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On a crisp Friday evening last month inside the vintage Eureka Springs City Auditorium, singer-songwriter Don McLean strode onto stage wearing black jeans and butterscotch cowboy boots. He began singing promptly at 7:30 p.m. Yet I was 47 years late.

In the 1970s attending Baylor University, I was a campus newspaper staffer covering student government, which I disliked, and entertainment, which I loved.

In the latter, I enjoyed choice concert seats and interviews with pop stars passing through. Conversations with the likes of John Denver, Mary Travers (of the broken-apart, later mended Peter, Paul and Mary) and Marilyn McCoo of the 5th Dimension were memorable.

When Don McLean, with his chart-topping song "American Pie," was to perform April 8, 1972, I would have been there, front row in Waco Hall, with notepad in hand. That would have been the case, but for a certain brown-eyed girl.

Months earlier, a lovely sophomore whose mother was pre-school choir director at First Baptist Church of Dallas invited me, a dapper senior whose mother was the organist of First Baptist Church of Covington, La., to her sorority's dance. Love bloomed.

I conveniently passed her "meet the family test" visiting nearby Dallas. But as my senior year neared its end, a Louisiana trip became overdue. I called my folks suggesting a weekend visit. They readily agreed, yet Mother intervened.

"Now Ted, I will have to call her mother to extend this invitation," she said. "It's just not proper for you to be hauling a young woman over here without her parents knowing something about us."

Modern Direct Distance Dialing connected Southern Bell to Southwestern Bell; the mothers conferred. Erelong, my Baylor belle and I were motoring down the Brazos Valley toward the new Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Aboard a golden-tailed Continental 727 gliding across the Sabine River and Acadiana prairie land, she nuzzled my shoulder and sighed "Oh, I feel like Scarlett O'Hara and you're Rhett Butler taking me to New Orleans."

Meanwhile back in Waco, my concert tickets and assignment were passed to a friend on the paper staff who agreed to cover for me. Upon returning, I checked for feedback. Rather than offering the cursory backstage interview, McLean invited him to his nearby motel room where they conversed into the wee hours -- a singularly memorable experience, but for a substitute reporter, not me. And by summer's end, my special gal and I split up anyway. Missed opportunities, but with "no regret" as in McLean's song "Crossroads."

In Eureka Springs, baby boomers of many stripes filed into "The Aud." Some could have been tourists, having spent the day at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Others, more nattily dressed, possibly drove up for the weekend from better parts of west Little Rock. This being Eureka Springs, hip 1960s holdouts clad in natural-dye fabrics and sandals wafted in on the scent of patchouli oil.

Poster-size photos of previous performers adorned the lobby. Willie Nelson, Emmy Lou Harris, Lyle Lovett, Judy Collins, B.B. King and others have experienced the fine acoustic bones and savvy ticket-holders of this 986-seat "Ryman Auditorium" of the Ozarks. It was McLean's first appearance here; he described a walk around town that afternoon. "This place is like a secret the rest of the world doesn't know about," he declared. We locals chuckled.

Backed by a foursome of Nashville veterans, he offered expected classics -- the iconic cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying," "Vincent," "Castles in the Air," and, of course, "American Pie" -- plus new songs from last year's Botanical Gardens album. The audience appreciated old and new; therefore, it is hoped there won't be laments from McLean a la Ricky Nelson's Garden Party.

Sometimes slipping into slightly aged baritone from the usual tenor, McLean still holds his distinctive timbre from last century while his elongated, lisp-like "sss" sounds at the end of certain phrasing, still draw you into story-song narratives. The falsetto ending of "Crying" was a tad shorter, a bit weaker than yesteryear. But we "good old boys drinking whiskey and rye" opt now for milder, unoaked chardonnays, do we not?

Ending the concert with "American Pie," McLean bowed to a standing ovation and departed. We 60-somethings creaked out of our seats and made exits as well.

The Recording Industry Association of America pegged American Pie as No. 5, above The Andrews Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and below Aretha Franklin's "Respect," in its most important Songs of the 20th century. On the curvy drive home, I mused happily. I'd finally heard the man perform it live, in the 21st.

Commentary on 11/14/2019

Print Headline: Hello, 'American Pie'

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