In a way, Edwin McCain began sowing the seeds of Mercy Bound, his tenth album and debut for 429 Records, seven years ago. The songs comprising Mercy Bound are the fruits of an on-again, off-again collaboration with fellow singer/songwriter Maia Sharp that began in 2004 with their lovely duet “Say Anything.” Since co-writing and tracking that song, McCain and Sharp have kept up their friendship and creative partnership. They decided to make Mercy Bound their first full-album collaboration.
And that collaboration has offered McCain, some 20 years into his career, a chance to try something new—not only with someone who’s worked with everyone from the Dixie Chicks to Art Garfunkel, but also someone who had an eerie habit of being able to get deep inside his head, he says with a laugh.
“As we were making this album, we wrote together exclusively on a bunch of the tracks, and then she threw me a few songs she wrote herself. A lot of the time, when you go from a female to a male voice, it doesn’t really work, but for me, it was almost like she was watching me on closed circuit TV. She would play me a song and it was like, ‘Quit watching me! You’re freaking me out!’”
Along the way, some of those songs, like “Sober,” changed entirely, when performed by McCain. “That was a song Maia wrote [with Adrianne Gonzalez] after a conversation with a friend, who asked her why she was being so grouchy. She said, ‘Sorry, I’m a little sober,’ which inspired the chorus of the song. For me—and for a lot of other people further down that road—that line took on a pretty powerful meaning.”
Like such McCain signature songs as “3 a.m.” and “I’ll Be,” the horn- and Rhodes piano-tinged tracks comprising the Sharp-produced Mercy Bound are classic Edwin. They’re story songs about lovesick romantics or truth seekers stumbling around life trying to make sense of all their good luck, or of situations gone awry; pop-tinged sing-alongs written on acoustic guitars jammed with percolating hooks.
Mercy Bound also marks two decades since McCain first entered a studio. Raised in Greenville, S.C., on a musical diet of everything from Earth, Wind & Fire to David Wilcox, he recorded his first independent demo in 1991, issuing his debut, Solitude, two years later. That album led to his 1995 major-label debut, Honor Among Thieves, which introduced America to the then-budding Southeastern bar favorite. Songs like “Solitude” and “3 a.m.” remain fan faves and live staples. Two years later, he broke into the mainstream with the sweeping ballad “I’ll Be,” from the album Misguided Roses.
Two more albums followed for Atlantic (1999’s Messenger and 2001’s Far From Over) before he stepped off the major-label treadmill with 2003’s The Austin Sessions. The following year’s Scream & Whisper featured that first collaboration with Sharp. In 2006, they worked together again, co-writing several of the tracks on that year’s Lost in America, which was followed up in 2008 by the covers album Nobody’s Fault but Mine.
Over two decades, McCain has morphed into a road warrior, gigging throughout North America most of each year, flanked by his longtime friends and bandmates Craig Shields on saxophone and keyboards, Larry Chaney one lead guitar, as well drummer Markeya “Tez” Sherard and bassist Jason Pomar.
Reflecting on his collaboration with Sharp on Mercy Bound, McCain says, “Sometimes I think your ego tricks you into thinking, ‘I have to write everything,’ but, no, you don’t have to write everything, you just have to love it.”
Largely captured in no more than two takes, the songs on Mercy Bound were recorded at at the Lair Studio and Sharp’s home studio in Los Angeles, with some additional tracking done in Greenville, where McCain lives with his family. Mercy Bound also features a co-write with Angie Aparo (“Better Story to Tell”). The title track was written by Mark Addison and the guitar-and-vocals-only closer, “Lucky One,” was written by Anders Osborne. It features the guitar talents of McCain’s old friend, Warren Haynes (Allman Bros., Gov’t Mule), and such lyrics as, “I can’t explain why I’m here today/I’m just thankful that I am… Every day I wake up to see the sun/I thank God that you still think I’m the one.”
“That song has been kind of lost, says McCain, “and I want to get it back out there so people can hear it. It kind of sums up where I am right now: full of gratitude. The 15-year-old me would have crawled through a river of fire to be the 41-year-old singer/songwriter that I am today, and I remember that. I am incredibly grateful to be able to do this.”