Though Anne McCue is certainly an outstanding guitarist and expressive, engaging vocalist, not many people would associate her with pre-World War II jazz or blues. Yet that’s exactly the idiomatic territory she explores with flair on her sixth release, Blue Sky Thinkin’.
It was mostly recorded in Los Angeles and given a sonic boost via Ray Kennedy’s expert mastering in Nashville. But it is also quite different from the album McCue initially planned that would reunite her with past musical comrades from the critically acclaimed LP Roll.
“Strangely enough, the reason I asked Dusty (Wakeman), Carl (Byron) and Dave (Raven) to record the album with me was because I thought I was going to make a swampy blues rock record, and they would be perfect for that,” McCue says during a recent interview.
“Somehow, the record ended up being a swing, gypsy jazz, country blues album, totally different to the original plan,” she continues. “But I think that’s why it worked so well. Dave and Dusty are not jazz musicians, and the jazz before World War II was actually rock music. It was party music — people danced to it. So I had the right rhythm section as it turned out! We have played live together off and on for 14 years — they are like musical brothers to me. We hadn’t recorded together since 2008, so it was time!”
Ably coproduced by Wakeman (lauded for past efforts with Lucinda Williams and Dwight Yoakam), Blue Sky Thinkin’ reflects the complete spectrum of influences and genres McCue enjoys. “Long Tall Sky” is a slide showcase, while “Dig Two Graves,” cowritten with Bob Saporiti, aka Reckless Johnny Wales, and Brent Moyer, features Raven’s percussive nod to Gene Krupa (complete with tom-toms), plus spicy clarinet from Jim Hoke (who also wrote the horn chart), taut fiddle from Deanie Richardson, and excellent guitar from McCue. Dave Alvin adds demonstrative swing-era vocals to “Devil in the Middle.”
Though born in Sydney, Australia, McCue got an early and complete immersion into American music from multiple eras. “The guitar was my cure for suburban ennui, teenage angst, loneliness, and, yes, despair,” she explains. “I learned guitar chords from the great American songbook — Gershwin, Bacharach, Carmichael. I started on the ‘expensive’ chords — major sevenths, diminished, augmented. That’s probably why I don’t write your common 1-4-5 type songs. When my brother started playing electric guitar, I was really hooked. But I was still too shy to sing or play in public. I finally had to leave Sydney and join a band in Melbourne, so I didn’t know anyone in the audience.”
“When I joined a band with Sherry Rich, I was introduced to the more disciplined side of songwriting,” McCue continues. “Structure and hooks. She was more Beatlesy in her approach. I liked that, too. I love to improvise on guitar, as well as write structured songs. I didn’t really sing till I was in my 20s. Someone had to sing the songs I was writing! I found that a lot harder than playing the guitar. It can be a lot more personal and scary.”
Ry Cooder is another artist who has had a profound impact on McCue’s artistic evolution leading up to Blue Sky Thinkin’. “Think of Ry Cooder’s guitar shifts,” she says. “The instrument is taking him on a journey. It’s the same with me. My favorite guitarists are Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young, Segovia, Pacos Pena and Delucia, Chet Atkins — who also played many different styles. I just don’t know how people can write using the same chords and rhythms all the time — it’s beyond me. I suppose I get bored. The new album also makes the show fun, too, as there is an element of cabaret to it. I like that!”
Besides songwriting and vocals, McCue’s lately gotten into another musical arena. “I have been producing other artists — Emma Swift, Scott Miller, Ellen Starski — and I’d like do more of that,” she says.
McCue has found a home in Nashville’s bustling, competitive music scene. “I love it here,” she concludes. “The level of musicianship in this town is incredible. People come to live here from all over the world because they are serious about their craft. That is inspiring! Either practice, get better, or quit.”