To borrow a line from his friend Marty Stuart, honky tonkin’ is what Scott McQuaig does best. From his debut single “Honky Tonk Amnesia” to the release of “Honky Tonk ‘O Clock” nearly 30 years later, the Meridian, Mississippi native has shown himself to be at home where jukeboxes once sat on old wood floors.
After earning a deal with Capitol Records, McQuaig found himself on a label with some of country music’s greats, including Garth Brooks, who would release the smash “Friends in Low Places” five months after McQuaig’s debut album was released, skyrocketing Brooks into superstardom and leaving many of the other artists on the label in the dust.
After the album’s lead single “Honky Tonk Amnesia” peaked at number 46 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, McQuaig failed to reach the top 50 with the album’s final two singles, and found himself without a record deal.
What followed was 22 years of radio silence, which was broken with 2012’s I’m Still Falling, allowing McQuaig to pay homage to his diverse musical taste. Six years later, McQuaig was back once again with his most recent album, A Song Away From You, his most personal to date.
However, before he was making honky tonk music, he was falling in love with it and drawing influence from some of the greats like Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Merle Haggard, who inspired him to pick up the guitar and start writing his own music.
“I took guitar lessons when I was 12 years old, but I never got too into it. It wasn’t until I heard an old Jimmie Rodgers record that my granddad had; I heard the intro to one of the songs, and I told myself I wanted to figure out how to play it, and that got me hooked on guitar,” says McQuaig. “I started playing consistently around the time I turned 18, and I started writing songs soon after. Jimmie Rodgers is what started everything.”
After high school, McQuaig enrolled at Mississippi State University to study mechanical engineering. As the workload got heavier, McQuaig found himself being distracted by music, a call he eventually answered after dropping out of school.
“I really started to struggle in school once it got to the point where we had to study all the time, because I couldn’t put my guitar down,” says McQuaig. “It got to a point where I knew my heart wasn’t in it. I came back to Meridian, got a job in a machine shop, got married, and started playing music.”
McQuaig’s big musical break came in 1987; winning the Jimmie Rodgers Talent Show in Meridian, which led to a demo deal with MCA Records, and ultimately, a record deal with Capitol Records soon after.
“There were hundreds of contestants at the show. I was in it once or twice before and never placed. Everybody would try out one day, then they narrowed it down to 25 people for the second day. I had never made it to the second day before, and I was kind of fed up with it,” says McQuaig. “There were folks that told me to try it out one more time. I did original song and ended up winning.”
With a record deal under his belt, McQuaig hit the studio in November of 1988 to record his debut album for Capitol Records. The next year, “Honky Tonk Amnesia” was sent to radio, allowing McQuaig the opportunity to hear himself coming over the airwaves for the first time.
“The first time I heard it played on the radio was in Meridian. I was in the control room listening. That was pretty cool,” says McQuaig. “The first time I heard it when I wasn’t expecting it is when I was driving around, and it was really hard to believe. I’m such a big music guy; I buy albums and I read who played on the albums and all of the credits, so to hear myself on the radio was pretty neat.”
“Honky Tonk Amnesia” climbed to number 46 on Billboard’s country chart. When it came time to release the album’s second single, “Johnny and The Dreamers,” Garth Brooks exploded with his sophomore album No Fences, which drew a lot of the label’s attention away from many of the acts on the label.
“At the same time my second single was coming out, Garth’s No Fences album broke, and the rest is history,” says McQuaig. “There were 66 acts Capitol at the time. If you were lucky enough to have a hit, they jumped behind it and pushed it, but if you didn’t get a hit right off the bat, it was hard. You got a little lost in the shuffle. It was a tough business.”
McQuaig hit the road hard to promote the album, which further asserted to him how tough the music business could be, though it never faltered his belief in the music he had made.
“If you’re lucky enough to get a hit right off the bat, it’s a little easier. If you don’t, it’s really tough. We stopped at every radio station from Los Angeles back to Mississippi driving a 1959 Rolls-Royce,” says McQuaig. “It seemed like a little bit of a catch-22. They’d say that they’d add a song if it got enough points on the charts, but the more radio stations that add it, the higher it would go on the charts. It was hard to understand at first. I was disappointed, but I never thought the music wasn’t good enough.”
After the album’s third and final single “Old Memory” failed to chart, his time with Capitol Records came to an end. After a deal with CBS Records fell through, McQuaig made the decision to return home to Meridian to raise his children.
“My daughter was about eight or nine at the time, and my son was four or five. I would come home and my son would look at me like ‘who is this?’” says McQuaig. “I was worried about my children and their dad not being there. I felt like something wasn’t right about that. It was a decision we made, and it’s a decision I felt good about.”
Though his days of touring around the country were over, for the next two decades, McQuaig continued writing and playing around Meridian, which eventually led to recording and releasing I’m Still Falling in 2012; 22 years after the release of his debut album on Capitol Records.
“My bass player’s brother, Chris Ethridge of The Flying Burrito Brothers with Graham Parsons and one-time bassist for Willie Nelson, heard me playing the song ‘I’m Still Falling,’ and he told me that he loved it and that I should record it. I thought it would be fun to go in the studio and record it, and that turned into recording two or three more songs,” says McQuaig. “Before long, it turned into a whole album. It all started with ‘I’m Still Falling.’ We had a ball doing it; it was a really good time.”
While I’m Still Falling was a snapshot of what it was like to hear McQuaig and his band live; a mix of country and blues, when it came time to record his third album A Song Away From You six years later, McQuaig dialed back into his honky tonkin’ roots. The album’s lead single, “Honky Tonk ‘O Clock” was a prime example.
McQuaig notes that A Song Away From You is the most personal album he has released to date, which is evident in the title track, which details McQuaig’s musical journey to this point.
“I always thought that was a cool song. I had forgotten about it for a while,” says McQuaig. “You can take it a couple different ways: you can take it as being away from your family and the ones you love and always being gone, or you can look at it as ‘I’m a song away from you and then I’ll be home.’ I look at it as being away from my family and making the decision to be in this business; that’s just the way it is sometimes. It can be tough.”
McQuaig notes the self-titled song as a personal favorite on the album, along with “Hiram,” a song that answers the question if Hank Williams went to heaven or not, told from the perspective of a nun who answered the question in a note that eventually landed in the hands of Marty Stuart, who relayed the message to McQuaig, who recorded the song on the 65th anniversary of Williams’ passing.
After listening through A Song Away From You, McQuaig says he hopes listeners can connect with the songs and that they bring them joy.
“I hope they enjoy it. I hope it makes him feel good,” says McQuaig. “So much stuff you hear now is ‘driving on a dirt road in a pickup truck with the tailgate down by the lake,’ and I get so sick of that. I hope there’s a song on the album, no matter which one it is, that touches somebody. If they can relate to it in some way, I would be happy.”
In the 28 years between his debut release and his newest album, McQuaig has learned to focus on following his gut and satisfying himself first with his music.
“I’ve learned not to worry so much about what people think. I’ve learned to just go with my gut instinct and doing what makes you feel good. That’s the biggest thing. If it sounds good to you, do it how you like it and not the way other people think,” says McQuaig. “Not everything is going to be great to everybody; there’s going to be songs people don’t like, but you have to get over that and do the best you can and hope somebody relates to something.”
As 2020 is getting underway for McQuaig, so are plans for a live album, possibly recording a gospel album and a blues album, and just enjoying where he is at the moment.
“We’re doing a live album that I’m really excited about. There will be a bunch of songs with me and the band, and a couple of songs that are just me acoustic,” says McQuaig. “I want to do a gospel album, and I also want to do a more blues-oriented slide guitar album just for the fun of it. That’s the next couple years or so. I’m just going to enjoy playing music.”
As for the future after that, McQuaig wants to keep things business as usual and continue to find the same enjoyment in music that he felt as an 18 year-old learning how to play Jimmie Rodgers songs on guitar.
“I enjoy making records and I enjoy writing songs,” says McQuaig. “We’re just having a good time; we’re going to keep on doing what we’re doing.”
*Feature image by Abraham Rowe*