Michael Feinstein still vividly recalls the first time he was in a room full of gay country music fans. It was shortly after he had moved to Los Angeles in the late 1970s.
“I went to Oil Can Harry’s, one of the [gay] bars in the San Fernando Valley,” Feinstein says, “and seeing all these guys line dancing, it screwed with my brain. To see all these cowboys. It opened a new world, let’s put it that way.”
Feinstein didn’t get on the phone for a recent interview intending to reminisce about Studio City’s Oil Can Harry’s, which closed this past December after 58 years in operation, joining an unfortunately long roster of gay bars around the country ultimately lost to COVID.
He did, however, get on to discuss his Midwestern roots, along with the fact that he once again lives in the region, as a part-time resident of Carmel, Indiana. That Indianapolis suburb is three hours due west of Columbus, Ohio, where Feinstein grew up playing piano in the ’60s and early ’70s.
“I left at the age of 20, when the insistent voices telling me to move to California became so strong that I couldn’t deny them any longer,” he says. “In the words of Horace Greeley, I went west, young man.”
In the ensuing decades, Feinstein made a name for himself chiefly as a recording artist and touring musician associated with what has become known as the Great American Songbook — a loosely defined collection of jazz, pop, and show tune standards, the bulk of them from the early to mid-20th century.
He’s long been considered both a leading interpreter of the repertoire as well as a leading advocate for “America’s musical heritage,” as the Library of Congress put it when it appointed him to the Library’s National Recording Preservation Board in 2000.
Roughly a dozen years ago, Feinstein became the artistic director of Carmel’s Center for the Performing Arts, which also now houses his Great American Songbook Foundation and its work in preserving, promoting, and educating youth nationwide about the art form. He also serves as the principal pops conductor of the Pasadena Symphony and operates a string of cabaret venues bearing his name in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Carmel.
Over the course of a 70-minute conversation last week, Feinstein did touch on all of that. But the chief focus? Country music. Specifically, his latest artistic project: Gershwin Country, a just-released covers album featuring 11 duets between Feinstein and some of the biggest names in the country field, including Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, Alison Krauss, and Lee Ann Womack.
As of now, Feinstein doesn’t have plans to tour in support of the album. Most of the touring he’s been doing since last fall have been makeup dates of shows postponed earlier in the pandemic.
He also hasn’t set a date marking his return to a stage in the D.C. area, but is hopeful it will happen before 2022 ends. “We are working on it, because I love playing in the D.C. area,” he says. “That’s one of the things that has been on my mind.”
He adds that planning tours and shows well in advance is so 2020. “Everything has changed with COVID, in that now things are being booked quickly and on a short leash. Even the classical world, which always would book several years out, now will arrange and present things pretty quickly.”
If nothing else, the pandemic has taught the 65-year-old not to take things for granted, expect the unexpected, and go with the flow. Or as he puts it, “I’m taking it day by day.”
METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the new album, which is quite remarkable and pretty fantastic, I have to say. I know it took a long time to come to fruition, approximately six years, and that you struggled to get people to even grasp the concept at first.
MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: Thank you. I’m very pleased with it. Maybe because it’s with all these illustrious partners. It’s been a long process putting this project together. The realization of an idea like this is not easily achieved, there are so many moving parts. An idea is frequently the easiest part of a project. In this case, the idea came after spending time with Maya Angelou, who was a close friend, educating me in country music, which was one of her passions, which was surprising to learn. But, on second glance, not so unusual as one would think, because Maya was a person whose life was about inspiring [through] storytelling, and certainly country music, the lyrics in those songs are about storytelling and communicating a message.
It was through Maya that I really gained a different perspective of country music. Two years after she passed, I was lying in bed one morning in a reverie, and the idea of doing Gershwin combined with a Nashville band burst into my brain. It seemed odd at first, but then as I started to think about it, it started to make sense as I imagined what the potential was. I wasn’t sure where to go from there, but I discussed it with my manager, Jim Morey, who through the years has represented a number of clients in the country music industry, including, for many years, Dolly Parton. He thought it was a great idea. The first thing that we needed to do was to find a producer who understood what the vision was, and Jim suggested Kyle Lehning, who turned out to be extraordinarily right for this crazy idea.
At first, he too was given pause when the idea was presented. But after we met in New York, he got it, and agreed to come on board. It was with the extraordinary talent of Kyle that we were able to create this thing together. He had many years of experience working in Nashville and therefore knew which musicians to call, and also helped me get the artists who participated — even though I knew Dolly socially from dinner parties at the home of Roddy McDowall from the days of yore, and Brad Paisley was a mutual friend. I asked Brad over lunch if he would participate. After Dolly and Brad said yes, many other people joined in. It was fun to go through this process, because most of the artists simply approached these songs on their own terms, without any thought about them being Gershwin, or where they came from — they just either liked the song or didn’t. So it was a very honest approach to the music.
MW: You kick the proceedings off in grand style, with Dolly Parton on “Love Is Here To Stay.” Had you recorded with her before this?
FEINSTEIN: I’d never recorded with her before, and I was absolutely thrilled when she said yes, because she is a legend and she is extraordinarily busy and I’m sure frequently put upon to do this or that, and so I was truly delighted. She worked meticulously on this.
MW: How did you go about making the song selections?
FEINSTEIN: I suggested “Love Is Here To Stay” with Dolly, and she said yes. With other artists, I usually would have a couple of different titles in mind when I approached them, and in most cases they agreed with the songs that I suggested. I would sometimes send a demo of me singing it, or an older recording, if I had an idea of a particular style. In the case of “Someone to Watch Over Me” with Alison Krauss, she was one of the first people I thought about in the context of this recording. I didn’t know her though, and wasn’t sure how to approach her. But when I did, I suggested “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She then asked for other possibilities, because she’s a person who does everything on purely artistic terms. In other words, if you have a deadline or you have budgetary considerations, that is not of her concern. The only thing that she’s concerned about is the end result. If it takes an hour or if it takes a year, it’s about getting it right. She wanted to hear other songs, so I made demos and sent her other things. Eventually she came back to “Someone to Watch Over Me.” But she wanted to exhaust the possibilities before she committed to the song choice.
MW: Have there been country versions of Gershwin standards before, at least that you know of?
FEINSTEIN: I don’t know. I know that Willie Nelson did a Gershwin album. But from what I recall of it, he used traditional instrumentation and not a Nashville band.
The Gershwin catalog has probably been mined by country vocalists, but I’m not privy to that and I wasn’t aware of any albums of such. And I don’t think anyone has ever done a full Gershwin recording with a Nashville-based group, with that sound.
MW: Do you have a favorite? I realize that’s likely a hard, if not impossible, question to answer.
FEINSTEIN: It’s hard to make a choice. The songs are all very special to me. Certainly I love the tracks with Dolly and with Brad, but one of my favorite songs is “Soon.” It’s a lesser-known song, but it touches my heart deeply, and I love the way that Lee Ann Womack did it. But it’s hard, because I love Ronnie Milsap’s twangy vocal on “Oh, Lady Be Good!,” and the way Lyle Lovett did “Clap Yo’ Hands.” I flew to Houston to record that one with him, and talk about easygoing, wonderful people. They all have happy memories connected with them, so it’s hard to choose.
MW: I love how Ronnie Milsap ends his cut by saying, “I love that, Michael!”
FEINSTEIN: Yeah, and that was not staged. He was just grooving.
MW: Of course we have to talk about Liza. I mean, it seems obvious now that I think about it, but I didn’t realize you had such a strong relationship with her.
FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. I met her father in the late ’70s when I was 21 or 22, after I started working for the Gershwin family. Vincent was a close friend of George and Ira Gershwin’s and directed a musical revue on Broadway called The Show Is On, for which the Gershwins wrote a song in 1936. I used to see Vincent at Ira and Leonore’s home, and so by the time I met Liza, we were like long lost cousins.
I remember that first time I spent substantial time with her, which was at a Christmas party that Vincent asked me to play for. I was playing the piano, and at the end of the evening, eventually everybody left, but Liza was still there. She was sitting next to me on the piano bench, and I was playing songs and she was singing. She said, “Okay, kid, from now on, we’re joined at the hip.” I started laughing, and I thought, “Yeah, yeah, right.” But it was true. The next night she came into the Mondrian Hotel where I was working at the piano bar. And we have been close all these years. There’s a direct tie to Gershwin with Liza, and she’s the god-daughter of Ira Gershwin. And, of course, her mother sang in the movie Girl Crazy and her famous Carnegie Hall album has a number of Gershwin songs on it, so the connection is strong.
MW: Because this is a Gershwin project, this is kind of a full-circle moment for you, given that Gershwin is how you got your start in the business, working as Ira’s archivist. Even your debut album was a Gershwin project, the 1987 covers album Pure Gershwin.
FEINSTEIN: Yes. It’s all very cosmic to me now, the way I look back at the whole thing. But there was always something very resonant in the Gershwins’ music and lyrics when I discovered them as a kid, and it’s almost as if they have guided me through my life, as odd as that might sound.
MW: Something I hadn’t fully appreciated until reading your essay about the project is just how young George was when he died.
FEINSTEIN: Yes. There’s so much that might have been. Ira never got over his brother’s passing, and the thought that he was 38 when he died is staggering really, in that he only had 20 years of creativity and could have had 60. When I was in my teens and 20s, knowing that George Gershwin passed away at the age of 38, it didn’t seem as much of a loss as it does to me now from this vantage point.
MW: I know it’s early days — the album literally just dropped this week. Still, I can’t help but wonder: Have you thought about a sequel?
FEINSTEIN: People have said, “Oh, well gosh, you can do a whole series of this concept.” I haven’t thought seriously about it. Certainly this treatment would work with any number of catalogs, particularly Hoagy Carmichael, who was so influenced by Americana more than other writers. Johnny Mercer, who was from Savannah, Georgia, absolutely. He became more sophisticated when he moved to New York and then to Hollywood — his lyrics changed with his cultural influences — but it would work. It would work I think with any number of writers of classic catalogs.
And, as always happens with my work, I’m sure that somebody will take this concept and steal it and do it on their own. Because that has happened to me through my entire career, and to quote Oscar Levant, “Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.” A twist on the old phrase, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
MW: Could you give an example of what you mean?
FEINSTEIN: Yeah well, I did a swing version of Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” and Michael Bublé’s recording of “Moondance,” in its arrangement, the orchestration is almost a carbon copy of mine. Johnny Mathis, who’s a friend and whom I adore, recorded “Isn’t It Romantic?,” and it’s a knockoff of the Johnny Mandel arrangement that I did — same harmony. Beegie Adair, a pianist whom I loved who passed away recently — a Nashville legend — recorded “Isn’t It Romantic?” and again it was an homage or knockoff of the orchestration that Mandel did for me. It’s just stuff like that, that I see people take from my performances and use them for their own. But, you know, I don’t own the copyright. So it’s no skin off my back. It’s perfectly fine.
MW: Do they credit you? Or at least ask for your permission first?
FEINSTEIN: No to both questions. It’s not an issue, I’m just giving you examples. It’s very inconsequential in the scheme of things. And creatively, as artists, we all borrow from each other. I mean, Lord knows when I started, I was listening to recordings and copying those recordings and performances. So I’m no less guilty, for want of a better word, of that than anybody else.
MW: What else is on the horizon for you? What’s keeping you occupied these days?
FEINSTEIN: I’m writing more songs. I did a Peggy Lee Centennial Tribute at Carnegie Hall recently, and her granddaughter, Holly Foster Wells, gave me a lyric of Peggy’s that I was able to set to music, and that was a tremendous thrill. And then I wrote a song recently with Alan Bergman, who, with Marilyn Bergman, are three-time Oscar winners. Alan is 96, and even with the devastating loss of his wife and life partner and collaborator, continues on writing brilliant lyrics. That is something that is becoming more important to me.
I still have to get to work on the next book that has been percolating for quite some time, [about] the connection of life experiences with spirituality and music and healing. I’m touring right now with a Judy Garland Centennial Tribute Show that I’m very happy with, that celebrates her legacy, executive produced by Liza.
Again, very generous on her part to do that, and that has been fun to put together. I’m also putting together a concert that I’ll tour, The Gay American Songbook, which takes classic American songs and puts them in the context of the time [with] a little bit more about the lives of the songwriters, and giving people an opportunity to hear a song they thought they knew very well through a very different lens. From a gay perspective. And a life perspective, so that somebody will understand that songs contain many, many layers of meaning, feeling and messages, and different people hear different things emanating from the same song.
MW: Any idea when that might come to fruition or actually tour?
FEINSTEIN: It’s another thing that’s been gestating. I have tremendous notes that I’ve been making of song titles, songwriters, stories, anecdotes. Figuring out the context so it’ll be a show that will hopefully have wide appeal — with all my shows, they first have to be musically entertaining, and then giving education without people knowing it, just enjoying the experience. It’s figuring out the balance of that — how humorous, how serious, how far to go, how many directions to go, and where to go with a songwriter who might have been in the closet, or a writer who might not have wanted to have been revealed as gay. The blurred lines, and how important is it to talk about someone’s sexuality in the context of a song?
Well, we know that it is important in the context of having a history and not losing our history. And yet there’s a certain respect that must be paid to these lives and how they were lived and how they expressed themselves. There is no desire to violate anyone’s history, but to amplify it and to celebrate them in ways perhaps that they did not have the desire or capacity to do.
MW: On the topic of gay history, it’s not something most people are taught. We have to seek it out on our own, and so it doesn’t necessarily get passed on.
FEINSTEIN: No, it doesn’t get passed on because it’s constantly destroyed. There was a great songwriter named John Latouche, who wrote with Vernon Duke and Duke Ellington a Broadway musical called The Golden Apple. He wrote a Broadway musical with Duke Ellington called Beggar’s Holiday. Incredibly gifted, a first-rate lyricist, who was gay. And after he died, his family destroyed all of his personal papers. They destroyed his history. And it’s very sad because he wouldn’t have wanted that.
It’s like Ethel Waters. Ethel Waters is one of the most important singers in the history of American popular music, whether people know it or not. She was a very complex woman, who was very proud of being African-American, had tremendous anger towards white people, justifiably, because of the horrible way she was treated when she was young — being left to die when she had an accident in a white part of Philadelphia, I think it was, and nobody would take her to the white hospital. And that left scars on her that she never got over. I know that because I spoke to many people who knew her.
But she also was bisexual, and her accompanist, a man named Reginald Beane, was an openly gay Black man [who was] out at a time when it was not acceptable in any community. There he was living his life courageously at a time when it was very difficult to do so.
Years ago on eBay, somebody put up for sale a whole bunch of artifacts, including all these extraordinary photographs from his personal collection — parties with guys all gathered — it was a treasure trove of history. And I bid very high on it, but I lost. I don’t know who got those materials, but somebody who obviously wanted them more than I was willing to bid. So they’re somewhere. But I thought, “My God, what a story you could tell with this stuff.” Ethel Waters, who became a member of the Billy Graham Crusade later. It’s all fascinating.
Even though it’s fundamentally odd for anybody to talk about their lives in terms of what they do in bed — it’s almost absurd — it’s also necessary. Because the connections that come to gay people, because of recognizing or discovering that same thing in another person, create business associations and personal associations and creative and artistic associations that result in art and result in influence on our society that some people don’t want to know about, but it’s a part of facts and history.
MW: I like the way you put that. Would these people factor into your Gay American Songbook project?
MW: On another subject, particularly concerning your career as a professional musician, I wondered if you have any thoughts about Spotify or about the whole arena of streaming music in general?
FEINSTEIN: I’ve never subscribed to Spotify because I don’t like the way that artists are treated. I don’t think that artists get proper benefit from it. And yet I’m glad that my music is on Spotify because it’s an important means of delivery for it. I’m grateful that it exists in that context. But I choose not to subscribe to it because I don’t think it’s fair.
It’s a larger problem, though, in the sense that nobody in our current generation believes that music should be paid for. I don’t know any younger friends who have ever paid anything for music, because they don’t believe in it. And so everything has changed. Then, in another sense, it’s wonderful that music is free, in that maybe one shouldn’t pay for it. But how do artists get compensated for what they have created? There is in some way a shift that is necessary, and we still have to find ways to further protect artists.
My livelihood as a musician is primarily from live performances. In order for any artist to make money on a record, you have to sell so many millions and millions of them, that it’s very rarefied air. In most cases, almost all artists, except for a select few, are not making any money from their recorded output. There’s a certain amount, but from my perspective, it’s not commensurate with the work that they’ve put into the creation of it.
It’s a fraction. It literally is a fraction, like a thousandth of what it should be, and that’s not an exaggeration, it is that. Why is it fair that [streaming services] make billions of dollars and the artists don’t? Because without the creative output, they’d have nothing to sell. It just needs to be more balanced.
MW: Taking a more personal turn now, I understand you’re still married. What’s your secret?
FEINSTEIN: It’s been a while now, yeah. How about that? I’ve been with Terrence for 25 years. We got married November 17, 2008. Our secret is that we don’t hold anything in. We always discuss anything that is bothering us, or anything that needs to be discussed. We never go to bed without resolution. I was 40 years old when I met Terrence, and I had been in many relationships, but none of them lasted very long, because of my fear of a long-term commitment, even though I believed otherwise at the time.
The first thing that we did was go into couple’s therapy to avoid pitfalls that could possibly happen because of my inexperience of being in a long-term relationship. And it was the best thing that we ever did. Because we came to understand how to communicate. And that, when someone says something to the other, there are triggers that will make us believe that it’s something different than what they’re actually saying. So it’s like learning to speak another language, and understanding what somebody means underneath their words.
At this point in our lives, we give each other a great deal of freedom. In the sense that we have a fundamental agreement, and that is, if one of us wakes up one morning and decides that he doesn’t want to be with the other, then we don’t want to be together anymore. We are together by choice, and if that ever changed on his part or on my part, we would lovingly and amiably — and not without pain — part, but that is our agreement. We’re together because we desire to be so. And if it changes, then we will deal with it.
MW: Did you go to couple’s therapy before you even really had any problems in the relationship to speak of?
FEINSTEIN: Yes. It was at the urging of our friend Judith Light. At the very beginning. I saw that my issues were coming up, and Judith and her husband Robert suggested their therapist, who is highly spiritual, and we both were able to communicate with her on a therapeutic level, because she’s a psychologist, but also on a spiritual level. It was the combination of the two that made her the perfect therapist, and has kept us together. We look at things practically, from a behavior standpoint, and also from the larger spiritual perspective.
We do sessions together, and then we each do individual sessions with her, so we alternate. Most of the time we do individual sessions now, but sometimes we’ll come together and do a session collectively because there’s something that happened that we can’t quite figure out, or work out, or want to get to the bottom of. It’s all about communication.
The thing that’s interesting is that, many things that I was afraid to bring up, or afraid to discuss, or thought were too shameful or too private, not wanting to reveal them or feel that I did something wrong or bad — to discuss them is complete freedom and release from those often fictitious belief systems about what happened.
MW: Speaking of Judith, you were married by a different Judith, or Judy — Judith Sheindlin — better known as Judge Judy.
FEINSTEIN: Judith, yes. Yes, no one has ever called her Judy that I recall. Yes, and then Reverend Gabriel Ferrer, who is the son of Rosemary Clooney. Because Rosemary was like my second mother, I wanted Gabriel there, and then Judith wanted to be there as well, so she went down to the clerk’s office. She was only a judge in New York, so she got vested in California to be able to legally sign the license.
MW: That’s pretty awesome. I also love hearing about your 94-year-old mother in California. She must be very proud of you.
FEINSTEIN: Oh, yes. If I killed somebody, she would say, “Oh honey, they were a bad person.” I can do no wrong in her eyes. I guess she’s a typical Jewish mother that way.
MW: Do you have siblings?
FEINSTEIN: I have a brother and a sister, both a few years older. I’m the baby. The youngest of three.
MW: And that helps.
FEINSTEIN: It does yeah. I got a pass.
MW: Does your Jewish faith account for some aspect of your spirituality?
FEINSTEIN: No. I mean, I’m Jewish. I was raised Jewish, but my spirituality is not tethered to any single religion. My friend Carolyn Myss said something that I’ve quoted, and that is, “All religions are costume parties.” They all have these trappings around them that sometimes can obscure the essence of what they are about.
And I’m interested in the more esoteric aspects of religions, because there’s a certain sort of mysticism that has always attracted me from the time I was very young and I had a sense of spirit, or God, that is devoid of ritual. I meditate, I do a lot of visualization, I do a lot of energy work with music and sound and healing. I’m involved in hands-on healing by channeling energy. It is not tied to any particular discipline, it’s just something that comes through me and comes through all of us. And my work as a musician, and my goal in life, is to support other people in awakening their true nature. Because we live in a time that is so mired in fear, that has obscured the ability to see the truth of existence.
Our political divide — politics is completely built upon fear. If we could remove the fear from our lives, we would see the truth of what people say. We would see the truth of what matters, and much that blocks our vision would fall away instantly.
Music is my means of communication because one can encode in music many things. We are made of physical vibrations. Music is a vibration on another frequency, and it is transformative. It’s one of the things that’s maddening about the world today — that arts education is so devalued. And it is the lack of arts education that is one of the main reasons that we have such division in our world. Because music transforms us, and opens the heart and gives us the opportunity to connect on a deeper level where we experience commonality.
With the absence of arts education for 40 years, we no longer speak that common language, and have retreated into our own cubby holes and have lost the ability to reach a hand across the chasm. That’s why music is so important to me, because it leads us to a path of a deeper understanding of self and others.
One of the reasons that I started the Great American Songbook Foundation is because we work with high school students every year, and we have a week-long Songbook Academy intensive where these young souls who are listening to a lot of pop music, discover this other music that affects a different part of their hearts, and then they carry it with them out into the world — it’s like planting seeds. It is disappointing that we’ve had so many administrations that have not done anything for the arts. When Obama was president, Quincy Jones went to him and begged him to create an ambassadorship for the arts, and to bring arts funding and education back to the schools, and Obama wasn’t interested.
I’ve gone to so many events in Washington for the Library of Congress, and sat with senators and such and talked about the arts, and they always go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then nobody does anything, because they don’t understand how essential it is. It’s just as essential as eating and breathing. So we are left with what is the only thing required of us — to live our lives truthfully and to put out into the world what we want the world to be.
If we accept that every thought, everything that we put out, is consequential, then that is all we need to do. Because we can’t solve global warming unless the government does something about it. But we can, through our own actions, in word and in deed, do the best that we can in our everyday lives, and that puts out an energy and an intention that helps to solve the problem. It sounds simplistic, but it is a first step. That’s not to say that I’m impassive — I write letters and support causes and try to do what I can as I’m able, as many of us do in our busy lives.
However, the most important part is to really look at things in this context of possible solutions. When I look at the world today and see the dire predictions about global warming, I can think, “Oh, we’re all going to fry in 50 years.” Or I can think, “Okay, I believe that we can change this and we can work for a solution and create an intention that it is possible for things to get better.” Because if we have the mindset that we’re all going to just die from the consequences of that, then we’re not doing anything to try and solve it.
Michael Feinstein: Gershwin Country (Craft Recordings) is available wherever you stream music, or $9.99 for a digital album, $15 for a CD, with a portion of proceeds benefiting MusiCares, a safety net charity for members of the music community. Visit https://found.ee/gershwincountry.
For tour dates and more information, visit www.michaelfeinstein.com.
Follow Michael Feinstein on Twitter at @MichaelFeinstei.
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