Courtesy of Steven McGann
This is part of our weekly series titled “Columbus’ Own,” where we profile a local band every week.
Todd May isn’t happy with the state of today’s country music.
Though his music draws inspiration from classic country artists like Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt, the Columbus-based singer-guitarist said he rejects the idea of popular country music today.
“I’m a huge fan of country music,” May said. “The problem with saying that is I’m not sure what they’re playing on country radio.”
May said the music some country stations think of as country isn’t the same idea he has in mind.
“They play the same songs in Arkansas as they do in Massachusetts on country radio,” he said. “I’m not even sure, it’s more like ’80s pop now than it is country. It resembles ’80s pop more with, you know, boots, and maybe a pedal steel thrown in there.”
May’s long musical career stretches all the way back to his Hamilton Township High School days in the late ’80s, where he got his start playing in Ohio State campus bars before he was allowed to drink in them. Since then he has gone on to join numerous lineups, including bands such as The Lilybandits, The Mooncussers, Fort Shame, Lydia Loveless and others.
But after decades of moving from one band to the next, this year saw May’s first release as a solo artist with his album “Rickenbacker Girls,” released Feb. 19 through Peloton Records.
Steven McGann, who played bass on the record and manages May through Westgate Management, said May might have waited so long because he always thought of collaboration as an important part of songwriting.
“He was a bit reluctant to make it a solo project,” McGann said. “He believes in being in a band and everyone contributing to the music and having that band of brothers thing. That’s what he really likes.”
May himself isn’t certain of the reason for the delay.
“I’m not even sure that I set out to make a solo record as much as it kind of evolved into that (from writing with The Mooncussers),” May said, “but it’s about damn time.”
While May’s music has gotten a mix of labels – including, country, rock and Americana – Pat McGann, Steven McGann’s brother and drummer for “Rickenbacker Girls,” said the music is a far cry from what’s featured on CMT and popular radio stations.
“He might have a little more of an actual love for that stuff than I think a lot of the people that are playing Americana do now,” Pat McGann said. “To me it just comes off as a sincere brand of what people are calling Americana music today.”
Pat McGann said he thinks May’s music is more authentic than that of most popular artists in the style.
“He doesn’t talk about things that he doesn’t know about,” Pat McGann said. “It’s real, sincere songwriting.”
May said the lineup for his solo album was mostly comprised of friends and former bandmates. The exception was Pat McGann, who was invited by his brother and who had never before played in a band with May.
However, Pat McGann said it wasn’t difficult to fill the role.
“It was really great,” he said. “These are high-quality players so it was really easy. The songs are so fun. They’re Americana, but still they were unique enough that they inspired unique parts in everybody.”
May has always identified himself as a songwriter over a guitarist.
“I started playing guitar and I realized that there were so many people that were better than me at it, so I decided maybe I’d better write songs,” May said. “Probably because I had a better chance of starting a band, joining a band or lasting in a band if that was more my role. So that’s what I started doing.”
Yet even on his only solo album, May welcomed musical input from his bandmates, Steven McGann said.
“Working with Todd was really easy because he had such a good vision for these songs coming in, but at the same time wanting to be in a band and enjoying other people’s comments,” Steven McGann said. “He was open to other people’s suggestions. It was just smooth. Everybody was happy to be a part of the project.”
Pat McGann said he thinks May’s work stands out from that of his contemporaries and isn’t getting the recognition it deserves.
“This record is one of the highlights of my entire musical career,” Pat McGann said, “and I’ve been playing in bands since I was 17, and I’m 44. The guy’s special. For whatever reason, he still hasn’t broken through.”
Despite the lack of widespread fame Pat McGann feels May deserves, May said he’s happy with his accomplishments.
“I can’t really complain,” he said. “I get to play with some really great people, like Sue Harshe from Scrawl and Fort Shame and Lydia. Those are two of my favorite songwriters in the world. I’m pretty happy where I am.”
May said he still sometimes can’t believe the level of success he has achieved.
“You know, sometimes I’ll realize, this is kind of crazy, that here I’m this kid from the south side of Columbus and I’m doing this, and they’re paying me to play my songs in a place I’ve never been,” he said.
Steve McGann said May’s work ethic makes him stand out.
“He’s a really good artist and he believes in working,” he said. “The busier he is, the happier he is.”
And May continues to keep busy, with hopes to record with Loveless in April and a new Mooncussers record in the works.
May plans to visit the campus area on April 6 at 9 p.m. to play a show supporting his new album at Rumba CafÃ©, located at 2507 Summit St.