Craftsmen. You know when you watch someone working – carpenter, digger driver, artist, musician et al – and you expect a certain level of skill. Then you watch someone who works with apparent ease and you think, “Ooh, you’re good”. For a few you think, “Ah, no, you’re really good”. The newly released album by Michael McMillan falls into that latter category. McMillan is a very skilled craftsman songwriter who has produced a delightful and classy piece of work, Heaven Sent Ranch.
It’s worth giving a little detail about McMillan’s life, more than usually so. He’s 67, played in bands as a young man and throughout his life, has been, amongst other things, a policeman and a drugs and alcohol counsellor – and twenty years ago decided he would master the guitar (at which he must already have been pretty adept). Along the way, he’s clearly also learnt the songwriting skills.
‘Wild Horses’ is the final track on the album but is also my favourite track, so let’s start with it. The video below is simply McMillan and guitar on a slightly clunky recording (you can hear the audience, for example) – but even the album version sounds like nothing more than guitar playing decorated by violin … But what a song (See above – “Ah, no, you’re really good”).
McMillan describes it as, “A song about how broken, hurt and damaged animals and people can learn how to trust and how to love again.” Like the carpenter who’s built an apparently simple desk, you suddenly notice how well it fits, how the corners are rounded, how the strength can cope with anything it’s required to do, McMillan has created a gem of a song, based on a comparatively simple chord structure, an unfussy arrangement – and a lyric that probably couldn’t be written unless you’d had his life experiences. To take the chorus and just one verse:
She’s the lady who walks with wild horses
With the dogs who are thrown on the streets
She’s the lady who talks to wild horses
And they will find peace at her feet
The road that she walked hasn’t been easy
With one stroke she was near the abyss
But the dream giver led her through darkness
To a place where she knows who she is.
If you’re looking for a second track to get a feel for this album, try ‘What Can you Do’ (and then, maybe ‘Broken’ or the title track).
By all accounts, McMillan is better regarded in America than in his home country (for the third year, he’s been invited back to a Florida songwriters festival where he has found himself on stage with people who’ve written for some of country music greats). You rather hope this album will change McMillan’s reputation in the UK.
Heaven Sent Ranch is the work of a master craftsman who, in more music industry parlance, has paid his dues and makes something excellent look much easier to create than it is.
‘Wild Horses’ – live: