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Posted at 10:24 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Inside the story of 'Music Where We Live'

By David Rowell

As the deputy editor on the Post Magazine, I like stories where there’s a kind of built-in tension right from the start; where someone wants something that goes against obvious logic. And that’s exactly what we have in “Music Where We Live,” by Josh duLac. This story is a highly intimate, behind-the-scenes examination of what singer Mary McBride set out to do when she announced her “The Home Tour” last year, in which she would play not for paying fans in hip clubs, but just the opposite: She was going to give a series of free performances for people who, for one reason or another, had pretty much no more opportunities to see live music.

(See video of McBride and her tour here.)

I had not heard of Mary McBride, and I got tipped off to the story last spring by an e-mail from a writer I know in New York. Music had been what we found we had in common--a passion for good music writing, live music, playing music, etc.--and he thought of me as he learned about McBride’s plan. He said she was embarking on a kind of tour he thought I might find interesting--as an editor who likes to bring out stories about musicians (over the years as an editor on the magazine I had edited stories about the polka scene in Chicago; about a man trying to save the accordion from oblivion; a jazz fantasy camp; an African-American blues guitarist who just wanted to play rock but kept getting pigeon-holed because of his race; a profile of jazz pianist and ambassador Billy Taylor; a cardiologist who also happened to pack them in as a country singer; and on and on).

He explained in the e-mail: “The deal is that she’s doing a month-long tour where the venues are assisted-living facilities, prisons, shelters, homes in low-income housing communities, residences for people with HIV/AIDS or mental or physical disabilities, etc.” The fact that I had never heard of Mary McBride only intrigued me all the more.

It seemed to me that while McBride’s idea for playing live music for people who rarely get to hear it was extremely admirable, I thought that on the face of it it also had a good chance of being quite an awkward--if not even disastrous--affair. In other words, how could there not be tension? Also, I couldn’t help but wonder: was this a singer with a heart of gold, or was this the best PR stunt in years for an artist trying to gain some attention?

The only way this story was going to work for the magazine was if we could get a reporter who could see this experiment for whatever it was going to truly be. That meant not just sitting in on multiple performances, but spending real time with McBride between performances and seeing all the highs and lows.

And I wanted to read about how the sheer logistics of such a tour would come together each day. If you were playing to a half-full rec room for people who had never heard your music, how would you get them in those seats in the first place? If you’re a singer who has put out a handful of CDs, what did it mean to play music for an audience that might get up and walk out halfway through the first song? And could music that these people had never heard before offer them something--right then, in that very moment--more than, say, movie night, or a round of Bingo, or a visit from a friend or family member?

Of course, I didn’t know the answer to any of these questions, but that’s one of the thrills of doing this kind of journalism: not knowing what is going to happen.

Because Josh duLac had been The Post’s music critic and had spent many years seeing big stadium rock shows; once vital artists slumming it smaller clubs; and plenty of musical miracles big and small in both predicable and the unlikeliest of places, I was sure he would be intrigued by the risk Mary McBride was about to take. And I was right.

By David Rowell  | January 11, 2011; 10:24 PM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story, The inside story  
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