Don McLean praises Taylor Swift after she beats ‘American Pie’ record

December 13, 2021
Don McLean is heading out on a world tour in January 2022.
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Even after five decades, “American Pie” dominates the zeitgeist.

The 1971 Don McLean story-song that encapsulates the plane crash the killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson on Feb. 3, 1959 (“the day the music died”); references the “widowed bride” (Jackie Kennedy); and targets other 1960s touchstones (the Rolling Stones, Charles Manson, the Vietnam War) is an enduring staple at weddings, funerals and any occasion seeking a singalong.

And its most recent reemergence is thanks to Taylor Swift, who dethroned the 50-year reign of “American Pie” as the longest song to hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart (at about 8½ minutes) with her “Taylor’s Version” of “All Too Well” (more than 10 minutes).

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The ousting made news on its own. But then Swift sent McLean, 76, flowers and a note (“I will never forget that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” she wrote, in part), which he publicly praised, and “American Pie” was reinvigorated yet again.

But while the anthem is the trailblazer, other songs in McLean’s repertoire have dipped into pop culture.

In 2011, Drake’s “Doing it Wrong” shared elements of McLean’s “The Wrong Thing to Do” from his 1977 “Prime Time” record, and Tupac Shakur publicized his affection for McLean’s 1972 hit “Vincent,” telling the Los Angeles Times, “That’s how I want to make my songs feel.”

On Jan. 28, McLean will launch a world tour in Hawaii – his first extensive jaunt since 2019 – where he says he will perform a different show every night, “but I do sing the ones people want to hear.”

Calling from Palm Desert, California, where he spends most of his time, McLean, who has a children’s book coming next year (narrated, he said, by Peter Gallagher) and a Broadway musical in the works, talked about the endurance of what has practically become a national hymn and his admiration of Swift.

Q: “American Pie” is just such a transcendent song. What has been its biggest gift to you the past 50 years?

Don McLean: It’s kind of become a folk song that everybody knows, which is what a folk song is, and it’s always throwing off stories. Like Taylor beating the 8 minutes and 27 seconds of “American Pie.” That has generated humongous publicity all over the world because of her incredible success and I’d like to say she has sort of cast a spell across the nation and evolved into a force of nature of some sort right in front of people’s eyes.

Q: Were you surprised to hear from her?

McLean: She’s a beautiful person and has a beautiful heart and charisma and great talent. She’s been hugely famous for a decade or more, and all of a sudden has exploded into the force-of-nature realm. So it was fun for me to experience a little of that with this story. She must have great parents, because she’s a very civilized young lady.

Q:  Have you heard her “All Too Well”?

McLean: I hadn’t, but then I listened to it and the lyrics and I liked them. There are some things in there that I would say in a song, like, “We’re dancing around the kitchen in the refrigerator light.” I liked that.

Q: There is certainly an art to writing such a long song. When you were working on “American Pie,” were you ever concerned with how radio would react?

McLean: I am not someone who ever sought fame or stardom. I am a thinker and I’m an inventor and I invent songs. I was very much influenced by The Beatles and the different things they did, and I do all kinds of different things. But the thing about it is, if you don’t make great records, then your songs don’t get heard. The Beatles and Taylor make great records and write songs with great melodies, and this is not something that is around a lot. A lot of young singer/songwriters, there’s very little real melody; there’s a lot of going up and down and sideways and trying to find the melody. Songwriters don’t get to use their brains because there is so much fragmentation and titillation and you can’t get deep into something.

Q: You’re heading out on a lengthy tour next month. How do you feel about going back out?

McLean: I went to four countries a month ago to promote the tour, so I got a taste of what it’s going to be like in terms of getting tested all the time and having your documents every time you go across the border. I’m certainly going to have musicians on hand (overseas) in case something happens. But if it comes down to it, I can reset the stage and perform by myself.

Q: Are you worried about so much travel?

McLean: I think if you get your vaccination and booster and wear your mask, especially in airports and on the plane, it will be OK. I think I’ll wear a mask long after this is over if I’m still touring because I’ve always been sitting up front and hear someone retching at the back of the plane and think, “What bubonic plague am I going to catch?”

Q: What do you want the legacy of “American Pie” to be?

McLean: “American Pie” did many different things. It put the spotlight on the Buddy Holly disaster in a totally different way, and many radio stations turned back to playing oldies in the ‘70s because people were craving (older music). Then they began calling Feb. 3 “the day the music died,” and then the (Recording Industry Association of America and National Endowment of the Arts) said it was voted the No. 5 song (of 365 songs of the century). It’s always been the people’s choice. It was always a phenomenon and it remains a phenomenon.  

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