McDougall Describes His ‘Punkgrass’ Sound, Explains Transition from Punk to Americana
I met Scott McDougall, unsung hero of independent bluegrass, last month, when a friend of mine, Alex Steininger, came to NYC from Portland on business. I know Alex through In Music We Trust, the label and PR company he's manned for the last 16 years, and he accompanied McDougall for a showcase at Pianos in the Lower East Side, where the two hoped EKG Booking might enjoy themselves enough to add McDougall to their roster.
The trek from the opposite end of the country proved fruitful. McDougall left the venue with a booking agent, and it's no wonder why. His impassioned solo performance came complete with string-stretching banjo solos and gravelly vocal -- all to the delight of knee-slapping, heel-stomping admirers. McDougall is now back in his home turf, the Pacific Northwest, and we got him on the phone to chat about the origins of his "punkgrass" sound, as well as to find out what happens next.
How’s it going?
It’s going well. It’s good to be back home.
Have you been playing shows since the NYC trip?
Tonight’s the first show since I’ve been back. Heading out there right now. Got a show with some good friends Larry & His Flask out in White Salmon, Wash., about an hour away from Portland by the Columbia River Gorge.
So, you just got yourself a booking agent, which is a big development in a lot of artists' careers. Have you corresponded and made a plan yet?
You know, I haven’t talked with him yet, ‘cause I know Alex, my manager, was going to talk to him this week and work out the finer details. I’m kind of waiting for them to do that, but I know he submitted us for a tour … opening for Laura Stevenson, I believe. That would be rad; it seems like he’s already trying to line some stuff up, so that’s awesome.
There’s not a lot of info about you on the Internet. For the benefit of Diffuser.fm readers, can you give us some background? You came from punk bands, right? How did you transition into this?
Well the main band I was in was called the Sentimentals. We played all around down in Southern California for about six years. Then we all kind of started listening to ... well, my dad liked Johnny Cash, so I kind of got into that a little bit. And then from there, I kinda got into some bluegrass. And then like I was telling you [in New York], I started seeing similarities in the genres, and I started playing acoustic a little bit more. I also got really into Celtic music and whatnot. So, that was also a part of the transition, because it has that same sing-along, anthem kind of element that punk did, just with a little bit different instrumentation.
I was in all kinds of little bands here and there, but the Sentimentals was the main one. And then I formed a band called the Barren Foothill Breakdown, and that was a band I was in for a number of years as well. That’s when I started booking [bluegrass] shows. It was all bluegrass instrumentation, but it was basically punk rock. It had a kind of "punkgrass" vibe, I guess you could call it.
Did you also sing in that band?
I did, yep.
And how did you feel lyrical motifs differ between the two genres? Americana and punk rock are thematically very different.
You know, I don’t think I really changed much of what I was writing about. To the degree that the things I was doing were different. When I was in a punk band, it was all about hanging out with everybody and going to shows, friendship and that kind of stuff. Later on, I matured from that, but I don’t think it was necessarily because the music changed.
That seems a lot more natural anyway.
Yeah, but as far as how I write, I think it remains pretty consistent. I’m getting better at it, though!
What are some other things you’re hoping to do as McDougall, in this project?
Well, I don’t know…. just continue to tour, and put out more albums. Right now, what I’ve been doing is this one-man-band thing, but I’m trying to explore what kind of dynamics can be brought out that way. I’d like to take it as far as I can. But yeah, this solo thing is the mainstay for me. In the future, at some point, when I can afford it, it would be fun to do a collaboration album and tour with a full band or something like that. That would be a lot of fun. Other than that, I’m just continuing to write. I’m trying to put out about an album a year. I’m also trying to expand where I go. I’ve always done the Western states, as far as Colorado or Texas, occasionally. I have this big circle that I usually do, but now, with Marc [the booking agent] on board, we’ll be able to get out to the East Coast and Midwest, I’m hoping.
And now that you have a new touring network opened up to you, do you think you’ll try and find a label that can offer more budget and support? Or do you want to continue self-releasing?
Yes, Alex has been talking to some labels. I think there’s one up in Seattle that might be interested. I’d like to, just because I’m all for not having to put up all that money up front. But I’m also pretty wary; I don’t want to owe someone a lot of money either, you know what I mean? But it would be nice to get somebody on board and have a label to help push the stuff, for sure. I’ve always done it myself because it’s easy enough to do, and I’ve always just done it that way. Which has allowed me to not worry about needing to get on a label, but it would be nice.
Can we expect you at SXSW this year?
Yes! We will be there. No official showcases, but plenty of other showcases. I think we’re on three or four things. We’re also working on getting on the Portland Party as well. One cool thing I’m doing is playing this Hillgrass Bluebilly [Records] party thing they’re doing. That’s going to be pretty sweet, a lot of great bands on that as well. I leave next Thursday to tour down there. Gonna be fun.