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Rick McLean: Crafting a soundtrack for the crooked trail of life

Music has power. It can make you laugh, it can make you cry, and it can even serve as language when spoken words just don’t feel right. The melody can carry meaning without the need for a singer’s voice. And this is the value of music that Rick McLean wants to share.

McLean is an Indigenous musician and professor of Indigenous studies at Mohawk College on top of running his own personal consulting business. He was also the former lead singer for a Rolling Stones cover band called Beast of Burden.

More recently in his musical career, McLean has partnered with another Indigenous artist, Phil Davis, to form Crooked Trail. This act is exploring the fusion between rock and Indigenous music, a combination McLean had not often seen.

Rick McLean sits in his home office, a large smile on his face and a Canadian flag with an Indigenous person on it in the background.
Rick McLean is the proud father of three daughters as well as grandfather to three granddaughters.

“You know, there’s a lot of Indigenous blues artists, there’s Indigenous artists who’ve gone into country, but not really rock,” McLean said. “So, we decided, ‘Yeah, why not rock then?’ Let’s explore moving, taking rock and roll and mixing in either the issues that we want to talk about or like themes, sometimes language, sometimes including some of our traditional instruments with rock and roll.”

Although he had been on stage for years, McLean said that Crooked Trail allowed for a different type of performance than that of playing in a cover band.

“Your energy up there is different, you know, you’re very authentic, you’re vulnerable. You’re not as rehearsed,” McLean said. “You take your cues from the communities that you’re playing and because of that interconnectedness, you’re not just going in as a hired musician, you’re going someplace and you suddenly become family with the people in that community, which means you have responsibilities. People have questions like if you’ve opened up thoughts in themselves or issues or anything like that, you have a responsibility to resolve that stuff. Or be accountable to it. Very, very different.”

McLean has always had music in his life. McLean’s mother was the Canadian accordion champion three years in a row, and he said there was always music in the house.

“I was brought up with accordions and pianos and guitars and flutes and saxophones and classical music and, you know, practicing a couple hours a day,” he remembered.

When approached to take part in the reconciliation initiative, McLean said he felt it was his responsibility to say yes.

“I think as a human if somebody is asking me for help and I can help, then that’s great,” he said. “I don’t insert myself in places unless I’ve been asked because I find that that’s being respectful of people’s experience.”

“And, because this has to do with reconciliation,” he added, “then probably I’m able to share some perspectives with the circle that can help with the creative content.”

Not only does McLean feel he has something of value to offer, he said he is also eager to see what the students can teach him.

“These musicians, and I don’t refer to them as students, I mean, we talk about everybody’s equal, so I’m going to learn a ton of stuff from them,” he said. “What an honour to be able to do that and to absorb some of that youthful energy they have and that excitement. They’re excited about life and in an opportunity, ready to create a powerful message and just see what that’s going to be. So, this is fantastic. And I don’t want to take up this space.”

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