pat mAcdonald: Door County’s Troubadour of Stomp

Editor’s note:  One of the perks of being a rock star is having a say in how you are addressed. Prince did it in the ‘90s, even taking it a step further by foregoing a name in favor of a symbol. In this article, you’ll learn about one such rock star. After countless misspellings of his moniker as McDonald in newspapers and magazines across the country, Pat MacDonald did what he is best known for in these parts — he forewent all formal rule and took matters into his own hands. Throwing grammatical correctness to the wayside, he reinvented his name in a way that ensured that small but not insignificant letter didn’t get missed. So yes, pat mAcdonald is correct.


Three weeks out of the year, Sturgeon Bay’s Holiday Music Motel takes on a life of its own, pulsating with the irrepressible creative energy of musicians who have traveled from near and far to take in the atmosphere of original collaboration.

Central to the organized chaos of musicians spinning bottles, writing tunes and laying down tracks in one of the motel’s recording studios is pat mAcdonald — Door County’s troubadour of stomp, rebel with a cause, Steel Bridge Songfest creator and cofounder of the motel where the musical magic happens.

His is a story that has made its way into glossies and onto television screens across the country — the story of a Green Bay boy who made it big as part of the 1980s’ post-punk duo Timbuk3. A master of clever verse who has favored guitar strings and bar gigs to a standard 9-to-5, who counts Jackson Browne among his closest friends, and who has turned down collective millions from companies wanting to use Timbuk3’s only mainstream hit, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” in advertising campaigns.

Though he has 14 studio albums, a Grammy nomination, Billboard Top 20 hit and collaborations with some of the country’s biggest musicians (Cher, Stewart Copeland and Peter Frampton among them) on his resumé, pat mAcdonald considers the past decade of his 40-year musical career to be the most important.

Perhaps it’s because the vibrant music scene he has singlehandedly inspired since landing here in 2004 is paying dividends in collaboration and creativity that are worth far more to pat than any royalty check.

“I feel I’m a part of all these collaborations and I feel like it’s a calling I didn’t really aspire to,” pat says. “It was something that was motivated more by living in a place and seeing a need and knowing that I’m committed to being here and knowing that I wouldn’t want to be here if that need wasn’t at least addressed or fulfilled.”

The Holiday Music Motel and the creative songwriting festivals that happen there are a symbol of a long and winding musical journey that has steeped pat in the deepest realms of songwriting, collaboration and a “less is more” approach to music.

Making Connections

Photo: Len Villano

Door County’s most influential musician turned down millions of dollars to license his music over the year. Photo by Len Villano

He outlines his entry into music in chapters:  a childhood inspired by his parents’ harmony singing and rockabilly records, a teenaged foray into songwriting inspired by Bob Dylan and political folk-rock poets The Fugs, and a move to Madison where he eked out a living playing solo and band gigs.

“When I was 19, it seemed to start a series of projects that lasted awhile, more or less, but all that time I was really feeling that I wanted to be a songwriter,” pat says. “Playing in bands was how I made my living but I was really kind of aspiring to be a songwriter to where I could just write songs and I wouldn’t necessarily have to perform.”

So he did what any aspiring songwriter with nothing to lose would do:  put together a demo of mostly country originals and made his way to Nashville, where, in exchange for room and board, he hosted writers’ nights at a coffeehouse and was immersed in a subculture of young songwriters who, for the most part, “weren’t writing the kind of music that was going to get recorded by anybody.”

“That writers’ night was actually a real life-changing experience because I met a lot of songwriters and I got to be exposed to a lot of people playing night after night after night, and I got to play, myself, night after night after night,” pat recalls. “I was busy developing my own kind of music at the time and not really trying very hard to write country songs or get them published. I just was in this other realm there, as were a lot of other writers there.”

In 1975, with a wealth of experience gleaned from a “very charmed existence” in Nashville, pat made his way to his parents’ new home and business, Fish Creek’s Bayside Tavern. While pat was “the only kid who never worked there,” he remembers hooking his amp up through a sound system wired for records and the ensuing disappointment of one of his first Door County gigs.

“There was no connection with the audience there,” pat recalls. “People weren’t interested in music there that much. It was loud, really loud there and they wouldn’t shut up.”

While disappointing, the performance sharpened his resolve to seek out venues where he didn’t have to fight for attention or pander to a crowd. By the end of the summer of 1976, he made his way back to Madison to continue a solo and band career, dabbled in the Chicago folk scene, and got opening gigs for some of his heroes at the time, including jazz blues musician Mose Allison and fingerstyle guitarist John Fahey.

But his big break would come in 1984 alongside his then-wife, Barbara Kooyman, who had joined his most recent band, Pat MacDonald and The Essentials, in 1982. They shared in the trials and tribulations of a revolving door of unreliable musicians, leading to the birth of an experimental street duo called Timbuk3.

From the Streets to the Grammys

The concept of the band was simple yet innovative:  eliminate the need for additional musicians with a mobile rhythm section consisting of homemade drum and bass tracks played on a boom box. The rewards were immediate.

“We actually went out to New York and played for about a week. We set up in Greenwich Village and played with this boom box and we got invited to play CBGB’s open mic,” pat recalls. “…We got to go directly from the street to the legendary CBGB. That was a turning point.”

They trucked their boom box down to Austin, Texas in 1984 (where, despite the whole mobile concept, they only played on the street once) and within nine months, were discovered by a film crew shooting footage for I.R.S. Records’ monthly MTV music program, “The Cutting Edge.”

“Their first on-the-road ‘Cutting Edge’ episode was Austin — they were interested in the Austin music scene,” pat recalls. “We were on that show, our little duo with a boom box and they told us we got the most response around the country for our performance on the show.”

“That was a catapult to sudden credibility,” he adds. “We were suddenly of interest to people whereas before we had just recently celebrated our first $500 night at the Pig & Whistle in Fort Worth. They signed us and we commenced to making our first record for them.”

Greetings from Timbuk3 opened with the band’s signature tune, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades,” which would also become the basis for their first music video, Grammy nomination for best new artist, and MTV Video Music Awards nomination for best new artist in a video.

While they never followed up the hit, Timbuk3 did make five more studio albums for I.R.S. Records before the band, and marriage, broke up.

In many ways, the end of Timbuk3 marked a rebirth for pat. No longer constrained by the expectations of a record label and the mainstream, he was able to further develop his signature style of edgy, falsetto vocals and low, lush guitar, turning out a number of solo albums in the process.

His first, Pat MacDonald Sleeps With His Guitar, would be his only U.S. release in 10 years and would solidify his reputation and connection to the fans who stuck around after Timbuk3 parted ways. One of those fans was Greg Welsh, a Seattle-based graphic designer who now donates his time and talents to designing the Steel Bridge Songfest album covers.

“What initially blew me away about Sleeps With His Guitar was how pat did so much musically with so little,” Welsh says. “Simple chord structures and simple arrangements. And yet it sounded so powerful, so full, and so subtly beautiful; nothing felt missing. Then after a few back-to-back listenings, I started paying more attention to the words. Genius. Personal, profound even and yet never taking himself too seriously.”

It would be years before U.S. fans would have easy access to pat’s music. By 1999, he had moved into the Barcelona apartment of his good friend, Jackson Browne, where he released three albums on the German label Ulftone:  Begging Her Graces, Degrees Of Gone and a cover album of Depeche Mode originals, Strange Love:  PM Does DM.

pat mAcdonald performs with Jackson Browne at Steel Bridge Songfest. Photo by Len Villano.

pat mAcdonald performs with Jackson Browne at Steel Bridge Songfest, a festival that helped save a bridge and put the county’s focus on historic preservation. Photo by Len Villano.

‘This Whole Bridge Thing’

Everything he did in his solo career at home and abroad has come full circle in his life in Sturgeon Bay, where he has lived since 2004 and given his time to showing the community that art and music aren’t just about beauty. In the beginning, that was through searing, critical verse aimed at those who wanted the historic Michigan Street Bridge replaced rather than rehabbed.

“Anybody with half a brain could see how stupid it was to tear it down,” pat says. “If you allow yourself to think about that, you can become obsessed with it because here I am in this place and there’s these people who are so stupid they want to tear that thing down and they don’t have a good reason and they don’t have any sense of aesthetics or appreciation for things that are special.”

“What made it something that was kind of a must-do thing was the fact that there was so much emotion invested,” he adds. “It aroused so many feelings of anger and frustration, this whole bridge thing, and at the same time, from day one of being involved, I also saw that bridge as a really strong symbol for something really good. The idea of sides coming together, the idea of a bridge being a bridge, becoming a bridge in your life and as a symbol of collaboration. Being fired up on one end and being inspired poetically on the other. It was kind of like it became inevitable that this was something that would take a lot of me, take a lot of my energy.”

And it has. What began as a free concert with songs about the bridge by pat’s friend, Jackson Browne, has quickly become Door County’s largest music festival. It lit a fire under the city’s creative community and inspired pat to gather friends to invest in another forgotten gem of Sturgeon Bay:  the Holiday Motel on 1st Ave.

The now-Holiday Music Motel serves as the headquarters for dozens of invited musicians who descend upon Sturgeon Bay to collaborate, write and record original songs not only for Steel Bridge Songfest, but for its other annual songwriting festivals:  February’s Love on Holiday and October’s Dark Songs.

Though it sounds like chaos masked as art, Sturgeon Bay artist and business owner Jeremy Popelka says these festivals have given Sturgeon Bay an identity it never had before, and it’s all thanks to pat and his life and musical partner, melaniejane (who moved to Door County after a life-altering week at Steel Bridge Songfest in 2007).

“It’s exposed Sturgeon Bay to a lot of people that otherwise would not have come up here,” Popelka says. “It doesn’t take much to light a fire with some of the local people but also with the tourists that come here to check out the eccentric, eclectic things that are happening. The city really needs that kind of spark to make it a destination so the fact that those guys dedicated themselves to preserving an icon here, the Holiday Motel, and repurposing it as a place to write, at this point, over a thousand songs has been an amazing, creative jolt to our town.”

A Songwriter’s Dream Fulfilled

In 2015, on the 10th anniversary of Steel Bridge Songfest, pat’s dedication to Sturgeon Bay was not only honored with the official proclamation of June 13, 2015 as Steel Bridge Songfest Day in the city, but with a tribute album created by 38 Steel Bridge Songfest artists under the direction of pat’s friends Joe Kaftan, Steve Hamilton, Adam Mackintosh, Jimm McIver and melaniejane.

Kaftan’s goal with the project was as simple and profound as the lyrics that drew him to pat’s music in the late ‘90s, to share the musical genius of a man who has put his soul into every musical project he’s done.

“I felt like we have an American treasure amongst us,” Kaftan says. “pat’s a human being, he’s just another person but he also happens to have written a couple of hundred amazing songs and a few dozen masterpieces and I felt that not many people were aware of that. Particularly it seemed a shame that most of the songwriters weren’t aware of all of his music and I thought this was a way for them to learn pat’s music and it was also a way for them to honor pat.”

pat mAcdonald receiving his tribute album, "Begging His Grace: Volume One," at Steel Bridge Songfest 2015. Photo by Len Villano.

pat mAcdonald receiving his tribute album, “Begging His Grace: Volume One,” at Steel Bridge Songfest 2015. Photo by Len Villano.

The 38-song double album, Begging His Graces:  The Songs and Sins of pat mAcdonald, was not only a touching tribute to one of Door County’s most beloved musicians but the true fulfillment for a guy whose biggest dream was to be a songwriter.

“It’s something I’ve never had in my life before,” pat says. “All these songs and hearing the way they could sound with somebody else doing it. It’s such a gift to that guy in me that always really wanted to write for other voices and hear other people doing these songs.”

And it will continue, as pat and Kaftan have teamed up to create a collection of Begging His Graces albums featuring various musicians whose lives have been changed one songwriting week after another. But the timing was bittersweet. As pat was arranging the song order for Begging His Graces volume two and getting into high gear for Steel Bridge Songfest 2016, he was diagnosed with stage four lymphoma.

While it pushed his and melaniejane’s projects to the backburner while they grappled with the diagnosis and lived in hospital rooms off and on during six rounds of chemo, it also gave pat the chance to reflect on his life and set his sights on what’s to come when he hits his next big goal, that of cancer survivor.

“I hope I emerge a wiser person,” pat says. “I think I will. I am already starting to learn those things about life that facing one’s own mortality brings. It’s good. I didn’t know that I’d have to reach that level of growing up this early but it’s not bad timing actually. I think it’s about right.”

In the meantime, his projects carry on — Steel Bridge Songfest had a full lineup of musicians this June, Begging His Graces volume two is about ready to be made into an album, and pat is giving his remaining energy to his newest venture, the Tambourine Collaboratory, a year-round social club that extends on the Holiday Music Motel’s mission of spurring collaboration between artists.

And in the process, giving voice to the creative energy that he inspired all those years ago, as evidenced by the words of every musician, friend and stranger pat has met.

“He’s raised the bar for myself and anybody who’s had an opportunity to come perform at Steel Bridge Songfest or any of the events we have throughout the year,” says musician and Holiday Music Motel investor Bruce Reaves. “I’ve witnessed it over and over and over. pat’s a very nurturing person and he’s somebody who is never going to raise his voice at you but just by being around him and by his actions and listening to his music, he’s raised the bar and made us all so much better.”

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