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American Routes Shortcuts: Tom McDermott & Meschiya Lake

Meschiya Lake & Tom McDermott
Meschiya Lake & Tom McDermott

Pianist Tom McDermott is a native of St. Louis and a lifetime explorer of the music downriver here in New Orleans, across the Caribbean and to Brazil. Singer Meschiya Lake started out in Rapid City, South Dakota and landed hereabouts as a circus performer. Meschiya and Tom came together for us in the sonic wooden glory of an old Presbyterian church, now called Esplanade Studios.

Nick Spitzer: You know, I kind of had a question for the two of you. I mean, I know you do other things; Tom, you are off playing piano, researching, and Meschiya, I know you’ve got the band, The Little Big Horns, but when did you first hear Tom and what was your impression of him?

Meschiya Lake: I think that must’ve been 2007. I was singing with a street band back then called The Loose Marbles, and the band leader at that time Michael Magro had befriended Tom; I mean I’d heard his name around town, but when I finally saw him play and met him, I was just blown away. You were a god to me, Tom. I was like, “Tom McDermott’s playing with us? Oh my god I’ve made it!”

NS: Tom, how about your side of the story?

Tom McDermott: I remember hearing The Loose Marbles and–this was right after Katrina–and it was a really joyous thing for me to stumble on this scene. It was a good trad jazz band, but then they had Meschiya singing. I mean it was a very striking band. I really loved them when they were around, that original version.

NS: Well you’re doing other things, and you’ve known each other a long time, but how do you work together? What are the queues? I mean how do you accompany somebody with a voice like this and her sensibilities? And how do you queue Tom with where you’re headed and how it’s going to work?

ML: I think we kind of follow each other. To me it just kind of creates this entity that just makes me feel great. Like, it can be medicine to the soul. Honestly Tom, I never told you this story, but one of the first gigs we did, under a tent in Algiers, I had to tap my foot because I was so used to Ben Polser playing the time machine, with this steady-steady-steady, and you changed things and you flow. It was really challenging to me at first, but it’s really such an enriching and amazing thing to be able to just be rooted like a tree, but still be flexible.

TMD: On my end it’s been so wonderful playing with Meschiya because I’ve never played really any Hank–Hank Williams–tunes. We’ve done Lefty Frizzell, we’ve done other country people, and it’s a lot of fun for me because I can really just sort of play gospelly piano, and I don’t try and Floyd Cramer it up, I just play straight–I put in the black notes in there too. It’s a–I don’t know. Meschiya’s my medicine I tell people.

ML: Aw, Tom!

TMD: There’s been periods where I’ve been sick, and the only gig I’d do is I’d go out and play with Meschiya because it makes me feel better.

NS: Nice, nice. Well it’s good that you’re each other's spirit doctors, and the music makes that possible. Tom, you wanted to do a Dr. John song called “Dorothy.”

TMD: Yes. I would say this is his best-known instrumental piece. You know, he’s best known for his songs. It was a tribute to his mother called “Dorothy.”

To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.