By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch


October 7, 2004

It's probably a tossup as to who will be more surprised Saturday night at the Duck Room: fans of singer-songwriter Mary McBride getting a load of the flamboyant El Vez, or followers of the "Mexican Elvis" taking in McBride's brand of roots-rock theatricality.

For her part, McBride, who is also a playwright and former U.S. Senate page (more on that later), loves the contrasts and breaks into full laughter when asked about the 15 shows she's about to open for El Vez.

"Isn't it fantastic? We're so excited," she says from her home in New York. "I'm a huge fan and just love him. We play a lot in Texas, and we've seen him several times. My band is very excited -- but we have to work on our floor show."

McBride's band may be excited, but it also has the potential to be exciting. She has an all-star supporting cast of Dan Baird (Georgia Satellites, the Yayhoos) and Paul Carbonara (Blondie) on guitars, Mike Santoro (Whiskeytown) on bass and Kenny Soule (Poppa Chubby, Nantucket) on drums.

They're touring behind McBride's second CD, "By Any Other Name," a sometimes twangy, always rocking and soulful collection of songs that display a playwright's sense of place and character.

"I wrote songs for my plays before I wrote songs independently," says McBride, 35, a native of Louisiana who lived in Washington before settling in New York to pursue the theater.

"The nice thing is, I wrote songs (in plays) that had a purpose, to either move along the story or illustrate a particular character. So when I started writing (stand-alone) songs, it was a real challenge because I wanted them to have a context. I have a real problem with songs that are just self-indulgent and not empathetic, and I was told that my songs have a sense of empathy. That's a real compliment."

One of the highlights of the CD is a tale, co-written with Baird, about a bored, cigarette-smoking "Toll Girl" on the Tappanzee Bridge in upstate New York who listens to Delbert McClinton on the radio and watches a world full of outlaws, athletes, truckers and flirts roll by.

"I just love that song," McBride says. "It's not a specific place and specific person that I met, but it came from experience. Dan and I have been on the road a lot, him 20 years more than me, but we both connected with that idea."

Now McBride is finding that the experience of writing songs that can stand alone is helping her theater work.

"It's really contributed to writing a musical, because I want to have songs that stand on their own and will be memorable songs when people leave the theater," she says.

New York's streets and subways provide many of the subjects and subtexts for McBride's music, and she says her ideas come "from wandering around and seeing people, not from sitting around in my own apartment."

McBride's new CD, as was her first, is produced by Springfield, Mo.'s Lou Whitney. Her writing partners include Baird and Steve Wynn, founder of the '80s band Dream Syndicate. Backing musicians include several of Whitney's bandmates in the Skeletons and the Morells -- guitarist D. Clinton Thompson, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks and pianist Joe Terry -- plus lapsteel player Drew Glackin (the Silos), pianist Kevin McKendree and McKendree's boss, singer and harmonica ace Delbert McClinton.

When she's off the road, McBride works on her plays. Her latest is a musical titled "The Nitpicker," set in northern Louisiana. It's been in development for five years and has been optioned by the nonprofit Hourglass Group, which produces work by women. McBride is hoping the play will be staged next year.

About that first job back in D.C. as a Senate page? McBride dumped water on Sen. Edward Kennedy's lap.

"It was my first day on the Senate floor. You're a teenager, and you're terrified. They call it being on point, sitting at the front of the Senate, looking around and waiting to see who needs something. And Kennedy raised his hand for water, and I was nervous as a cat, and I spilled water everywhere.

"He was huffing and puffing," she laughs, "but generally kind."