From Buck to Big Star
San Francisco power-pop singer Rich McCulley has serious roots in San Joaquin Valley twang
Rich McCulley may not be a Sacramento boy, but he should be familiar to at least a few local-music fans.
McCulley, who grew up in Visalia and Fresno, now lives in San Francisco, where he lived in the mid-1990s before moving to Midtown Sacramento in 1996. McCulley had landed a guitar spot with the now-defunct Sweet Vine around the time that band’s Columbia Records debut came out. “It sold around four copies,” said McCulley dryly over the phone last week from Nashville, as he basked in post-gig afterglow at a restaurant after finishing a set at a BMI songwriters’ showcase.
Before McCulley spent his one year here, he was the guitarist in a Fresno band called East Side Indians, which occasionally made it into local clubs in the early 1990s. Fresno, believe it or not, had a pretty cool music scene at the time, spawning the pop group the Miss Alans and the ska band Let’s Go Bowling.
And when McCulley left Sacramento and moved back to Fresno, he played guitar and wrote songs for Sparklejet—another familiar band for local rock-club denizens. “We did a lot of gigs with Grub Dog, Natalie Cortez and Forever Goldrush when they were first getting going,” he recalled. “For whatever weird reason, we had a really good crowd up there at Ironsides.”
McCulley also recorded with the country-rock band the Big Blue Hearts, which released an album on Geffen in 1997, and he backed country singer Victor Sanz.
But adding guitar licks behind somebody else’s musical vision wasn’t such a satisfying experience for McCulley. And even when Sparklejet frontman Victor Sotelo would sing tunes that McCulley had written, the guitarist was having second thoughts about the trajectory of his career.
It was time to go solo.
“I felt like I needed to do my own thing,” McCulley said. “It was kinda like [the band] Uncle Tupelo, where you’ve got two songwriters, or Lennon and McCartney. And two guys that are writing songs are going to get too strong a head. What was hard in Sparklejet was that I wasn’t singing; I was writing songs, but it was hard to get them across.”
So, what happened next was that McCulley put together a solo CD called After the Moment Has Past, which he released on his own label. It was a strong first effort, with guitar and slide-guitar work that connected the dots between the hard-edged melodic pop-rock of the Beatles, Badfinger and Big Star and the Bakersfield country jump of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard.
And like those hard-core country songwriters, McCulley isn’t afraid to use real-life experience as grist for his mill. “Sometimes, they’re things that happen to me,” he said. “And sometimes, they’re things that I observe, even though I often turn them around and make them first-person.”
Consider the song “Unwound,” the second track from McCulley’s second self-released disc, If Faith Doesn’t Matter, released late last year. It’s a loping power-pop tune with ringing guitars and McCulley’s rasping vocals—the combination of which is quite reminiscent of Washington, D.C., pop icon Tommy Keene’s “Places That Are Gone.” “It’s too late now / to turn around,” McCulley chimes in the song’s catchy chorus. “And you can’t rewind / what’s come unwound.”
Another innocuous, guitar-driven breakup song, right?
“It’s the story about one of my best friends,” McCulley said. “He was supposed to be getting married, and I was going to be in the wedding. And, three weeks before his wedding, dude, his girlfriend went out of town for the weekend, and she comes back—he was a former addict, and he’d been clean for like five years, and he went on a binge—and she finds him high on dope, drunk and with a hooker.”
Needless to say, the wedding was called off, and his friend’s life turned into somewhat of a shipwreck, but McCulley got a good tune out of it.
“I was numb for, like, a week before I wrote that song,” he said. “But writing it cleared my conscience.”