Do not listen to this. Do not read the works of critically-acclaimed author Scott McClanahan. Do not hum along to the refrains of New Cumberland, West Virginia native Daniel Johnston. For this interview is possessed by devils and demons and myths of all sizes.
You have been warned…
And today’s interview is with a critically-acclaimed author from Beckley and his unique take on a cult favorite musician from New Cumberland. This… is Scott McClanahan.
On his West Virginia culture growing up:
I think I experienced it, but it was culture that’s different than what people think of as culture. We have an idea of culture in this state like dulcimers and banjos or progressive ideas about music, and I think the culture I grew up with was gas stations or [the band] Alabama. So, that was like my culture. We saw the Statler Brothers at the state fair five times. What’s wonderful about this place is people play music in the evenings or tell stories in the evenings to keep it alive as opposed to doing it for some profession or to record an album, which always sort of taints it in some way. I had no access to culture, in some ways.
We have the greatest myth in John Henry, and we have the best ghost story in the Greenbrier Ghost. There was a musician my dad always listened to called Mel Street who was from Bluefield, he did some independent releases or maybe stuff for MCA, but he committed suicide. Little Jimmy Dickens, there’s a certain West Virginia connection there. I never looked at it as geographical in that way; my father’s music was classic country, and that was amazing and maybe speaks for the place even though the individuals aren’t from there.
On why he has stayed in West Virginia:
It would be ridiculous if William Faulkner moved to Minnesota. That’d be kind of silly. Not that I would never want to live in Minnesota, “Land of a Thousand Lakes.” I have an Uncle Doug in Minnesota.
But I’m kind of a regional person. I lived in Huntington for a time. I lived in Morgantown for a time, and that doesn’t seem like West Virginia to me. Huntington feels like parts-Kentucky, Ohio and urban West Virginia, and Morgantown is just a college town.
I love cities. I love New York. I love L.A. But I just luckily wound up with a job that lets me stay here. I probably could’ve been like every other person my age that’s taken off, but it’s always been important for me to stay. I’m still close to my parents. I’m sure I’ll have to leave eventually, but there’s a great Terry Bradshaw story where he got drafted to the Steelers and his agent said, “But it’s in Pittsburgh,” and he said, “Where ever I’m at, it’s going to be amazing.” So I’ve sort of had that idea about any place that I’ve lived in.
On the mythology of Daniel Johnston:
He’s this Church of Christ kid, raised in West Virginia and he’s really into the Beatles, which is important. He moved to Texas to live with his brother and started doing these home recordings by himself, which doesn’t seem weird today since it’s the sound of bedroom pop Pitchfork-y type stuff. The stuff he’s doing is even more interesting than the DIY punk stuff of the same era. And he’s playing a chord organ which is that bad musical instrument in every 8th grade music class, and he’s writing these songs.
If we were looking at it from a different angle, you know the mental health issue is brought up which adds a certain element to the music. There’s this insane sort of story where he’s flying home from SXSW, and his father is a pilot and he was having this episode and he crashed his father’s plane. So there’s story after story after story with Johnston like that.
This would’ve been like ’99 probably, someone burned me a bunch of Daniel Johnston songs from Napster, the songs that mean something to me. The traditional greatest hits are not nearly as amazing as the tracks that are hidden, and people don’t know as well or there’s not that kind of childlike sort of wonder gimmick that he has that runs through those early recordings. I’m a music head, and I owned a couple of those tapes on CD.
Music featured in this #WVmusic chat:
- Daniel Johnston- “Love will Find You in the End”
- Daniel Johnston- “Honey, I Sure Miss You”
- Daniel Johnston- “The Story of an Artist”
Joni Deutsch (@achangeoftune) is host of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s A Change of Tune and assistant producer/guest host of NPR’s Mountain Stage. You can listen to her 30 Days of #WVmusic series.
Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Made in WV, a specialty apparel company made by and for proud West Virginians. Online at madeinwv.com.
Support for 30 Days of #WVmusic is provided by Kin Ship Goods, proud supporter of DIY music and the arts. Locally shipped worldwide at kinshipgoods.com.
Artwork from ‘The Incantations of Daniel Johnston’ by Ricardo Cavolo.