New York-born Don McLean, the one-man cultural force behind “American Pie,” “Vincent (Starry, Starry Night),” “And I Love You So,” “Castles in the Air,” and many other songs, albums, tours, and projects, told Fox News Digital in a revealing in-depth interview that he “was the right guy at the right time” for “American Pie.”
That song attained No. 1 on the Billboard charts after its release more than 50 years ago, on Jan. 15, 1972. To this day it remains a classic of American folk rock music. It’s been featured in numerous films and other venues and helped McLean become a Grammy-award honoree, a Songwriter Hall of Fame member, and a BBC Lifetime Achievement Award recipient.
“American Pie” is also in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry and was named a top-5 song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA).
McLean told Fox News Digital in a recent phone interview that he had choices as a young man — and that following his passions as a singer and a musician was “the right decision,” as risky as it was.
The singer-songwriter has just kicked off a new world tour to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “American Pie.” The tour will include more than 30 North American stops and an additional 35 shows in Europe in the fall.
Read on for more highlights of his in-depth interview with Fox News Digital, which touched on everything from his music, to lessons learned, to the homeless in America — to why some people are successful and others are not.
On ‘American Pie’ and its staying power
“I was young, I was the right guy at the right time, the audience was receptive, I knew my audience, and I knew what they wanted,” McLean told Fox News Digital about why he thinks “American Pie” had such resonance then — and still does.
“I’ve had many top-10 records and many successful albums [over the years], but only one is a song like that one.”
Added McLean, “It was specific, really, to the very tumultuous times that were going on in the United States. In the early ’70s — in 1970, 1971 — it was actually the worst and most violent time,” he said.
“Cities were on fire and the Vietnam War was finally ending, and titanic struggles had forced them [the government] to stop doing this [after] it had been going on for 15 years or more. Awful. And so, I think there was a yearning for something American. And my song fit the bill.”
On the ‘oral tradition’ of folk songs
Millions of young people memorized the words to “American Pie” — which, at a length of more than eight minutes, is still one of the longest No. 1 songs ever to this day (it held that honor until just last year, when Taylor Swift claimed it).
What does McLean think of the phenomenon that is “American Pie”?
“It’s kind of a folk song now, if there’s any definition of what a real folk song is,” he said. “In the world of music back a hundred years ago or so — even hundreds of years ago in rural areas — there were no tape recorders or TV or radio, or even people who were literate enough to write things down.”
“So someone would learn from their mother and grandmother,” added McLean. “They would learn and memorize it, and then sing it somewhere, and somebody else would then do the same, and maybe sing it a little differently. And so on and so on, in the oral tradition.”
“And I think that ‘American Pie’ has gone into that particular realm.”
On knowing that he ‘did the right thing with my life’
What has McLean learned over the years from his experiences in creating that iconic song, not to mention from his body of work as a singer-songwriter?
“What I’ve learned from this experience — including thousands of concert experiences, stories, and everything else that I’ve been involved with over the course of my career — is that I did the right thing with my life.”
McLean reflected, “I made the right decision when I decided at age 15 that I wanted to chuck it all and be a singer and a musician, and I didn’t care what happened. That’s what I learned. And it was the best thing I ever did.”
It could, of course, have turned out very differently — which McLean himself acknowledges.
“I could have ended up homeless,” he said. “I was involved in the ’60s, after I got out of college and even before — and there were a lot of young people around at that time sleeping ‘in a van down by the river,’ you know? And I slept in a car many times. And I wouldn’t think twice about doing it now.”
“I was a road guy. I was a rambler,” he said. “I went around doing little shows, little nightclubs. In the middle, I had friends. I traveled. I rambled around and did a lot of driving. And hundreds of singers with guitars and banjos and mandolins at that time were out there doing that.”
But only one man, after all, wrote, created, and sang “American Pie.”
On being ‘blessed with good health’ and touring again during COVID times
“That was the ‘60s,” McLean noted about his “rambling” days. “Then I started to record and made my first album, ’Tapestry.’ And everything changed. And all of a sudden I was headlining concert halls and nightclubs, and I laid the groundwork for the next album, which became an international sensation, with two No. 1 records on it.” (That album was, of course, “American Pie.”)
“And it would have had three No. 1 songs from that album — but they didn’t really do that back then.”
McLean said he went from “sleeping in the car to sleeping at the Georges Sanc Hotel in Paris … This is the story of my life,” he added. “Quite the dynamic. Really, 99% of the things that have happened to me in my life have been wonderful.”
He said, “And I have been blessed with very good health. It’s a physical job, what I do. That’s why I wanted to get back on the road [in 2022].”
He said the COVID pandemic has created a “tiresome” situation for so many people. “I wanted to get working again, being a man again, lifting my guitar again, lifting my luggage again — being out on the road and performing.”
“COVID stopped everything. For a solid year, it really did. And we’re still sort of gradually recovering” from it now, in this early part of 2022, he said.
On a ‘wonderfully civil’ America ‘back then’
He’s performed for so many thousands of people throughout his career, seen so much of the country over the decades, engaged with so many over time. What observations about our country would he share?
“The America now is not the America I started out in,” said McLean. “And it’s not the America that I was in before I started out … The America that I remember in the 1950s when I was growing up and was a young boy and teenager — that’s the America I knew and the value system I knew.”
He also pointed out, “So many people today make it sound like the America of the ‘50s was some horrible White racist country, and it’s disgusting the way [some] people have characterized our country. There was a wonderful civility [back then]; there was trust; doors were open; we had the number-one colleges in the world; and we were number one, for real.”
He added, “We won the Olympics — we didn’t send some dumb ‘Dream Team’ with professional athletes over to the Olympics. The Olympics were really the Olympics. Guys didn’t have multi-million contracts and trainers … [The athletes in the Olympics] were everyday Americans. That’s gone now.”
McLean said he feels America is a corrupt country today — and a very “divided” country as well.
On his concerns about the homeless in America
“I have a degree in finance and economics,” he said. “From a good school — Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, which turns out a lot of business people. And all of that stuck with me through the years.”
“So when you have a $2.7 trillion deficit, and then in one or two years you spend another $7 trillion or $8 trillion, and you’re looking at spending more in this infrastructure bill, you know, a trillion here, trillion there, that’s how people tend to speak of it — you can’t have an economy with that kind of funny money. I’m very concerned about that.”
He also said, “We have a lot of homeless in America. I see them. And I see the stimulus money running out. And I don’t hear [President] Biden or anybody else talking about the homeless people in America and how we’re going to help them. That concerns me.”
“And what happens when these people stop getting stimulus checks? They have children, families — so what happens to them? I really care about this,” McLean noted.
“And somebody’s got to get out ahead of this, or it’s going to explode.”
He also posed this dilemma: “What’s the person with very little money going to do when he or she can’t even fill his car with gas?”
“This is what I think about,” he said. “This is what worries me.”
During his concerts and shows, he also said, he works hard “not to lecture” anyone from the stage. He said he knows people are coming out for a performance — to enjoy themselves and to enjoy the music and the experience.
The Don McLean Foundation “supports soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and the Portland, Maine Salvation Army, as well as other worthy recipients around the country.”
“I might tell a story, but usually I try to remind people that they should be happy — not jingoistic or nationalistic. But there’s been a concerted effort by the left wing in America this time around to make Americans feel ashamed of their history. And to make them feel embarrassed by their country.”
“Yet this is all part of a scheme for them to get more power,” said McLean. “That’s all it is.”
This whole “defund the police” business, he said — “Sure, until your house gets broken into and you want the police to come to your house.” Then what?
On the Don McLean Foundation and why he started it
“Everything I have, all of my worldly income, is going to go to my foundation,” he said of the 501c3 nonprofit he started years ago.
His foundation “will be the recipient of all my worldly income at the end of my life and before,” he said. “It’s in operation now and has been ever since the 1980s.”
The Don McLean Foundation, he added, “supports soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and the Portland, Maine Salvation Army, as well as other worthy recipients around the country.”
He said his home in Camden, Maine, will be “the home of the foundation and will host various events in the summer to raise money for worthy causes.”
On his career longevity and how success happens
McLean also shared a few other observations with Fox News Digital about his travels, his career, and his overall longevity.
“I’m a career rambler. I’ve been doing this since I was 16 or 17 years old. You cannot become decadent. You cannot descend into the world of drugs or alcohol. You have to maintain your discipline. You have to be, to a degree, stoic. I travel with very little with me … I carry my own guitar just like I always did.”
McLean added, “And I’m always thankful to have work.”
He said he relished the adventure and still does.
Successful people in life, he also noted, “have to make things happen.” They have to make goals and stick to them.
Successful people do not wait around for things to happen or for someone to come around “and knock on their door.”
No, insisted McLean — “that’s not how it happens. You make goals and you attain those goals — and I’m still doing that today. I don’t waste time. I do things. I build things. And I get things accomplished.”