When your mother is movie star Jill Ireland, your father is David McCallum of The man from U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS fame, and your stepfather from the age of 3 is Hollywood legend Charles Bronson, one might think a career in front of the camera or treading the boards might beckon. Not so for Val McCallum - the long-time sideman for Jackson Browne and in-demand guitarist whose CV reads like a who’s who of top musicians.
Randy Newman, Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams, and Sheryl Crow are just a few of the names that have sought Val McCallum’s fluid mellifluous guitar lines. Folk and Tumble caught up with him in California to talk growing up in Thespian royalty, dancing in Ally McBeal’s unisex toilet, co-writing with Jackson Browne, playing with the greats, and his superb new album ‘Beau Bow De Lune’.
FT: So, coming from a family of acting greats, was it not pre-ordained for you to follow in their footsteps?
VMC: Well, my mum wanted me to. She sent me to an acting coach but she didn’t like the way I said my S’s (Laughs). So I was happy with that. I never really wanted to go down that route.
FT: How did you get into music in the first place?
VMC: Well, my stepdad (Charles Bronson) bought my brothers and me a guitar each. I think I was about 7. We all came down on Christmas morning and there were 4 guitar cases under the tree and it just went from there. One of my brothers, Paul, he’s a really good player, he kept playing as well.
FT: Your first paying session gig came from door-stepping an audition with Harry Nilson? Can you tell us a bit about that?
VMC: I used to be friendly with the son of Harry Nilson’s lawyer. We played tennis together at his house and just hung out together. Harry came over and my friend’s mother, Ronnie, said to Harry: “You have to hear Val play guitar. He’s really great”. So Harry says: “Don’t make me do that to the kid!” At which point I bolted for the guitar, and ran back, and showed him what I could do, and Harry said: “What are doing on Wednesday?”
He was recording a track for a Yoko Ono tribute album, and I recorded a solo within 20 minutes of arriving. I remember the producer was not too happy with Harry for bringing this kid along and cancelling a top session player, and he, I think, he might have been on something that day but he got right in my face and almost shouting kept asking: “What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?”
I remember just saying: “Well, put it in a record, give me a shot.” I’d heard the track and just knew it needed a bluesy Stevie Ray Vaughan vibe. It was right up my alley, and I nailed it on the first pass. I remember Harry giving me the thumbs up, and just so proud.
FT: That’s quite a start to a recording career!
VMC: Yeah it was quite incredible. I joke, everything went downhill after that.
FT: You’ve played with a veritable who’s who of music stars. Chosen with impeccable taste.
VMC: Well a lot of it is and I’ve been incredibly lucky. One of my first gigs was playing with Ivan Neville, of the Neville Brothers, and Bonnie Raitt was friendly with them. Vonda Shepard was a backing singer with Jackson for a time, and I played in her band for some time, so I’ve been fortunate.
FT: Do you remember playing on Irish songwriter Nicole Murphy’s album?
VMC: I do, yes. Nicole was a really sweet person, had some really strong songs too!
FT: You played with Vonda Shepard on the Ally McBeal show, including dancing in the unisex toilet for a video. Was that gig the real gateway to the big leagues so to speak?
VMC: (Laughs) Well that was a lot of fun, a really great gig. Vonda was very kind to all the band. She insisted the band sing backing vocals, so we got paid for that too. A lot of time hanging around in the trailer waiting to be called, sometimes all day, so we would just chill playing Townes songs and the like.
FT: And out of Vonda’s band arose Jackshit?
VMC: We all really enjoyed playing together so much we developed this alternate band with a factious background and alter-egos. So, you have Pete Thomas who was the long-time drummer with Elvis Costello and The Attractions is Pete Shit. Davy Faragher who is just an amazing musician is Shorty Shit. And I’m Beau Shit. We’ve been playing for quite a while, and developed a bit of a cult following. We can just cut back and play what we enjoy, and it’s great fun.
FT: You’ve had some heavy hitters playing with the band too.
VMC: We been fortunate to have Jackson, who was “Brown Shit”, Albert Lee was pretty amazing, Richard Thompson. We had trouble thinking of a name for Richard, and then we tied in his being English and came up with “Richard the Turd”.
FT: How did the names go down?
VMC: They’re all taken in good fun. Jackson wasn’t best pleased with his name while I was called ‘Beau’, but his was a sorta given! (Laughs)
FT: Turning to your solo work. Having played with all these incredible artists, it took you until 2012 to record under your own name. Why so long?
VMC: I’ve been writing songs for a long time but I’ve never been that confident by myself. I work alongside other lyricists in particular, but many of the songs were very personal. I wasn’t sure if anyone wanted to hear them. I also find them incredibly difficult to play live without breaking up.
FT: I can hear that in songs like ‘At The End Of The Day’, ‘Brothers’, ‘Deal With It’. They’re all incredibly moving. Yet, listening to a song like ‘Rarebird’ which was written about your mother’s passing, hit a resonance with me, as my mother passed away a year ago.
VMC: Well thank you for that. I’m lucky to have worked with some brilliant lyricists. Bow Thayer wrote the lyrics on the latest album. My mom helped write ‘Deal With It’ about coming to terms with my brother’s death, in the short time before she passed, and she was so pleased to have helped write that song.
FT: The new album, ‘Beau Bow de Lune’ is a very fresh sounding record too. Songs like ‘Simple Isn’t Easy’ and ‘Brushstrokes’ sound quite timeless. Can you explain the title of the album?
VMC: Well thank you again. Bow Thayer is just an extraordinary lyricist from Vermont. I play most of the instruments on the album, with Greg Wells sending his parts down the line. Not the ideal way of recording but given the physical distance between us and the constraints of the pandemic, really the only way to do so. But I think it worked out really well. The title of the album is my name in ‘Jackshit’, Beau, my writing partner is ‘Bow’ Thayer and Greg, got labelled with De Lune, hence Beau Bow De Lune!
FT: You’ve been playing with Jackson Browne for almost 20 years and he has a new album coming out in July. You have a co-write on ‘My Cleveland Heart’ and a starring role in the video.
VMC: I’m not the pushiest person you’ll ever meet in terms of asking for things. But I have been leaving bits of music and songs for Jackson, under his car wipers and places for quite a while. One day he said: “I think I might have a place for one of those tunes you have” which became ‘My Cleveland Heart’. And the video. If you look at those Jackson Browne forums or Facebook, we are getting a lot of strange feedback, some people not liking the video.
FT: So, what’s next for Val McCallum?
VMC: Well, as well as promoting the album, Jackson is due to start a stadium tour at end of July supporting James Taylor. As far I know, it is still going ahead, and we’re all looking forward to it.
FT: Will there be European dates?
VMC: I know Jackson is keen to get back on the road with the new album, so hopefully next year.
FT: Val, thanks for taking the time out to talk to Folk and Tumble. Good luck with your new album, and the tour, and hopefully we’ll see you some time next year.
VMC: My pleasure and I hope to see you on the road soon.