Joe McMahan’s an affable sort of guy, an easy conversationalist, the sort of guy who’s into all sorts of stuff: music, art, food, philosophy, you name it. The producer/guitarist/Luella and the Sun co-founder’s many divergent interests — and the friends such openness and eagerness engenders — no doubt helped him recover from a disastrous fire to his studio (and home) last June.
McMahan, who’s manned the dials for releases from the likes of Webb Wilder, Patrick Sweaney, Kevin Gordon and others, lost most of the control room of his studio, but the rest of his house — including his guitars, which were stored opposite the control room — sustained only moderate (i.e., fixable) damage. Then as now, he says, friends and music — and having a friendship with music — helped him through what could have been a much darker time.
Born in Hot Springs, Ark., McMahan traces his considerable love of music back to his childhood, when he remembers hearing artists like Al Green and Marvin Gaye being broadcast through Memphis’ many soul and R&B stations. The music, if you’ll forgive the analogy, sparked something within the young farm lad.
“I don’t know that there was a single ‘moment,’” he says. “But I can distinctly remember being a little kid, 3 or 4 years old, and being given a plastic guitar, and strumming the strings, and it was just mesmerizing. It wasn’t even in tune — it was just the strings resonating. It was hypnotic.”
McMahan says he moved often while growing up, which often meant having to make new friend. Soon, he says, music became his most trusted sidekick, following him wherever he’d end up, there whenever he needed someone to listen, to make sense of it all.
“I felt like a bit of an outsider throughout my childhood, and then when I discovered music it felt like, okay, this is where the outsiders go! I took guitar lessons from people and wasn’t even sure why — it just seemed like a fun little game to play. I had a guitar teacher — I went through about a half dozen, none of whom I connected with, I guess you could say — but then I got a guy named Ron Roskowske outside of St. Louis, and he had a Les Paul, like an early ’70s Deluxe. I didn’t know anything about brand names at the time, but you could just tell that was a real guitar. My first lesson, he asked me, ‘Do you know about Eric Clapton? The Allman Brothers? Jimi Hendrix? Jeff Beck?’ And I had to get him to hold on while I jotted them down, because I didn’t know any of those names. Not long after that, my mom took me to a record store, and I bought Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and dropped the needle on whatever shitty stereo it was that we had at the time, and the music just entered my spine, you know?” At this point, McMahan contracted his first case of G.A.S. — online shorthand for the deadly affliction known as “Guitar Acquisition Syndrome.”
“Not long after this, I ordered a guitar that had a bunch of effects built in from the Sears catalog for $129, and an amplifier,” he says. “On the day it arrived, we had to drive 30 minutes to the Sears store to pick it up. And they bring out this box, and put it on the counter, and I’m shaking because I’m so nervous, and they open the box, and it’s broken! They had to send it back and order another one. And for a kid that age, two weeks is like two years.
“It was the same way with getting a record. The nearest store was about 30 minutes from where I lived, so I would go in there with a list — whenever I could get a ride — and maybe if you were lucky they’d have one of the four or five you wanted. Until then, you just had to imagine what it must be like, what it sounded like. The world is just so much different now. I think the energy you had to put into it then, and the imagination, helped you value it more as such.”
With his producing — as with his guitar playing — McMahan says he still aims to “score the song”: to remain unobtrusive but supportive, lending a hand when needed, but also being self-aware and confident enough to know when to leave well enough alone.