recording his own music, MacLean released a highly acclaimed album in 1995, entitled Tribute, with compositions by Scottish bards Robert Burns, Robert Tannahill and Neil Gow.

Many people on this side of the pond learned about Dougie MacLean when his music appeared on the 1992 soundtrack of The Last of the Mohicans -- amazingly, it sold more than a half-million copies. His fame grew further still when Putumayo, a popular "world music" label, included some of MacLean's "greatest hits" on an anthology disc. And he has become a familiar voice to listeners of Fiona Ritchie's "The Thistle and Shamrock" Celtic music show on National Public Radio. Country music star Kathy Mattea and Irish diva Mary Black have both recorded popular covers of Dougie MacLean songs.

The man has enjoyed a dream career if ever there was one, and it's far from over. MacLean continues to release an album a year on average, and is in demand at festivals in Europe as well as in venues throughout the U.S. His major musical asset is a pleasant, immediately recognizable sound. MacLean is a fine fiddler and mandolin player -- continuing the tradition of his parents, who also played these instruments -- but his voice is most often accompanied, live or in the studio, by his acoustic guitar.

MacLean sings and plays his own pretty compositions as if each song were a lullaby for a loved one, or for his own pleasure, as if he doesn't have a care in the world. His vocals are silky and crystal-clear, his guitar work unhurried and graceful. His is not music for the cynical. If you dislike the texture and sentiment of, say, James Taylor's Sweet Baby James or Cindy Kallet's Working on Wings to Fly, MacLean's sound may not be for you. He has a deep sentimental streak, which seems indigenous in Scotsmen who write folk songs -- or folk ballads, or something more acoustic-music specific than just "songs." But to his fans, that sweetness is one of the reasons so much of his work is memorable. His recordings could also function as master classes in how to accompany a voice with acoustic guitar.

Dunkeld's newest release is 2003's Early, featuring re-recordings of many of MacLean's earliest compositions. The 10 selections have all the major symptoms of "the sound," including unadorned steel-string guitar work and cozy chord changes. The tunes recall some of Paul Simon's gentler songwriting from the "Sounds of Silence" period. Many of the songs on Early were written more than 25 years ago, and a close listen will reveal that MacLean's writing has stayed close to this path for his entire career.

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About The Author

Ethan Covey

Ethan Covey

Ethan Covey was the Seven Days music editor from 2001 until 2004. He won the 2004 John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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