Musician Edwin McCain copes with family illnesses through music, laughter

Singer Edwin McCain's new album is 'Mercy Bound.'
Singer Edwin McCain's new album is "Mercy Bound."
“Tumultuous” doesn’t even begin to describe the past couple of years for Greenville musician Edwin McCain. His mother Wendy has battled ovarian cancer; his father Watt, prostate cancer; and most recently, his wife Christy was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It felt a bit like his world was crashing down around him, McCain said in a recent phone chat from a tour stop in Knoxville.

“The bomb goes off, and your life the way you think it is, is now exploded, and you’re dealing with a different reality. ... You’re face to face with mortality and fear and all of the things that rise up when we’re threatened,” said McCain.

That explosive upheaval inspired him to write “Boom,” a song on his new album, “Mercy Bound,” and the tune encapsulates that whole confluence of emotions. Inspired by his mom’s diagnosis of ovarian cancer after beating Hodgkin’s disease twice before, the song opens with the line, “Mama said, ‘Let’s shave my head today. It’s all gonna fall out anyway.’”

The lyrics take listeners through a roller coaster of feelings, but the chorus sums it all up with, “Love doesn’t wait until it’s easy ... Love’s for when it’s hard.”

Keeping a sense of humor was important, he said.

When his mom suggested they shave her head before chemotherapy could take her hair, they took a pair of clippers out to McCain’s back porch. His sons, Watt and Ben, then 4 and 3, thought it was hilarious, which was part of the point, he said.

“What are you gonna do? It’s not gonna change the course of action. You’re either gonna trudge your way, kicking and screaming, or you’re gonna dance your way, but it’s the same path. So she kind of set the tone, and we had fun with it,” he said. “What better way to deal with the situation than to make a joke out of it?”

His mom is now in remission, but “Boom” became “even more poignant, in a weird way,” after McCain’s wife Christy learned she had breast cancer a couple of months ago. She’s doing well following surgery that revealed the cancer hasn’t spread, but her illness has inspired the usually guarded McCain to open up about his personal life.

McCain said he talked it over with Christy, and she urged him to use the platform of his musical career to encourage women to have breast cancer screenings.

Her thinking, McCain said, was, “If one person goes out and gets a mammogram and catches cancer early and saves her life because you were blabbing about it on stage, then blab away.”

Talking about his private life is “not comfortable, but it’s our part in this.”

Coping with back-to-back family traumas has been difficult, of course, but the irrepressible McCain, who’s 41, doesn’t let it get him down for too long.

“It hasn’t gotten to the point where I’m turning into Eeyore,” he said, referring to the perennially miserable donkey pal of Winnie the Pooh.

“I’m perpetually 12 years old in my mind. Christy says I’m an excellent father of 5-year-olds because I’m on their level. And I think that she’s right in a lot of ways. I don’t want to lose the fact that fart jokes are always gonna be funny to me,” said McCain, who also has a daughter, Tiller, who’s 2.

As a musician, or a “widget factory,” as McCain jokingly calls himself, he has the freedom to take time off when family concerns call. But at the same time, he said, he didn’t want to cancel too many dates because that would affect the incomes of the people who work for him.

The illnesses have brought McCain and his family even closer and have given them a chance to model love and caring for the kids, he said.

“Let’s deal with this as positively as we can, and let’s show our children how to handle crisis, and let’s also say to others that there’s hope, and there’s strength together, and there are answers, and there’s grace,” he said.

Always self-effacing and slightly irreverent, McCain said that musicians usually take themselves too seriously. You’d never find Mick Jagger driving his tour bus, but McCain is behind the wheel of the tour RV for a while because his regular driver had an opportunity to make extra money on a short gig with another company.

“I secretly love driving the bus way more than I should,” he said.

Next up for McCain, who recently appeared in Greenville as part of the food and music festival Euphoria, which he co-founded, is a performance at the Belk Bowl college football matchup in December in Charlotte.

He’ll be singing the national anthem at the game and performing with rocker Daughtry at the Belk Bowl FanFest prior to the game.

Singing “The Star Spangled Banner” has become almost a second career because he’s so often asked to perform it at games and other events. That’s probably, he said, a backlash against performers who arrive with an entourage and a list of backstage demands.

“I usually show up in a cab, by myself, and I think the word got out that I’m real easy to deal with, so I’m inundated with national anthem requests,” he said. “Knock wood, I’ve never screwed it up, and I’ve never been a pain in anybody’s butt.”

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