Long Time Lovin’ You – Interview with John Schwab of McGuffey Lane
Reflections on Charlie Daniels and more from Ohio’s country rock group with two Top 100 singles in the 1980s
BY DANIEL COSTON
Even in 2020, chances are that John Schwab will be playing a gig somewhere this week. The longtime guitarist, vocalist and leader of Ohio’s country-rock legends McGuffey Lane, John has stayed on the move for fifty years. Be it with McGuffey Lane, solo or with a variety of groups, Schwab has continued to play to fans, whether in bars or cruises, or venues big and small. John first joined McGuffey Lane in 1977, after several years of playing in a variety of groups. The Columbus, Ohio band’s first album, released in 1980, led to a contract with Atco /Atlantic, and touring across the United States. Despite having fans around the world, Schwab and McGuffey Lane have stayed loyal to Ohio, where the band and Schwab still resides. Schwab has also held on to an independent spirit, releasing the well-received One More for The Road album in 2015. The world may be rocky, but John is still rolling.
Coston: You’ve stayed busy this year, playing solo and duo gigs.
JOHN SCHWAB: I was originally a solo act. I was playing solo, opening for McGuffey Lane in 1976. I’d sworn that I was never going to be in another band again. It happened organically. They had separately started joining my set, and then I realized they were all up there jamming with me, and I thought, “I guess I’m in the band now.” Like everyone else my age, I knew I wanted to play guitar when I first saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. I was playing in bars when I was sixteen, six nights a week gigs in these dive bars. My mom talked my dad into it, because she saw how driven I was. She said, “As long as you make it to school every day, we’ll let you do it.” Six nights a week, nine to two, at a place forty miles from here. Coming back, sleeping from 3:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., then getting up for school. I didn’t do anything else, because I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining it. I learned to sleep in study hall with my elbows on my book, like I was reading. When I was at Ohio University in 1970, the Kent State shootings happened, and then they closed OU. Suddenly, I was back home in my old bedroom, wondering “What do I do now?” Some guy called me up, and said, “We heard you’re in town. We’ve got a gig in Wisconsin.” It was one of the greatest summers in my life. That was like, freedom. I went from having ten dollars a week at OU, to having 250 bucks a week. I was living! And I was free.
Coston: The place in Columbus that McGuffey Lane really first made their mark was at Zachariah’s Red Eye Saloon.
JS: It had three stories, like Carnegie Hall, but it wasn’t anything fancy like that. It was open, so that the people on the third floor are looking at you with rapt attention. Second floor and first floor, you’re surrounded by people. It was just a perfect place.
Coston: What did it feel like when the band was on the rise, and everything was working?
JS: Just pure excitement. I kind of had a vision of what I wanted to do. I had been playing with this duo, prior to that. When I saw McGuffey Lane, I said, “Those guys are doing what I want to do.” That was probably a year and a half before I ever joined. They were more acoustic. I had started in bands as a lead guitar player, so I brought more of the rock edge to their country. It was just a high, to have a thousand people every night you play. They would start lining up at four in the afternoon. We didn’t play until ten. They would be sitting on High Street, across from the Ohio State campus. To drive past it, to see that, it was exciting stuff.
Coston: Suddenly, it’s like you’re in The Beatles.
JS: The crowd response was like that. After our first album release, we did our first theater show at The Palace Theater. The show was booked for December, and it was sold out in September. The night of the gig, John Lennon had passed away five days before, and we had planned a little tribute to him for our encore. Somebody was messing around with the projector to make sure that his picture would come up, and they accidentally flashed on the McGuffey Lane logo behind the stage, and the crowd started going nuts. We didn’t start for ten minutes. We were still in our dressing room, and they didn’t stop. Just on their feet, screaming. It was unbelievable.
Coston: McGuffey Lane recorded their first album on their own.
JS: We almost did the album three different times and scraped it and started again. We were learning as we went. We weren’t studio cats. Then we hooked up with Gary Platt. He was co-producer on it. We didn’t know what that was when we started. We went down to Cincinnati. We were recording during the day and playing at night. To get out of town and do it really helped us.
Coston: You sold 40,000 copies on your own label.
JS: And that was only in two or three months. We sold 10,000 the first week. If only we could’ve had iTunes back then.
Coston: Atco then signed the band, but they wanted to push you more into the country charts.
JS: We wanted a record deal so bad. The record deal was the end all, we didn’t see past that. It’s something we should have discussed.
Coston: You toured with a lot of different bands, including The Charlie Daniels Band, who also guested on your second album.
JS: Playing with Charlie, we got to know the band. That was a really good combination. He had us on five of the Volunteer Jams, down in Nashville. Sitting in a dressing room with The Allman Brothers Band, The Marshall Tucker Band, Billy Joel, James Brown, Amy Grant, Tanya Tucker, and David Lee Roth. They were all in one big dressing room. Then the party at the Hyatt afterwards was nuts. Charlie had rented out the Hyatt, and all the bands were staying there. You’d go from room to room, and watch John Prine handing a guitar to Guy Clark. Hang out with Toy Caldwell and jam out with him in another room. Really fun stuff.
Coston: What are your recollections of touring with The Judds?
JS: They were so down to earth. We were doing a soundcheck, the first time we played with them. They walked out on stage, and said, “We wanna meet you hairy legged boys!” So we do our show, and then they are on stage, and Naomi comes walking by to change costumes, and she says, “Oh, hi John!” They remembered all of our names. The blood harmonies were amazing. Wynonna had the voice, and Naomi had the charisma.
Coston: Talk about the One More for The Road album that you made in 2015.
JS: That’s probably one of my favorite albums that I’ve ever been involved with. When I started playing with Molly Pauken in 1992, I told her that I wanted her to learn these Sinatra songs. She later joined McGuffey Lane in 1996. I finally decided to go ahead and do it. I was talking to a buddy who I knew, and he loved Sinatra, too. I was telling that I wanted to do this project, and use session guys, and just knock it out. He said, “How much?” I told him what I thought it would cost, and he said, “No problem.” We got some airplay on NPR, and ironically, the song that people picked was the only original on the album, that I wrote. It’s not a Sinatra tribute. It’s me trying to make those songs my own.
Coston: Do you think that you could have done that record thirty years ago?
JS: No, absolutely not. I wouldn’t have been ready to do it when I was first talking to Molly about it. It was definitely the time.
Coston: Was there a point where you decided, I don’t need to do the national tours, all the time? I want to tour closer to home.
JS: That was a decision I made when the band first broke up in 1990. I was sick of the rolling frat house. I made the decision to stay closer to home. I have such a strong market here. I’m so lucky to be able to do that, and not travel so much. Although we have made a few trips to England in the past few years. There were people that wanted to bring us over there, but that was all first class.
Coston: Even when you were breaking nationwide, you were still playing around Ohio. What made you decide to keep playing smaller venues closer to home?
JS: We were able to make a lot of money in Ohio, and then spend it all going to Louisiana and Texas. We were able to get tour support back then, and they expected us to tour to support those albums. We supported it by playing around Ohio. And that’s where our fanbase was. We wanted to keep playing for those people. In 1976, there was a local magazine around here called Focus Magazine, and they named me Best Local Solo Performer. And in 2020, I just won Best Local Solo Performer with 614, the new magazine in this area. That’s a pretty good span.