Southern Comfort

After performing into the wee hours, any gig before noon can be challenging, especially for a guy who readily admits he's not a morning person. Rod MacDonald's not complaining, though. When you're a folk musician who writes and records original material and you're trying to scratch out a living in a place where most of the populace listens to hip-hop, dance music, and alternative rock, any work -- even if you have to crisscross three counties on only a couple of hours of sleep -- is certainly welcome. Never mind the fact that he has released over a dozen albums, spent more than 30 years in the biz, garnered rave reviews from peers and press alike, and attracted a fan following that extends from Europe to the Northeast and into America's heartland.

Since moving here from New York in July 1995 to care for his aging parents, MacDonald has had to carve out his career beyond more fertile folk pastures. Nevertheless, he doesn't want for work. He performs regularly, playing an average of three to four nights a week. And there's money to be made elsewhere as well -- a tour of the Carolinas and the Midwest in April, a show in Alaska in July, a jaunt to Europe later this year, and plans to play Australia in 2005.

Aside from some live tracks from the mid-Seventies (now available on MacDonald's Website, his first recording, No Commercial Traffic, appeared in 1983. Since the beginning, his music has been marked by pointed social commentary and an unflinching perspective inspired by the work of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Bob Dylan. These are evident on his new solo album Recognition, a searing set of narratives that touches on such topics as the 9/11 hijackers who lived in MacDonald's hometown ("My Neighbors in Delray"), the trigger-happy ex-governor of Texas ("137 Executions [Not One Innocent Man]"), and the lies perpetrated by politicians ("For the Good of America").

"I didn't go looking for those songs," MacDonald says. "The 2000 election had a big effect on my thinking. As a songwriter you have to deal with this life and times.... I hold myself to a more socially oriented standard. When you write music it's important to say certain things."

Despite his international reputation and preeminent standing in the folk community, MacDonald barely breaches headliner status here. Local bookings often require him to play covers rather than the politically charged originals that dot his CDs.

"The covers make it easy. I don't resent it at all," he insists. "It's all music. I play enough concerts where I get to do my own music so I don't have to feel deprived." In fact he sometimes prefers to bury himself in other people's music; in addition to Recognition, there's A Few Dylan Songs, an album wholly devoted to Bob Dylan covers that he just released with his side band, Big Brass Bed.

Still with local audiences sometimes numbering no more than a few dozen, MacDonald's self-imposed South Florida exile isn't exactly an ideal career move for someone who was once part of Greenwich Village's famed Fast Folk music scene, which yielded stars such as Tracy Chapman, Lyle Lovett, and Lucy Kaplansky. Laurie Oudin, owner of Homestead's Main Street Cafe, says he ought to be bigger. "His writing is so intelligent. He's got an incredibly great voice. Years ago, people like Suzanne Vega and Mary Chapin-Carpenter were opening for him. So why isn't he on the same level as them?"

If anyone doubts his affinity for his adopted home, though, they need only glance at the telling song titles that adorn his previous album, 1999's Into The Blue: "No Problem," "It's a Tough Life," and "Sun Dancer." If Florida's legislature ever sponsors a competition for a new state song, the contest would likely narrow down to him and Jimmy Buffett, one of the few songwriters who rivals MacDonald for his use of tropical trappings.

"I tried to write about things that make me happy in life," says the 55-year-old MacDonald. "In comparison to my life in New York City, I have a very domestic life here. I have a wife, health insurance, a car -- two cars actually -- and we're buying a house.

"When you're in your late teens and early twenties, you're rewarded for your youth, your good looks, your ambition," he continues. "I don't find that as much anymore."

Nevertheless, MacDonald says he has no regrets, insisting that the rewards were worth whatever commercial sacrifices he made along the way. "I do okay," he admits. "My albums don't sell in the millions. They sell in the thousands. My concerts are more intimate affairs."

Rod MacDonald performs at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday, April 23-24, at Paddy Mac's, 10971 N Military Trail, Palm Beach Gardens. Call 561-691-4366. He also performs at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, April 25, at O'Connor's Pub, 210 NE 2nd Ave, Delray Beach. Call 561-330-0222.

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Lee Zimmerman