David Mallett: Finding the Right Words

by Jim Newsom

When I called David Mallett at his home in Sebec, Maine, the last week of March, it was 75 degrees here in Norfolk. He was in the middle of a snowstorm with the temperature in the 20s.

“I remember when I was a kid,” he said. “Easter was in April, and we went to church in town and couldn’t get back because it was such a blizzard. Once in a while you get a real dumping, even in April. “I have an expression that’s a favorite up here: the weather’s real fine…in the fall.”

Nonetheless, Mallett, who comes to town on April 29th for a Tidewater Friends of Acoustic Music concert in the WHRO Teleconference Center, has chosen to stay in his hometown for most of his life. In fact, he lives in the house he grew up in: “It’s kind of Irish in a way. It’s a blessing and a curse: A lot of my father’s unfinished projects looking at me. My parents had a lot of land. I’m keeping it because I think land is important. I’ve got a lot of woodland, a lot of trees, a lot of fields. So most of my day is spent taking care of this stuff, and moving ahead to my next gig and perhaps my next album.

“I still have buddies around that I went to high school or grammar school with. People leave and then they come back for some reason. We went to Nashville for ten years. But I found out I’m not a city boy. I appreciate everything it has to offer, but I need a lot more space around me to feel comfortable.”

Dave, who celebrates his 66th birthday the week before his Norfolk gig, has been making music professionally since he was eleven years old when he played with his brother Neil as The Mallett Brothers. His sons Will and Luke carry on the family business these days fronting their own Mallett Brothers Band, one of the best of the younger generation of Americana artists.

Besides his own distinctive recordings, his songs have been recorded by hundreds of artists. His best known, “The Garden Song,” (“Inch by Inch, row by row…”) has been covered by over 150 performers.

“The songwriting was good for a while,” he said. “When John Denver was selling stuff, he was the only guy who really made any substantial money for me. That was when I was young, I had kids and all that. But since that whole thing blew over, I make my own records, I make most of my living doing shows. And I enjoy it. I look at myself as kind of a journeyman: I take my box of tools, I go out into the world. Not unlike what Thoreau did in a limited way. He did a lot of lectures around and he didn’t want anybody to attend. I do! He had no bills!”

Though he is best known for the songs he’s written, he released a superb collection of old favorites in 2015: “I did a record of covers called The Horse I Rode In On. My wife has family gatherings once in a while and we’ll pull out some old tunes. I thought these are the songs that everyone knows and I can sing in my sleep. I had such a good time recording.

“You know, musicians—half their brain is full of songs. Who knows what the other half is full of? But I could do these records every week. Those were the really early ones. ‘Long Black Veil,’ ‘Saginaw Michigan,’ ‘For the Good Times,’ ‘Old Swimming Hole’…those were songs that my brother and I sang when we were kids. We were a duo, had our own TV show in the ‘60s, toured around, opened for big acts. So I was paying homage to my childhood as a singer and also to the songwriters who wrote those songs.” His most recent album, Celebration, ranks with his finest work.

“It had been four or five years since I had written anything,” he explained, “and you know you get real edgy. I had a few pieces of songs in my head, but the song ‘Celebration’ came together when my boys were home, my daughter was home and we were all out on the lawn. There was stuff going on, the dogs were barking, and I just said ‘this could be a celebration.’ It was during the Sanders thing. When we thought Bernie Sanders was gonna be elected, I kinda got pumped up for justice. I wrote that song as a battle cry for him and us. The boys helped me write it and it turned out pretty well.

“We were sitting around one day when Will was home. He was plunking on the piano and he had this cool little noodle going on over and over. I sat down with the guitar and came up with the line, ‘Remember that magician when you were just a kid.’ And it just kind of rolled off. It was like I was talking with him. ‘You sat in wild eyed wonder at everything he did; then he pulled that rabbit right out of that hat. This is better than that.’ It’s one of the happiest songs I’ve ever written.

“The joy and the payoff and the challenge is finding the right words that go together comfortably. There are a hundred different ways to say a phrase and to word an idea. It’s finding those ten words in a line that fit together. And when you get them, it’s like polishing a rock and suddenly it unveils itself to you. There’s nothing like it. It’s like suddenly you discovered something in the mud.”


Album Reviews: Celebration

Now in his fourth decade as a touring musician David Mallett is a throwback in all the right ways, a wandering troubadour who’d be equally at home playing The Ryman Theater as he would your back porch. His strength is his story songs, sweet homilies tinged with a bit of regret and unrequited love, best exemplified in “Ring For You” and the lovely “Girl With The Golden Hair.” Like most great folk musicians Mallett gives even the most lighthearted tune a sense of urgency while balancing the heartache of “Last Farmer’s Ball” with a dollop of whimsy. His sonorous tone — think Gordon Lightfoot — ideally matches the material, making this album, as well as Mallett’s lengthy career, indeed worthy of Celebration. ****
- James Cassara, Rapid River Magazine

Maine-based David Mallett has seen his lilting folk songs interpreted by such well-known artists as Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Pete Seeger, and Alison Krauss, but you’re missing half the fun if all you’ve heard from him are the covers. His vocals are a treat—deep and evocative, with just enough gravel to suggest world-weariness and to remind me of the late, great John Stewart. Mallett hits all the right notes on this 17th album, which addresses topics ranging from the state of the American dream (the title cut and “Two Sides to Every Story”) to romantic love (“Ring for You”). Backup vocalists include the singer’s sons and daughter, as well as Noel Paul Stookey (the “Paul” in Peter, Paul & Mary), who produced Mallett’s first LP.
- Jeff Burger, The Morton Report

Album Reviews: Greenin’ Up

David Mallett’s been an indomitable presence on the folk scene for several years now, and while he’s occasionally strayed into more Americana realms, he never sounded more at home than he does on Greenin’ Up, a genuine tribute to his rural routes. While most of the songs suggest he’s celebrating life in the great American heartland, it’s more than a primer about the family farm, although the proceeds are intended for the Maine Farmland Trust. Several songs rank among the best he’s ever offered, among them “Fat of the Land,” “Aurora Borealis” and the sweetly sentimental “Summer of My Dreams.” Likewise, most of the material — “I Knew This Place,” “Garden Place” and “Dog & Horses” being prime examples — sound like they’re plucked from a traditional template. Happily then, Mallett’s undeniable charm makes it all sound fresh and vibrant. As befitting the cause, he gives ample support from his family members, including Will Mallett on banjo and guitar and Luke and Molly Mallett singing some lovely, lilting backing vocals. Greenin’ Up couldn’t be a more appropriate title, given that this is the sunniest collection to come along in quite awhile.
- NoDepression

Album Reviews: Alright Now Album Review
Maine-based David Mallett is one of the most underrated folkies of our time. He’s best known for his ecological “Garden Song,” recorded by Pete Seeger, John Denver, and Arlo Guthrie. But Mallett has made a slew of great albums, from early discs produced by Peter, Paul & Mary’s Noel Paul Stookey to this latest, a masterpiece worthy of the sly old fox that he is. Mallett’s voice, which echoes the troubadour side of Gordon Lightfoot and the utter honesty of Guy Clark, is most adept at addressing the passage of time. “As you grow old/ Just stay in a place in your mind like a tune from an innocent time,” he sings on one jangly, Byrds-inspired tune. The band arrangements have an easy lope to them, but also a twangy guitar bite, as in the gutbucket folk-blues sound of “Ten Men.” He gets topical on the “End of the Day” (questioning the “information-cluttered” digital world) and in the thought-provoking “North Meets South,” about the hope stemming from Barack Obama’s inauguration. Mallet, 58, is a keen, sharp-eyed observer, whether he’s addressing the pitfalls of life (“Dark Side of the Moon”) or the joy of a newborn child on “Beautiful.” This is an exquisite, ennobling record, made by a terrific craftsman.
- Steve Morse

David’s definitively smooth voice consistently carries with it through numerous tales from song to song throughout the album – it’s smooth clear concise and of course very well written. But moreover, it’s really real music in it’s truest form…the truest form ever imaginable…

…For over four decades, this Americana Musician has produced a dozen albums and with each release tending to over shadow the previous. This tune master seems to literally thrive within the mist of music, melody, and song. David Mallett has once again taken his craft to a higher level and this time, has included almost an intimate look into his very being with his Alright Now album.

David Mallett’s New Album is a Tour de Force of Songwriting and Emotions: Alright Now
It is always a major event when David Mallett releases a new album … and such is the case with his latest: “Alright Now” (North Road Records, 2009) which is his 14th in a career that spans four decades; it is, also, his first album of original material in over 6 years and the ten tracks are among the best he’s ever penned!

“Maine folk singer David Mallett makes good music sound easy. He entered the recording studio with a guitar and a batch of songs, and he came out with one of the year’s best records. Like Mallett’s native state, ‘Artist in Me’ is free of frills. He simply sings about angels and backaches, falling stars and fear, dancing and death and other things that comfort and confound us. The arrangements are understated but catchy, with hooks provided by a bass line here and a harmonica riff there. At the center is Mallett’s tenor,, warm and friendly and deserving of our attention.”
- Steve Wine, Associated Press

Album Reviews: Artist in Me

The acclaimed bard of rural Maine and composer of the modern folk standard “The Garden Song,” David Mallett delivers another set of reflective ballads and easyrocking Americana. Set mostly to sparse, guitar-anchored acoustic string-band accompaniment that vividly evokes his small-town New England milieu, Mallet’s quietly authoritative vocals and astute observations about life’s unexpected twists and gnawing inevitabilities convey a world of universal truths. The title song, “Didn’t Nobody Teach You,” “Strange Life,” “The Wind Is on the Water,” and “Livin’ on the Edge” pack the plainspoken poetic power of this consistently on-the-money songwriter’s best work.
- Mike Thomas, Acoustic Guitar Magazine

He harks back to the earnest ambitions and heartfelt melodies of Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash, singing with the conviction that folk can still be heroic. David Mallet has a lustrous, melancholy voice that both engages and lulls the listener, never stretching too high or too low but always staying comfortable and believable.
- The New York Times

Mallett has made his career as the consummate fo d artist. He’s from the Northeast, he plays a guitar, he makes he circuit of folk festivals, his songs get covered here and there, and success and the lack have not caused him to stray from the path. The thing that really sets him apart from the pack is that he always delivers the goods. No one album is quite the same. Except that they are all good. This latest finds him kicking back and keeping the sound stripped down to the point where the songs really do speak for themselves. This intimate approach is perfect for his warm voice and subtle melodies. A great album for these cold evenings.
- Village Records

Various Reviews

Folksinger Mallett A Hit At First Church

Unlike many of his peers, Mallett avoids the cliche in both his lyrics and his music. With a subtle wit, a passion for the ordinary, and a knack for the poignant phrase, the Maine native is a weaver of songs which tap the heart of small-town life and stir a universal chord within his audience.
In a performance at First Congregational Church in New Britain Saturday night, Mallett was in complete control of both his material and his audience. Traditional crowd-pleasers such as “This Little Town” and “Moon Upon the Left,” had the audience of about 200 stomping their feet and singing along.
- Glenn Smith, The Herald New Britain, CT

Mallett, Raneri display craft at Egg
ALBANY – Singer-songwriters David Mallett and Rosanne Raneri both have gifts greater than their fame. Reclusive veteran Mallett is better known as writer than singer since many country stars sing his songs, and his visit to the Egg Saturday was only his second Albany gig in a 30-year career.

Dave Mallett was first on stage at 8:45 pm and was making his debut performance here. It was also his first visit to London and indeed this country and he said he had never seen a place so big; in his own words “its a hell of a friggin’ big town”. The man himself may not be that well known over here but his music most certainly is having been recorded by some of the best in the business, songs like “Summer Of My Dreams” by Kathy Mattea and “Old Soldiers” and “Daddy’s Oldsmobile” both recorded by Hal Ketchum, the latter song also being co-written by him.

A creative writer, Dave has the ability to capture life in his songs and as a singer he has that ability to add those same feelings to his voice. His was a powerful and meaningful performance that left us yelling for more and more but with another artist to follow this was not to be and we had to be content. Lets hope we shall see a lot more of him in the future, he is certainly worth listening to.
- Country Music News & Routes, London

Writing Home
From the time he was 11 and appeared on Bangor’s fledgling Channel 7 with his older brother, singer/songwriter David Mallett knew he was “destined to be a professional musician.” Over the last 40-odd years, that’s exactly what he’s been. Mallett has performed in every major venue in the state and almost every minor one, as well as toured the country, north to south and east to west, every single year – building a loyal fan base that rated his last album, Artist in Me, Folkwax’s Album of the Year, over Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash.

Billboard Country Album Reviews
Dave Mallett, For A Lifetime
In this gallery of his own songs, Mallet. melodically reflects on matters great (“My Old Man … .. Some Peace Will Come”) and small (“Night On The Town,” “Hometown Girls”). Pure folk poetry.

David Mallett…An Evening To Treasure
It takes total commitment to one’s artistry to travel the clubs and coffeehouses of America today, armed only with a guitar, harmonica and a memory bank full of great original songs. Thank goodness Mallett is a true believer.

With a guitar technique all the more impressive for’ its understatement, and a voice that’s both wonderfully rich and weather-worn, Mallett had an immediately engaging stage presence. His ability to chat and joke with his audience, added to one heart-stoppingly great song after another, put the crowd quickly into the palm of his hand.

David Mallett Keeps Songwriting Alive
Seeing David Mallett perform at the Rockport Opera House was to witness the vanishing art of songwriting, at work and going strong. In the two-hour performance, there wasn’t a weak tune in the bunch.

This live album finds David Mallett, the great Maine singer-songwriter revisiting 17 of his best songs drawn from across his 30-year recording career ranging from gems like “Ballad of St.Anne’s Reel” and “Dulcimer” to recent songs like “Artist In Me” and “Angel Standin’ By”. David is in fine form and receives excellent support from bassist Michael Burd and violinist Susan Ramsey Crippen. This album is a reminder of the superb body of work that David has produced over the past three decades and how vital a performer he remains.
- M.R., Sing Out Vol 50 #4 Winter 2007