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John McHugh "Shoots" for the Stars and "Scores" a Kentucky Music Dream Team to Orchestrate New Album "Dream Away"


In his latest release, John McHugh takes us on a musical roller coaster ride filled with amusement, excitement, fear, adrenaline, contemplation, and sorrow while exploring the question “What’s on Your Heart?” while compelling us to “Rewind’ the tape before we answer that question. 

 

Written by Renee Collins Cobb and Warren Cobb, Overtones LIVE / Listen Locally


John McHugh is a Lexington, Kentucky- based musician, singer/songwriter, guitarist, voice over actor and producer who is best known for his collaborations with Kentucky music greats Garrick Howell and George Molton.  McHugh released his freshman solo album “Anger To Ambition” in 2015 followed by his sophomore release on an EP with Garrick Howell, “Different Shade Of Blue” in 2019.  “Dream Away” marks his third album and all early indications show that this one is on a path to most excellent success as well.



John McHugh’s New Album “Dream Away” is all about music and as he boldly proclaims in Track 7 – "if it ain’t music, it ain’t worth talking about".  We completely agree.  So let's talk MUSIC and the wonderful music being made and produced in Kentucky by the amazing John McHugh. 

 

As I mentioned, a Kentucky Music Dream Team has been assembled in the orchestration of this wonderful offering from John McHugh.  When I asked McHugh about his own journey from playing for many years with other artists to this current project as being influential in the transition to a solo album shaping his approach to music creation and performance – he had a most simple but highly introspective answer.


"I have been fortunate to play guitar for several outstanding artists in this area, and what I’ve learned the most from all of them is that the music I create has to be 100% me.


You will certainly hear what my influences are, sure but I’m not trying to be anybody but me and I think people want to see that in the recordings and the performance."


Being musical driven to a place of authenticity will lead you to others who feel the same and will in turn make your project every bit as compelling as the ones that McHugh has in turn collaborated on them with in the past as well. 


Right away, before we even get into the presentation of songs, John McHugh has already “set the stage” for musical excellence.  Consider the body of work being produced on John’s album “Dream Away” as we introduce this Kentucky All Star Musical Lineup. 


John McHugh- guitars and vocals, Martie Clough- bass, Jamie Eads- drums, Steve Lyon-piano and organ, Chase Lewis- organ & Fender Rhodes, Jim Gleason-slide guitar PLUS 12 string. Plus with additional vocals provided by George Molton, Maggie Lander, Jessie Brassfield and Steve Richmond. This album project was destined for success while being recorded at Red House Recording by Phil Weisenberger.


"I wasn't the best until the best came around" - John McHugh from the song "Funny Love"


When I asked McHugh to describe this current project to an audience that may not have been exposed to his body of musical work in the past, he explained that if we happen to get the physical CD version, it actually says on it, “this album is meant to be played loud in a car with windows down sitting next to a loved one". If that scenario doesn’t match your current situation, it’s still an old fashion rock n roll record.


It is indeed, an old fashion rock n roll record and this is one of the first things that struck me as I listened to the album for the first time.  It is almost a music history lesson, infusing influences from the decades 50s- 90's Country, Honky Tonk, Blues to Rock-n-Roll.  As a matter of fact, I heard embedded influences "at play" from everything Chuck Berry to Jerry Lee Lewis to The Beatles to Philip Phillips to Daugherty to Bon Jovi to Bruce Springsteen…a truly wonderful experience and exercise in listening to a body of work that is multi-generational, multi-cultural and most definitely multi-genre all on one album. In a time where everyone is still trying to fit music into a single genre box, we must realize to “think outside of the box” we have to “get outside of the box”. 

McHugh starts off his album on “just the right note” as we say – with “Funny Love” – a call to action to “not take life so seriously and to also realize there are so many complexities around 'love' in general". This single features the vocals of Jessie Brassfield and a wonderful use of call and response instrumentation with the steel guitar and guitar in a “musical conversation” with each other. 


Great use of counterpoint in all of the arrangements of McHugh’s selections on this album, however, the irony in singing about the awkwardness involved in “talking about love” is offset with the simplicity of these two instruments so seamlessly playing back and forth, speaking back to each other in essence…. are truly what makes the “funny” in “Funny Love” well….so enjoyable. 


What is McHugh's favorite song on the album?


"This is tough because the album is so new that my favorite song changes daily. Right now though, it’s “Funny Love” and “Burn Me”. Funny Love is a Beatlish style love song filled with 12 string guitars and unique vocal harmonies that I’m excited about. Burn Me features my good friend Maggie Lander on vocals and she is just the best! We wrote the song together and she really sings her tail off. I can’t wait to play that one live." 


His music, I feel, sometimes spans across various genres. McHugh is a self-produced artist and I was curious to know how he navigates genre boundaries while maintaining the integrity of his own unique sound.

"I set no boundaries for my music. I let the song navigate itself into whatever it needs to be. If it calls for a steel guitar or a heavy metal guitar riff, so be it. I roll with it"

  

 "Rewind"

“The best of times are left in the past” - John McHugh from the song "Rewind"


Let’s talk for a moment about John McHugh’s musical past and rewind our own tape. A long list of musical collaborations, most notably with Kentucky artists like George Molton and Garrick “Puddin’” Howell have resulted in John McHugh being on the A-list of versatile, dynamic and highly sought after instrumentalists in the state, regionally and nationally. When we “rewind” John’s past we find so much musical history that has brought him to the place where he is at in this moment. 



John McHugh with Garrick Howell on Overtones LIVE: The Breakfast Club Edition

Performing a Greg Austin Classic "Kentucky Bound"


His past albums and records have also experienced phenominal success and recently, I asked him to rewind his musical tape and to think about a favorite song from his past albums that he thought deserved more love. 


"The title track from my first album “Anger To Ambition” is one of top favorites. Mainly because it’s about inspiring yourself and it still does that for me today"

The song “Rewind” is perhaps a ballad and one that I heard influences showing up from both Phillip Phillips song “Home” and Chris Daugherty’s song “Home”.  In this song which suggests “the best of times are left in the past” -  there is consequently a most compelling ask for a second chance because “it’s not like the movies, you can’t rewind”.  The song includes one of what are many solo guitar performances by McHugh which has become such a trademark to all his songs - so much that the listener cannot wait until the solo break occurs to offset the tension most often created in McHugh’s words alone.


And that ending……  “its time to start over” which leads us next to a proclamation that goes a little like this…

"Consider this my notice…I’m moving on"

"Forever Mine" has a driving Bruce Springsteen style energy in it and is an anthem song to the sacrifices that are often made when one choses the life of being a singer/songwriter and performing musician.  This one is my favorite and I will tell you why.  This song demonstrates the versatility and reflection that goes into a song written by John McHugh and Grayson Jenkins. Think about these sacrifices named in this song....

“I’ve missed the crowds to sing my songs”

“I’ve missed my pals that play along”

“I’ve given up my hands to thumb and pick these songs.

"I’ve given up my health to sing these songs."

"I’ve given everything – I’ve got a lot to prove



When speaking to McHugh about this song, he added “I co wrote that with Grayson. I think we both wrote it with different thoughts in mind which is good. Let’s people decide for themselves. It could go either way. But for me it’s a love song to music"

"A New Beginning, The End and A Lot in Between"

"Is Something About To Start?" To “Close the Curtains, Take A Bow"... and a little “What’s Another Hit in the Head?” in between



"What’s on Your Heart?" and "Burn Me Again" are representative of the power of the strong friendship and collaboration that John shares with two of his musical hero’s George Molton.


What themes have we typically been introduced to with McHugh's music in the past and do they differ from this latest album?  How do personal experiences and emotions influence his songwriting process, and what messages are aimed to convey through the album "Dream Away"

"A common reoccurring theme for me is the helpless romantic with a touch of self doubt. I wouldn’t really call any of my songs autobiographical. I tend to write more about other people’s situations around me. Of course some personal touches sneak in there too. This new album is really focused on fun. In my opinion some artists take themselves too seriously these days and I find that can sometimes get boring. There’s not enough songs that are just fun to listen to. If there’s a message to get across, it’s that I worked really hard to make every song fun regardless of the lyrics being sad or happy. I hope they all put a smile on your face."


Playing guitar for country artists George Molton for many years has allowed McHugh to witness not only a powerful and large fan base that can sing every word to every song that Molton has written but also has been something that he has strived for achieving with his own fan base in the future. He has really looked up to Molton in that way and McHugh has had a handful of fans tell him that his music has moved them. He adds that it is an indescribable feeling to receive feedback of this nature and he does the best to make sure they know he appreciates the fans when they give feedback of this nature.

 

"Burn Me" is another wonderful song that has Maggie Lander taking the vocal lead and possessing a range unmatched by many female vocalists. She has such a rich lower register before flying off into another vocal universe that demonstrates why she is such an amazing solo, duo or background singer .  You can hear the pain in the lyrics and the wailing of the voice in the last solo  as she proclaims at the end....


“Turn the heat to 10, I am tough enough now”...you believe her!


And that heat is on about 5 when the song “Already Dead” ends as a lead-in song to "Burn Me.  "Already Dead" is a honky-tonky blues anthem that asks the question “What’s another hit to the head when I am already dead” and this song display’s McHugh’s incredible skill as a guitarist.  A fun song that is sandwiched in between a light song like "What’s On your Heart?" and a darker song like "Burn Me"


If your too far left, or too far right, it always ends in a fight” - John McHugh from song "Ain't Worth Talking About"


Nothing more appropriate to address the challenges of being a musician in an election year than a great anthem song about the topic of "talk". The criteria determined by the words of this wonderful song is “if it ain’t music, it aint’ worth talking about".


Don’t come to my house to talk – come to play music!  A piece of wonderful advice that everyone can get on board with during times of heated discussion and vitriol.  Music is a universal language!  This track also showcases what is best about the instrumental greatness that is on full display to hear if you make “Dream Away” part of your listening library!  


"Working in Concert with Venues and Artists"


John McHugh tells me he is actually quite comfortable being a chameleon of sorts as he can fit in almost any musical situation. One of his favorite singers he has worked with is Jessie Rose Brassfield. They have played everything from Norah Jones to Lady Gaga to The Beatles. John really likes being a side man, and find it easy to match whatever energy the artist I’m playing for gives him.



Barriers and Roadblocks


While noting that McHugh's career trajectory as an independent artist has been remarkable, I also felt compelled to ask him about the hardest hills he has had to climb over the course of his time as a recording artists.


"My singing. It has taken me years to even touch a microphone. I hate my voice but I’ve worked on it and had enough people compliment my voice that it has forced me to gain more confidence. I even do voice over work for a local radio station now, so I’ve climbed over that hill. Still don’t like my voice but I can live with it."

Photo by Capture Kentucky Jonathan Newsome


After doing my research on this amazing album project "Dream Away" by John McHugh, one might most notably deduce that collaborations are a key to great relationships that when lending your voice and instrumental skill to someone else's project or performance, leads to the opening of a lot of great doors and unlocks the keys to your own musical success - both personally and professionally. Since collaborations and influences seem to have played a significant role in John McHugh's own musical evolution, I couldn't resist asking John once again about any other favorite artists he had collaborated with in the past as well as who he would love to collaborate with in the future to explore new musical territories.

"I love collaborations. Garrick Howell would be my longest running songwriting partner. We have learned a lot together and from each other. This will be my first album that doesn’t have a song we wrote together. I did that kind of on purpose just to challenge myself and get myself in new situations.
If I could pick someone that I want to collaborate with it would be with Mike Campbell from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Shooting for the stars I know but why not?

The album is called “Dream Away” right?!

John McHugh's "Dream Away" will be available on June 1st, 2024 on ALL streaming platforms and the first single release "Forever Mine" will be available on May 6th 2024.


You can also find John McHugh on Facebook and Instagram and You Tube.


Renee Collins Cobb, M.Ed. and Warren Cobb are Executive Producers of Overtones LIVE and Co-Owners of Listen Locally, LLC, as well as Executive Directors and Founders of Room 17 Productions, a non-profit 501c3 organization. We are also partners in Dreamland Entertainment Group and The Scribe TV Network.







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