Twenty-three years ago, almost to the day, Edwin McCain played his first gig. It wasn’t anything fancy — Market Street is a far cry from the arenas and coliseums he’d find himself singing in just a few years later.
“My musical beginnings were in Charleston,” McCain said. He was on the phone at sound check in Denmark during a tour of Europe earlier this month. “During Spoleto, they used to waive the rules for street musicians, so you could just set up by the side of the road and play with your guitar case open for tips.”
McCain was approached on the street by the owner of the former San Miguel’s restaurant, and he passed along his demo: a cassette tape with one song on it.
It wasn’t long before the Greenville native was palling around with Darius Rucker and the Hootie & the Blowfish guys, eventually signing his own major record deal with Atlantic Records.
With the 1995 release of “Honor Among Thieves,” McCain went from a favorite on the Southeast college circuit to the national stage. His acoustic-rock sound fit (and helped define) an FM radio style that was peaking in popularity at the time.
“We were locked into the path of being a sort of jammy band for a second, and then ‘Solitude’ (his breakthrough single) hit the radio, and all the jam band fans were like ‘See you later.’ They didn’t want anything to do with something on the radio,” recalls McCain. “It worked, though, thanks to Dave Matthews and Hootie & the Blowfish and the Goo Goo Dolls. They absolutely blew open the doors and paved the way for me.”
McCain didn’t become a bona-fide national star until 1997’s “Misguided Roses” and its single “I’ll Be.” That was followed by “Messenger” two years later, the highest charting album of his career, featuring the single “I Could Not Ask for More.”
Thirteen years later, McCain admits that the pop direction he took at the turn of the millennium was more a product of his label’s influence than his own musical leanings.
“It’s an old story; you have 25 years to write your first two albums, and then you have six months to write your third,” explains McCain, adding that he was “never really on board” with the “Messenger” project.
“Once there’s big money at stake and other peoples’ idea of prestige, the polish comes in, by way of producers and huge budgets. I said, ‘OK, I’m in the middle of this big machine, and if I fight them, they’ll take their attention and go to Jewel or whoever else.’ I had band members with families to think about, and I knew we’d go back to making our own records soon enough.”
For four albums, McCain “played ball” with Atlantic, agreeing to appearances on shows such as “Live With Regis and Kathy Lee” and kowtowing to the label’s whims.
When his contract expired, he returned to his acoustic roots, recording 2003’s “The Austin Sessions” with a bare-bones approach. In 2006, he released a rock album, “Lost in America,” before switching gears two years later with a disc of soul and classic R&B covers, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” featuring New Orleans’ keyboardist and singer Ivan Neville.
“I would never have been able to do something like that with a major label,” McCain said. “Who would have paid for it? But here was an opportunity to record with Ivan Neville, and I said, ‘Dude, I’m in. How much fun is that going to be?’ ”
McCain appreciates the freedom of being an independent artist and the doors of opportunity that Atlantic opened for him. He plays the Cottage at Shem Creek this weekend in between a European tour and two major shows in the Philippines, where his ’90s hits still receive heavy airplay.
“If I had bucked the label and pushed back, then they would have moved on to the next band, and I’d be sitting at home trying to figure out what job I would work, based on the fact that I don’t have a college education,” McCain said. “Atlantic spent a lot of money giving me a name that still carries me to this day to places like Denmark and the Philippines to play my little songs, including all the strange ones that I like to write that obviously are not commercial.
“I’m still out here playing and doing what I love to do, and I know a lot of people who aren’t and wish that they were.”
With his latest album, last year’s “Mercy Bound,” McCain manages to recapture the energy and spirit of his earliest recordings.
“When I finished it, I thought, ‘This is probably as close to an old school record as we’ve made,’ ” said McCain, who even included a track, “Uncharted,” recorded directly to a laptop in a hotel room.
“We went for the performance, and the emotion in that song when it was brand-new was better than anything we could get going in a studio. That’s what makes it like ‘Honor Among Thieves’ — like being that 24-year-old kid who’s trying as hard as I could at that moment in time, totally believing in this insane dream that I could be a college dropout and do something.”
Longtime and recent fans of McCain’s will appreciate the candid nature of his performance at Shem Creek, a songwriters-in-the-round set with collaborators Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ N Cryin’) and Angie Aparo.
“Kevn is one of the biggest reasons that I play music, and Angie is one of my favorite human beings on Earth. He’s an unbelievable songwriter and one of the funniest people I’ve ever been around,” McCain said. “I love them both. For me, shows like this are a really nice break and a chance for me to spend time with people at home that I care about.”
The three songwriters plan to trade off songs, telling stories and harmonizing. Although McCain has toured with each, Friday marks the first time that they’ll all perform together.
“I’ll pull out songs from way back, and new stuff that I haven’t finished,” said McCain, adding that when people call out songs from his early days, he’ll usually try to play them.
“If I believe that I can do a reasonably good job hacking my way through an old song, then I’ll try it. I remember those early days as the best of my life, and I’ll never have any reluctance to play a song from back then.”
Playing in Charleston, McCain is likely to encounter more veteran fans than almost anywhere — apart from the Philippines, perhaps? “Misguided Roses” even closed with a track called “Holy City,” an homage to the town that gave him his humble beginnings two decades ago, busking on Market Street.