Interview: Valentine McCallum, sideman to Jackson Browne

As a sideman, versatile guitarist Val McCallum has the dream gig – he tours the world playing the Jackson Browne songbook. As a sessioneer, he’s laid down tracks for a roll call of A-list stars, and as a solo artist, he’s written critically acclaimed love songs.

1958 Jazzmaster Fender

Val McCallum puts his 1958 Jazzmaster through its paces – the backline includes a 1959 Fender Bandmaster and a 1960s Dumble-modded Deluxe Reverb. Image: Dennis Scrimo

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Despite being the son of TV and film stars David ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ McCallum and actress Jill Ireland, Valentine McCallum didn’t follow in their acting and movie-making footsteps. This would seem an even more likely destiny for Val when you consider his parents divorced when he was only two years old and he was raised by his mother and stepdad – who just happened to be The Magnificent Seven and Death Wish film star Charles Bronson.

However, both Jill and Charlie (as Val refers to him) were huge music fans, so Val grew up listening to an eclectic selection. He recalls driving around Hollywood with his mother in her ’67 Corvette Stingray convertible, both of them singing in harmony to the hits of the day by Elton John, Harry Nilsson and The Rolling Stones. Charlie had more conservative taste, so McCallum junior didn’t really appreciate Mr Bronson’s Frank Sinatra record collection until much later on.

Valentine McCallum
Val McCallum with a 1953 Fender Esquire

There may have been many career options ahead of him, but thanks to his family’s love of music, McCallum set off on a trajectory that would culminate in being the guitarist of choice for one of the world’s finest singer-songwriters: Jackson Browne. He’s currently working on a new solo album, his second, as well as Jackson’s forthcoming record, and has produced the well-received American Story for Nashville-based singer-songwriter Brooks Hubbard.

From his childhood beginnings with a Giannini nylon-string guitar, to co-writing the critically acclaimed Tokyo Girl (a beautiful love song inspired by Val’s wife, Shelli) with Dillon O’Brien, the Telecaster-wielding McCallum has also graced the stage and studio with the likes of Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, Shelby Lynne, Harry Nilsson, Vonda Shepard, Lucinda Williams, Randy Newman – and the late Johnny Hallyday.

Musical youth

Valentine McCallum
Image: Judi Hewitt

By the age of seven, Val was already learning guitar, thanks mainly to the encouragement and ability of his older brother Paul, and his mother’s insistence on them taking lessons at Fred Walecki’s famous Westwood Music store. Westwood was only a two-mile hop from the family home, so Val would jump on his skateboard and hang out on the couch. Joe Walsh and Larry Carlton were regulars at the shop, and Fred would say: “Hey guys – you’ve got to listen to Val.”

Val takes up the story: “I was 13 years old – and I would play my ‘chop’, as I like to refer to it! Larry Carlton was one of my first guitar heroes, and I used to often see him play at The Baked Potato in Studio City,” he says.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, but with Scottish and English heritage, Val traces his family’s musical history back to his grandfather, David McCallum senior. He was a professional violinist from Glasgow, and concert master of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Val recalls: “My grandfather actually played on The Beatles’ track A Day In The Life. He’s also credited by Jimmy Page for suggesting using a violin bow on the strings of his electric guitar.

“My mum was musical, too – she played a little bit of guitar, and would have lessons with me at Fred Walecki’s store… she really loved to sing, as well. I didn’t really continue with guitar lessons, though. Once I’d learned a few chords, it was a case of getting in front of the record player and moving that needle back in the grooves, over and over,” he laughs.

Jill really wanted Val to knuckle down, and she begged him to learn music theory. She even offered to buy him a car if he would, but the petulant teenager just didn’t want to exercise that side of his brain. He says: “I was playing guitar from such a young age. It was Chuck Berry at first, like 90 per cent of guitar players. My brother showed me how to play Johnny B. Goode and I was off… never wanted to do anything else.”

Listen and learn

valentine mccallum partscaster
Val’s favourite Tele – a ‘partscaster’ made from a 1961 Fender neck and a bound body Val found in the spares bin at Chicago Music Exchange, subsequently signed by Willie Nelson

Val recalls his influences in those formative years. “From then on, it was all Keith Richards, because he is the greatest riff-writer of all time. Then Jimi Hendrix – but that was harder to learn, because Jimi had all these subtleties in his playing and they weren’t easy for a youngster to capture,” he says.

Thinking back, Val tells us: “The neat thing about playing guitar is you’re constantly learning. I still listen to all my original influences – and I would cite Mick Taylor as well, because I love The Stones.”

What were the other influences steering Val? “When I was a teenager, there was nothing but good music on Top 40 radio – it seemed every other song had a great guitar solo in it,” he tells us. “You’d hear Amos Garrett’s amazing solo from Midnight At The Oasis, then straight into The Eagles’ One Of These Nights – with Don Felder’s perfect lead playing… then Jesse Ed Davis blowing all over [Jackson Browne’s] Doctor My Eyes. The 70s was a great time to be learning guitar,” says McCallum.

Browne sound

valentine mccallum
McCallum with pedal-steel player Greg Leisz. Image: Dennis Scrimo

Val linked up with Jackson Browne following a spell as guitar player for Vonda Shepard’s band. Vonda was one of Jackson’s backing singers – but also performed the music for the Ally McBeal TV show in the 1990s and 2000s.

Val takes up the story: “That show ran for about seven years, but when it ended, I realised I had to find some work. Thankfully, Jackson called about a week later. He was working on his The Naked Ride Home record, and asked if I would play on a couple of tracks. I guess it was a kind of audition, and I ended up playing on the title track. It was a really good session. That resulted in Jackson asking if I wanted to join the band and go on the road with him.”

McCallum toured the world with Jackson Browne, playing second guitar to Mark Goldenberg. He enjoyed it immensely, but decided against doing the follow-up tour. “I bowed out for awhile, and decided to put together my own group, comically named Jackshit,” he says. “Jackson and I remained friends, and indeed, he plays with my band whenever he’s in town… he’s known as Browne Shit!”

McCallum’s band is based on three fictitious characters from Cochtotan, south of Bakersfield. Apart from Jackson, Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson (affectionately referred to as Richard The Turd) regularly guest, joining in the laughter and great music.

McCallum’s link to Browne was reinstated on a regular basis about seven years ago. He tells us: “I’d made my solo album At The End Of The Day, and Jackson loved it. He sang on it, too. Jackson asked me if I’d go back on the road with him and sing one of my songs nightly.” This was Val’s opportunity to perform Tokyo Girl mid-show, every evening.

On performing with Jackson Browne, Val says: “Playing alongside Jackson is kind of hard to beat. I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do my entire life. Jackson loves guitar, and being given the freedom to express myself as a guitar player, especially over the music of one of the greatest songwriters of all time… it’s just kind of ‘pinch yourself’ stuff, you know?

“On a gig, he just wants you to play – and when I solo, I close my eyes a lot. When I open them and look over, he’s there paying attention – he’ll walk over and be listening… it doesn’t get much better than that.”

McCallum developed his own style and chemistry to suit Browne’s repertoire, including emulating David Lindley’s parts. “I’ve done this gig in many configurations now, and when I was the only guitar player, I would play the classic Lindley Running On Empty solo bottleneck-style,” he says. “I love slide guitar, but it’s not necessary now, as we have Greg Leisz [Dobro, lap- and pedal-steel] in the band. So it’s pretty much ‘guitar heaven’ – and I learn so much from trading solos with Greg.”

Take a sad song…

1957 blonde Fender Esquire
A 1957 blonde Fender Esquire with retrofitted neck pickup, tuned a whole step down and strung with flatwound gauge 0.012s

As he works on the final stages of his new album Chateauguay (named after the woodland behind his Vermont home), Val McCallum’s own songwriting prowess is tinged with sadness, as his earlier solo album At The End Of The Day testifies.

“It’s a very personal record, and I was able to pull it all together thanks to my friend and producer Tony Berg – and my writing partner Dillon O’Brien,” he tells us. “I lost my brother Jason back in 1989 to a drug overdose, then my mother died from cancer six months later. There’s a song about Jason called Deal With It, which I wrote with my mother in the six-month period before she passed away. She was really sick from the treatments, but so thrilled we could write a song together,” he says.

Reminiscing about happier times, Val remembers the Giannini classical guitar – along with three others for his brothers, which he found under the tree one Christmas. “Charlie was really annoyed with me, because I covered it with motor-oil stickers from my other passion, motorbikes,” he laughs.

Those days are a far cry from Val’s current touring rig. He takes eight guitars on the road – some tuned down a half step – and a 1957 Fender Esquire a full step down for when Jackson sings These Days, In The Shape Of A Heart, Sky Blue And Black and The Naked Ride Home.

McCallum takes up the story: “I’ve got a 1958 Fender Jazzmaster with an anodised pickguard in standard tuning, and I use that a lot. When we play Looking East, I use my ’64 Gibson Firebird that has been modified to take two early Patent Number humbuckers – it’s sacrilegious I know, but I bought it that way and it sounds very SG-like.”

valentine mccallum danelectro
A 1960s Danelectro six-string bass

So what else is in the flightcase? “I’ve got two Danocasters, one with a P-90 in the neck and a humbucker in the bridge, the other a standard blackguard Tele replica,” he says. “My favourite Tele has Willie Nelson’s autograph on it – and that’s my ‘security blanket’. I’m a Tele kind of guy,” he laughs.

McCallum has a pretty impressive backline, too – with an Alexander Dumble modified mid-60s Fender Deluxe Reverb and a 1959 3×10 tweed Bandmaster. “I waited seven years for him to complete the Deluxe, but I’m not allowed to tell you what he did to it!” says Val.

He keeps effects to a minimum, with the erstwhile Line 6 DL4 (he has a stash of them) or a Boss DD-7 handling delay duties. A Strymon Flint for reverb and tremolo and a pair of Menatone The Red Snappers for overdrive complete Val’s pedalboard.

In his home studio, Val has a bunch of different guitars that he enjoys; particularly a ’64 Gibson SG. “I find it the perfect guitar for everything, in a way. Slide, clean or overdriven sounds, it covers them all,” he tells us. “I also have these ‘Coodercasters’ – built just like Ry Cooder’s Stratocaster.”

However, one of these rarities nearly went walkabout when McCallum’s pal Blake Mills came over to the studio. “Blake played my Coodercaster and he really liked it,” says Val. “Blake is a brilliant slide player, and he asked if he could borrow it for awhile. After a few weeks, I called him up and asked where my guitar was. Blake replied: ‘I can’t really be without this guitar…’ I said: ‘Well, you’re going to have to be,’ and even though he offered me a lot of money, he eventually brought it back,” he laughs.

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