PHOTOGRAPHY BY Lindsey Miller
“Playing a good round of golf is a lot like a good gig,” Randy McQuay tells me as I ask about the clubs in his office studio. “Rhythm and tempo are so important for both of ‘em, and very much the same: they’re mental.”
The clubs are an anomaly in a room full of instruments, recording equipment and music memorabilia in his space at the Art Factory by the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. McQuay says he’s better than average on the greens but plays for the challenge.
“I was never going to make it in sports,” he says. “In high school I always wanted to be a part of them . . . I love to compete, it’s just that music was a bigger part of me than sports ever were.”
McQuay, singer-songwriter, bluesman and music producer, is preparing to hit the road soon. His spring solo tour starts March 31 and will take him out to Oklahoma and back, with stops in South Carolina, Georgia and along the Gulf Coast. He’s ready to break in his new foot drum set from Farmer Musical Instruments, which has manufactured custom sets for Les Claypool, Ben Bridwell (Band of Horses), JJ Grey, G Love and many other artists. The set allows McQuay to keep the beat (so to speak), play guitar and sing all at once.
“With flying and going on boats, carrying so much gear got hard,” he says. “So this is what I typically travel with.” He takes out a beautifully crafted, collapsible drum set with dual pedals: one for kick drum and another for attachable instruments, such as a nut-seed rattle. It’s like a Mary Poppins magical bag of musical instruments. “They built this little set up for me so that I could actually fit it inside of a suitcase.”
On the studio walls hang a few cigar-box guitars and ukuleles, another sound he’s been trying to incorporate into his solo work. Recent recordings feature anything from foot stomps and hand claps to his nut-seed rattle.
“I think it sounds like a bunch of pick axes being swung,” he says as he slowly starts a hammering beat, almost like a rainfall of clacking. “Just singing over something like that over other instruments, I think it’s cool to have tracks like that,” he says.
McQuay’s collection doesn’t end there. He pulls out a stumpf fiddle (also known as a pogo cello) resting in the corner. It’s a homemade folk instrument known to start with a broom handle or pole with a spring fastened to the bottom, a cookie tin or tambourine, along with any other miscellaneous noisemaker attached.
“I’m kind of a picker,” he says of his collection. “When I’m traveling and find things that are unique, I like to pick them up. Especially any kind of strange instruments I can find. And if I find a way to work them into recordings, then even cooler.”
Music has been Randy McQuay’s passion for most of his life. He grew up in Charlotte, N.C., and moved to southeastern North Carolina in his formative years. A graduate of South Brunswick High School and University of North Carolina Wilmington, McQuay has lived along the North Carolina coast since.
“I left my high school in Charlotte in 10th grade and immediately started playing music out, and kinda started seeing that as an escape,” he says. “Also, I started seeing that it could be a potential living, but it was really gradual at that stage — to actually try and learn the business, learn the ropes and actually profit.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t very many “how-to” courses for aspiring musicians. He learned to play and read music on his own, picked a lot of brains and took advantage of anything that could offer him insight. “Later on in school I started playing in ensembles and things like that, and of course that helps, but I just read a lot of books about business and a lot of books pertaining to music,” McQuay says.
He has always taken interest in all sides of the music industry and it’s apparent in his work. He’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and overall entertainer. However, he is more of realist when it comes to being a musician, which may be why he’s still doing what he does. Of course he loves singing, playing and performing — but if he somehow woke up tomorrow unable to strum a guitar or hum a tune, he’d be able to remain in his chosen industry somehow.
“I’ve devoted my life to playing music,” he says, “but I also do other things in the industry to make money.”
This whole idea of pursuing his passion from so many directions started with a simple homework assignment in high school. It was supposed to be “busy work,” but it led to real career aspirations. “It was for a computer class, which made no sense,” he says. “We had to find 20 jobs that related to what we wanted to do.”
While many of his peers’ efforts were exhausted at five potential employment routes, McQuay had no troubles gathering his list: music engineer, lighting designer, producer, studio musician, touring musician. “In this business (if you approach [music] as a business) there are a lot of jobs,” he says, “but you’ve got to have the knowledge, just like anything else.”
McQuay started playing music professionally at 16 and, while it was more of an extracurricular activity as a student, he still managed to find time for any gig he could take on. “Especially in summers, I’d play two or three nights a week,” he says. “I just started building repertoire more than anything — my own music and covers.”
McQuay admits he struggled like any other musician starting off. In many ways he continues to struggle as a seasoned professional. It’s his foundation built upon time, energy and experience that has changed, not the ease of success.
“A number that often comes up is 20,000 hours that you have to put into your craft before you can claim anything close to professionalism,” he says. “The fact of it is that if you haven’t put that 20,000 hours in by the time you’re 18 years old you might not ever have the time to do it.”
Intellectual curiosity also has kept his fingers in many pies, one of them now the Randy McQuay Trio. The newly formed band is with Al DiMarco (keys, bass, accordion) and Jared Evans (drums). It officially marks the end of his RootSoul Project and a new beginning.
“Maybe it’s an early midlife crisis,” he says, “but I just wanted to play blues and play electric guitar again like a teenager and just feel free with that.”
It’s also an opportunity to play professionally with like-minded musicians who share the same goals. They debuted their first live show in February at Waterline Brewing on Fat Tuesday, still performing songs for which McQuay is known for, yet blending sets with fresh material.
“It’s kind of hard to get away from ‘Rehab Blues,’ ‘While This Crazy ‘Ol World Spins ‘Round,’ ‘Whether the Weather,’ songs that are always going to be in my repertoire,” he says.
McQuay hopes to record a live album with the trio for a 2016 release. New songs like “Looking Back on Times When I…” and “I Don’t Care Where You Cook” are in the vein of blues. The group has the advantage of being able to play blues, jazz, funk and beyond, but they want to keep it within a certain realm to avoid confusing people with this new band.
“Al and Jared both are really well-versed players, they can really go wherever I want to go,” he says. “So I’m not ever going to say this is just a blues band because early on in rehearsals we found out that while everything is rooted in blues, we can get out as far as we want to go.”
Nevertheless, music isn’t exactly just a paycheck or professional endeavor with notches for McQuay. Music is a life source, a lifeline and therapy. It’s how he says he grew to understand love, hate and everything in between. It’s how he relates to people on the other side of the aisle.
“I still don’t know if I’m a people person or not,” he quips. “I care about the people I love passionately: my close friends, my family and my fiancé. But I genuinely don’t think that I would have any of those things without music.
“Music is all I really have, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have the full ability to love without music.”