By Raymond Simon
Photo by Olivia Vaughn
Michael McShane won’t stand for any of that live-fast-die-young rock-‘n’-roll malarkey.
“The longer I live, the happier I am,” McShane declares by phone to discuss his ongoing musical project, Cowmuddy, a Philadelphia-grown blend of Americana and classic rock leavened with humor and DIY sensibility.
Approaching 40, McShane has found a happy balance between his creative endeavors and his workaday life. The amiable singer-songwriter’s conversation reveals firm roots, whether he’s talking about his music, family and friends, or his community.
McShane he grew up in a large, Irish-Catholic family out in Wayne, not far from Philadelphia. His mom played piano around the house, and he absorbed scads of music from his siblings and their partners.
“My brother-in-law, Blake Allen, was a big influence,” McShane says. “He taught me chords and loaned me Neil Young and CSNY records. But I also had older brothers and sisters and everyone had a slightly different taste. I got to hear music being blasted at high decibels all the time, everything from Genesis and Pink Floyd to Dan Fogelberg and Jonathan Edwards.”
Music wasn’t something the siblings only enjoyed around the house: beginning in the late 80s, they formed a family band. “When I was in, maybe, mid-high school, my sisters, Mollie and Kerry, and my brother-in-law, Blake, formed a band and drafted me and my younger brother, Brian, to play with them,” he recalls.
At first that band, known as the McShanes, gigged in the area, but it soon morphed into a more serious proposition known as Aunt Pat, which toured extensively, released three albums, and worked with some serious collaborators, including The Band’s Levon Helm.
McShane handled lead guitar for the rootsy outfit. A thoughtful review of the band’s 1999 record, Patoo, notes that the guitarist, “who cites both Led Zeppelin and Radiohead as influences, tastefully incorporates distorted electric guitars within Aunt Pat’s vocal harmonies and sharpens the edges of their folk-rock sound.”
As Aunt Pat wound down in the early 2000s, McShane’s brother, Danny, who’d been acting as the band’s manager, took over The Fire, located at 412 West Girard Avenue, and the guitarist began pursuing his own muse.
It was one of the regulars, a carpenter from Ireland, who supplied McShane with the name for his new musical endeavor. The carpenter recounted how there were two cows on the family farm. According to McShane, “One cow used to bite the other’s tail, so the other cow just lazed about in the mud to avoid getting bit.” The children began calling it Cowmuddy. “When you hear a name like that, you’ve just got to use it,” he jokes.
McShane wasted no time, recording Cowmuddy’s debut in 2001 and following that up with 2004’s Six for the Road. But it’s his third CD, Farming Mind, released on I.O.U. Records, where the singer-songwriter really hits his stride.
Farming Mind was inspired by McShane’s stint working at Maysie’s Farm in Chester County, PA. He spent roughly one year at the organic farm, from the fall of 2004 through the fall of 2005, and describes it as a life-changing experience.
The fruits of his labors can be found throughout the record, which combines grit, humor, and heartfelt lyricism. On the opening track, “My Daddy Died,” McShane and a crack band keep on chooglin’ over an easy, loping beat, while he sings: “My daddy died on that tractor, / Doin’ what he loved to do. / My daddy died on that tractor, / Tellin’ dirty jokes and spittin’ his chew.” The song has an easy, unforced feeling, as if channeling John Fogerty.
McShane cultivates a plot of land in the community garden managed by the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. He’s even picked up a sideline business helping beginning gardeners.
He’s also raising a crop of pumpkins especially for The Fire’s upcoming Rolling Pumpkin Music Fest, a Halloween tradition.
“I grow my own pumpkins as a way to highlight that show,” McShane tells me. It’s a personal kind of bring-in-the-harvest celebration intended to liven up the urban environment for locals.
“Candles will be provided,” he assures me.