Bringing It All Back Home

By Erik Philbrook

November 24, 2010

On a unique tour, MARY McBRIDE brings songs of uplift and salvation to those living in "places people call home"

By Erik Philbrook

Mary McBride

Singer-songwriter Mary McBride's song, "No One's Gonna Love You Like Me," was used on-screen and on the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain, the Academy Award-winning film about two cowboys struggling with love and life in an unforgiving environment. Now McBride's music is illuminating places not often associated with music as part of a new tour series. This summer McBride took her band on "The Home Tour," a concert tour of "places people call home," including long-term health care centers, homeless shelters, prisons, homes in low-income communities, homes for people living with HIV and AIDS and homes for people living with mental and physical disabilities. Among the audiences they performed for were the elderly in Washington, D.C., Navajo families living in supported housing in New Mexico, children living in the Tremé district in New Orleans and veterans recovering from injuries and living in a VA hospital in California.

On the tour, McBride performed songs from her new album, The Way Home, which features passionate blasts of soulful Americana music in songs that explore the dark undercurrents of modern life while lifting the spirit in the process. As she began plans for "The Home Tour 2011," Playback talked to her about her recent experience on the road.

How did this whole "Home Tour" come together?

I just started putting the word out to people that I knew who worked for nonprofits that dealt in some way with providing shelter for different populations. I realized pretty early on that I had to give myself a broad reach because there are so many different kinds of organizations who do that and I was trying to partner with groups that worked with several communities. The Enterprise Foundation, for example, has been really helpful in putting this whole thing together. They do affordable housing all over the country in different communities. We also worked with groups that dealt directly with the homeless population and provide shelter. Our first show was at Louisiana's Angola Prison, which houses 5,000 prisoners.

I assume many of these places aren't set up for music performances. What challenges did you face in bringing live music into some of these environments?

Logistically, we did everything. We brought a sound system, a sound person. What I didn't want to do in partnership with all of these organizations was create more work for them. It's a lot already saying "We want to do this," and even though we are definitely happy to go in and we know that it's a great event for them, we also didn't want to say "You have to do this, this, and this," because they are already understaffed and overworked.

I think there have been some common threads in these shows. One is we can't have any expectations because we don't know how it's going to play out. But everyone has been really willing to listen to us. We joke that we had a captive audience at Angola. That was really a poignant place to start. They don't want to call it home, but it really is and 70% of the people who live in Angola are there for the majority of their lives.

Your music draws from soul and gospel and country. The average audience at a club or average music venue isn't filled completely with people with such hardship in their life. How did it feel to play your music, which really does have so much emotion in it, to a room that's full of people that probably have all this pent up emotion?

It was pretty amazing, and I have gotten the sense pretty early on in these shows, because we do such a range of styles, what people really respond to. We played for this amazing group in Washington called "We Are Family," which serves primarily the home-bound elderly, so our audiences were 80% elderly African-American women and they loved the ballads. But it was funny, the more rock ‘n' roll we got, the happier they got and the more they were on their feet. It was really cool.

Musicians are trying to connect with audiences any way they can these days. Even though this has been much more work than a typical tour, do you feel like you've gotten more out of this than a standard tour?

Without question. After our shows in Washington, I said I only want to play senior centers. I mean the audiences have been amazing. We played for a group in Chicago at this place called "Heart of Mercy," which houses 550 severely disabled people. They had about 200 people in the room and it was an amazing show because there were people with lots of different physical situations and different disabilities and in many ways different levels of engagement. So it's not only "Oh we are happy doing this," which we definitely are, but it's a challenge in terms of performance, in terms of song choice, in terms of what's going to resonate with these audiences. I think in terms of just the band, its been great because its been challenging for them too. You can't go into these shows on auto-pilot because there are so many variables, so musically it's been incredibly rewarding. You really have to listen, you really have to be conscious of your audience; there's no way to tune them out.

Have you discovered new things about the music you've been playing for a while that you might have taken for granted, such as the power of certain songs?

We are playing songs from all of our records. There are songs from each album that are so appropriate on this tour. We do my song, "If You Lived In My Town," in almost every set. Someone told me once that it's the friendliest song I've ever played. It's really about community. It so much reflects what we are trying to do.