Bluesman among us

Guitarist Forrest McDonald reminisces about the days of old

Friday, Mar 28, 2008 - 12:06 AM

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These days, Forrest McDonald is still a vital guitarist carrying on a career as a blues player and living a low-key life near Brandermill. Photo By: Joe Mahoney



New Richmonder relays his star gigs

Forrest McDonald is one of the least-known names attached to a well-known song.

The song that helped launch Tom Cruise's popularity.

The song frequently voted at the top of those "Greatest Jukebox Hits Ever!" lists.

The song that is Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll."

Incidentally, the karaoke/hoist-a-beer sing-along only hit No. 28 on the pop charts in 1979. But not only is it immortalized in pop culture,

it remains the quiet credit that speaks the loudest in the career of current Richmonder McDonald. In 1977, the then-20-something guitarist flew from his home in Los Angeles to Alabama to visit his father, Forrest, a professor at the University

of Alabama who is now regarded as a top constitutional scholar. During the visit, McDonald got an itch to visit the famed -- and recently shuttered -- Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Ala., which led to a fluke meeting with musician Jimmy Johnson of the equally legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

"Jimmy said, 'Do you have your guitar with you? Let's just cut this song.' So I tuned up my guitar and heard da-na-na-na-na-na-na-na [the opening piano notes of 'Old Time Rock & Roll']. I played my solo, Jimmy said it was pretty good and told me to leave my contact info in L.A.

"A few months later, I got a call that they were using my guitar on the song. It was strictly being in the right place at the right time," McDonald said.

These days, McDonald is still a vital guitarist carrying on a career as a blues player and living a low-key life near Brandermill with Kaylon, his wife of three years, and Hunter, his 16-year-old son. McDonald's other son, Forrest, 25, works in IT at Fort Lee, and was also the motivating factor for McDonald, 57, to move to Richmond from Atlanta two years ago.

"He was floundering around and needing some career help, so I said I've got to do my fatherly thing and get him straight," McDonald said of his namesake.

Though McDonald's contribution to the Seger song, which only scored him a session fee, is proudly displayed on his living room wall on a silver record commemorating sales of 5 million copies of Seger's "Stranger in This Town" album, it is hardly the only notable accomplishment of McDonald's career, which has produced nine albums on his own World Talent Records label.

There's also the gold record for the 2002 soundtrack to the Sean Penn movie, "I Am Sam," on which McDonald sang backup on several Beatles covers.

And, seemingly filling the soft-spoken, yet animated, guitarist with the most pride, there's the row of plaques and awards from Real Blues Magazine, which awarded his Forrest McDonald Band Best Southern Blues Band from 1999-2001 and McDonald the title of Best Modern Southern Blues Guitarist in 2002.

In 2006, his song, "Going Back to Memphis," co-produced by onetime roommate and'80s one-hit wonder Tony Carey ("Fine Fine Day") won the Just Plain Folks Blues Song of the Year.

And tonight McDonald will perform with Kaylon, who sings, and longtime friend and singer Raymond Victor, at the Music Hall at the downtown Capital Ale House.

The gig is also a celebration of Victor's 59th birthday, a date the musical friends usually commemorate at Buddy Guy's Legends club in Chicago.

"[Forrest] is my favorite guitar player in the whole world," Victor said. "His style. His persistence. His great ability. He's not just a guy who owns a bunch of guitars."

McDonald played his first live show in 1964 and five years later, while living in New England, found himself jamming with Jimmy Page backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island.

A few years later, he moved to Los Angeles and formed the band Slingshot, which would play every weekend on the Sunset Strip with a group of upstarts known as Van Halen.

"Eddie [Van Halen] and I would do a duel guitar jam on 'La Grange.' They would end with it, and Eddie would stay on stage and I'd come on and start playing it," McDonald said. "He was good. Very good. But he didn't have his style yet with all of the tapping."

McDonald also crossed paths with a pre-Journey Steve Perry, who sings on "It's Over," a track recorded in the'70s, but released on McDonald's 1995 album, "I Need You."

McDonald estimates that throughout his career, he's sold just under 200,000 copies of all of his releases -- his latest with Kaylon, "Nothing Wrong With Dreaming" is available on iTunes -- all independently released.

"I was always a guy who loved artistic freedom," McDonald said.

Despite his storied background, McDonald has lived anonymously in Richmond and is viewing tonight's show as "an introductory showcase to the area."

Maybe with a little prodding, the band will kick out some classic Seger for old times sake.

Contact Melissa Ruggieri at (804) 649-6120 or mruggieri@timesdispatch.com.