Canadian Songwriter Callie McCullough

Today I’m getting to know Ontario-native Callie McCullough. Callie thank you for joining me today. Tell us who you are, what you do, and where you’re located.

Hey Guys! Thanks so much for having me! My name is Callie McCullough. I’m a singer-songwriter based in Nashville for a good while now. I kind of run the gamut through rootsy music, traditional country, dabble in bluegrass, sometimes a bit more contemporary…for me its the song, the story, and the feel that leads the way..I’m just a sucker for ballads and broken hearted sad songs.

JED: Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?

Well for starters, I was born and raised in Ontario Canada, just about 2 hours above the border of Michigan, kind of a “way-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-30-minute-bike-ride-to-the-nearest-convenience-store” vibe. I definitely grew up in a musical family; both my parents had been making music since they were kids. They met on the road back in the 80’s and got married, so I grew up in various versions of family bands. My parents were playing music festivals and gigs every weekend. I loved it! My sister became a doctor; that’s how you rebel in our family. There was never really any question for me as to what I wanted to do; I was born singing and never stopped. I picked up the guitar around 8 years old or so, started writing little (bad) songs around 14, and just kept going. I was in a few bands over the years, toured with my Mom for quite awhile cause those family harmonies are hard to beat and after years of touring decided it was time to plant it in Nashville. That was about six years ago and that was the start of me really focusing on writing songs, and becoming a solo artist.

JED: So did you spend most of your childhood in Ontario?

Yes, we travelled around a bit more in summers, and in my early twenties I got to travel a lot more into the states and Europe touring, but you know as a kid they expect you to show up at school everyday.

A promotional picture from when Callie and her mother (Deborah Harbottle) used to tour as “McCullough Girls.” Photo by Denise Grant.

JED: What are your favorite 5 albums, and do they influence your work?

When I was a little kid my favorite thing to do was sit in front of the CD player in the living room and repeat the Pam Tillis Sweethearts Dance album and The Kendall’s Greatest Hits cd (which I realize isn’t a proper album). Both of these my Dad had carefully plucked for me from his own collection in the studio. Pam Tillis became an obsession for me and I carefully chased after every one of her albums with my $2-a-week allowance savings until I had them all. That was my first deep dive into the 90’s country music that I came to love so deeply. I definitely think Pam’s phrasing as a singer played a huge influence on mine over the years, and I wrote a lot of songs in that style in my early 20s. My favorite thing she ever did was Calico Plains which was also a favorite of my mom’s. It makes sense that I would love that song since I have a soft spot for great fingerstyle guitar parts.

My Dad has also introduced me to The Kendalls’ music. I just loved the way that Jeanie lilted and twisted her voice. I’d creep out to my Dads studio (avoiding the house cleaning chores) on Saturday mornings and we would sing those songs together. When I was about 14 I got introduced to 4 collections of my favorite music all at once Eva Cassidy’s Songbird, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Carol King’s Tapestry, and a Greatest Hits collection of Simon and Garfunkel music (which I’m aware isn’t really a proper album). I’m sorry I guess this is six. 

JED: Hey that is totally ok! I’d rather you give more than too few 🙂

That was a pretty influential time for me; I had just started working at a music store and had for the first time met a bunch of musicians around my age (that I wasn’t related to).

JED: When would that have been? How old were you?

I would have been around 14 or 15, very early into high school. It was sort of that time when you get to re-invent yourself and for me it was the first time I had found a place to belong in this new community of musicians. The owner of the store recommended I check out Rumours and Tapestry as they were his top 2 “stranded island” picks. I fell in love. Coming from a heavy country background I loved exploring these new sounds, but was so entrenched in their writing too. At that time one of my guitar teachers insisted I take a deep dive into Simon and Garfunkel if I wanted to learn about writing good songs, and again my mind was blown. Their soft harmonies and rolling finger-style guitar just resonated with me. Then came Eva Cassidy; a singer so special and timeless who could remake any song into her own beautiful work of art. She was, and is still, such a lightbulb moment for me. Her ability to always stretch a note and phrase and fall on that backbeat feel, it was huge for me. I spent so many hours stretching and matching my voice to hers and learning her guitar parts. All those high-school years my friends were listening to the radio and going to dances I was sitting in my bedroom pouring my heart into the ballad music of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. I’ve always been a bit old that way . . .

JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

I mean, I love it all, but my first love will always be singing. I think of ways to stretch a melody line in my shower, while I’m sleeping, mess with a melody while I’m driving…how can I twist it, turn it, make it my own, but at the same time still never over sing it. That’s a passion I’ve carried since I was too small to remember. When it comes to writing songs I’m a melody person all the way. I love getting out on the road and playing shows to connect with people but it’s always the music that leads the way, it’s the most fun when the music is great. Even if the venue is dead I’d do it for the love of the music. I’ve recently been digging back into more fingerstyle guitar which I also love; another melody-driven force for me I think.

“The Three Musketeers;” Dustin Olyan, Callie, and Scotty Kipfer at “The Tracking Room” in Nashville, TN.

JED: What are three musicians today do you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

Living in Nashville it’s one of those places where the talent bed is just insane. You become friends with people and meet artists playing in the corner of “nothing” bars to crowds of like 5 people but they are so good it’ll make your head spin! I have a friend named in town named Chris Canterbury who’s got this deep old soul southern feel; his voice and the songs that he writes you can tell he’s really lived through. He’s got this whacky backwards-capo left-handed guitar playing style; the whole thing’ll just knock you out in the best way. He’s just badass in a sad song kind of way (which is my favorite kind of way). His latest album is called “Refinery Town” and you should 100% check it out!

Another one of those “under the radar” scenarios is a songwriter friend of mine by the name of Davis Corley. His debut album The Blacker Side of Blue came out last year and he’s got so many great new songs. He’s this Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan-type spirit but in a fresh new way. He’s an exactly what-you-want-it-to-be in the pocket singer but really deep like an old soul, and a unique guitar playing style. He’s always experimenting with open tunings for new sounds. He’s just one of those songwriters you want to keep going back to hear what he’ll come out with next!

Another immense talented just waiting to explode out of this town is my badass friend Molly Brown. She’s this fiery redhead that plays a mean Gibson acoustic, writes and sings her ass off artist! I’ve always respected how much vision she has for her own sound too. She’s the spirit of a horse woman mixed with an angsty contemporary  folk singer and it’s magic. She’s going to be putting out new music soon- and her songs and story telling are my favorite. Her previous album “This Town” has been put a few years and my favorite track is called “Travel in Twos” check her out! 

JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.?

In all honesty I’m not a big gear nerd, but I’ve got a few things I’m into for sure. I tend to mess with various open tunings playing guitar so lately I’ve been carrying a couple acoustics to shows. I’ve got a Bourgeois OM Country Boy that I picked up about 8 years ago that I adore. My second guitar I’ve been carrying is a ‘72 Martin D-18 that is somewhat of a family heirloom; my Grampa helped my mom buy it when she was just 14 and getting started gigging herself. That’s a special one. I’m totally addicted to Blue Chip picks currently playing the TD 55 gauge, and I know there are so many new microphone options out there now and I’ve tried out a ton but I’m still in love with my SM58. Those things are like old battle axes and I love them! I’ve been thinking of building out a small pedal board for my acoustics but I’m somewhat of a purest and not too techy. I just like to keep things simple; beautiful instruments, true vocals, just playing music not too much tech stuff to mess with.

Photo from a session from “After Midnight” at “The Tracking Room” studio Nashville, TN. From left to right;
        Billy Thomas, Stuart Duncan, Scotty Kipfer, Callie, Barry Bales, Jeff Taylor, Brent Burke, Dustin Olyan, Ron Block, and Steve Blackmon.

JED: If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?

Funny you should ask that, because that idea was how we started this new record “After Midnight.” I literally sat down with my two best friends Dustin Olyan and Scotty Kipfer, wrote a list of all our musical heroes, called them all up and asked them to make a record with us …crazy story; they all said yes! So we had guys from The Time Jumpers and Union Station, Jeff Taylor, Stuart Duncan, Barry Bales, Brent Burke, Billy Thomas, Ron Block, and Russ Pahl just to name a few. We did a lot of the initial tracking at “The Tracking Room” then moved to smaller studios to flesh out the rest. This album is Produced by Dustin Olyan who is a huge talent! He has this way of focusing on feeling rather than perfection in the studio. I think that is something we miss sometimes in Nashville and just modern recording in general so it’s really amazing to create in that way! He plays a ton of instruments on this album as well. We ended up building a couple of songs from the ground up just the two of us together afterwards and there’s something quite magical about them to me. We got this really great blend of Nashville legends and young fresh ideas and energy. It was a passion project for all of us.

JED: What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

“After Midnight” which is set to come out on March 27th! A lot of what I love about it is what it represents to me; finding my way in Nashville and being on my own musically and the fresh new energy of collaborating with new friends! These songs are my stories of the past five years, and I love the way we were able to make this album. I stand behind this music and I’m super excited to get it out into the world!

Photo by Chrissy Nix Photography.

JED: What are you currently working on?

I just released my third single “After Midnight” and now we are rolling towards the album release at the end of March. I’m hoping to shoot a music video soon and keep adding shows to my calendar. I want to go out and play as much as possible!

JED: Well Callie I hope you get to play to your heart’s content. Thanks for chatting with us and I look forward to catching up with you again soon!

You can keep up with Callie’s latest on her website, Instagram, and Twitter. Featured article photo by Chrissy Nix Photography.