A Q&A with Scott McDonald of TUSK
By Geoff Gehman
Scott McDonald was nine when he suffered, and savored, his first Fleetwood Mac attack. The blows were delivered by the band’s “Rumours” album, which he heard over and over and over again blasting from his parents’ cabin cruiser of a stereo. He pretty much wore out the groove on “Go Your Own Way,” burrowing inside the thumping, seesawing, chainsawing guitar solo by Lindsey Buckingham, who he initially misidentified as a girl (“Hey, there weren’t as many videos back then”).
Nearly 40 years later, McDonald is leading a Fleetwood Mac attack. He plays the part of Buckingham in TUSK, a crisp, crunchy Mac tribute group that debuted six years ago at the Mauch Chunk Opera House. On Feb. 13-14 the quintet will return to the Jim Thorpe house, a favorite venue where they once performed all of the “Rumours” tracks, back to back to back.
During a recent phone chat from his home in Coplay, McDonald discussed the challenges of trying to fingerpick like Buckingham, satisfy diehard fans of all stripes and remain happy while playing tunes minted by musicians who were once famously unhappy.
Q: Why did you decide six years ago that playing Fleetwood Mac songs had to be your destiny?
A: We were all playing Fleetwood Mac songs in various projects. A mutual friend suggested that we should play Mac songs together since we already sounded and looked like them. We finally said, “Let’s just do it,” and one day we played a show for friends. At the time we thought it was just a fun side project. Three or four months after we started, we were contacted by a management company that thought we could build this up into something bigger. We said “Sure,” and the rest is history. It’s evolved into something we could never have imagined, something that makes us happy and grateful.
Q: Did you seriously consider names other than TUSK?
A: We did one show where the drummer [Tom Nelson] lives as The Chain. I think we played a few shows as Meetwood Flack. Although we thought it sounded funny, we realized we wouldn’t be taken seriously, that we wouldn’t fly. We decided on TUSK because it seemed to be more identifiable than the names of tribute bands like Rumours. Everyone who heard “TUSK” would think, “Ah, that’s Fleetwood Mac,” because it’s such a unique title.
Q: What was your biggest learning curve while building up your Buckingham chops as a guitarist and a singer?
A: I’ve always kind of sounded like him vocally; I’m lucky I have a very high register. His fingerpicking style—Travis style they call it—is really unique and really, really challenging. Although I took classical lessons when I was younger, I hadn’t done much fingerpicking. I fingerpick on “Gypsy,” “Sara” and “Landslide,” but to get his attack, well, I’m not there yet. I still play with a pick on a lot of the stuff because I don’t have a ton of money to afford his custom guitars with these super-sensitive pickups that are super expensive. If we get more gigs? Sure—I’ll spring for the money.
Still, to this day I walk around my house picking “Never Going Back Again.” I drive my wife nuts, although mostly she laughs. When we’re playing live, she’ll say: “He’s played this 15,000 times.” It’s a really challenging piece. I like that: it keeps me on my toes.
Lindsey is a very underrated guitarist. On his solo records he’s a brilliant guy and an avant-garde guy. Most of what he does he feels is not mainstream. It just makes him happy. I can relate to that.
Q: Buckingham was the mad genius on the album “Tusk,” making it much more ambitious and non-commercial than “Rumours,” its predecessor. Even the most diehard Mac fans had a tough time liking “Tusk” or even understanding it. Did you dig it the first time out of the box?
A: No. Even today, there are tracks we just love, and tracks that make us just shake and scratch our heads. We’ve tried to understand the album by reading liner notes, recording notes, biographies and autobiographies, and by watching old videos. It was a pivotal record for the band, although, after it was all over, the members other than Lindsey said: “We’re not going to do that again.” He didn’t feel as strongly as they did, and that’s why he went off and did more solo work.
A couple of years ago somebody offered us a show to perform all of “Tusk” somewhere in New York at a club as part of a series where bands come in and play an entire record. We decided not to do it partly because as a band we didn’t know most of the album.
We always play “Tusk,” “Sara,” “Think About Me.” We’ve been talking about playing “The Ledge”; although it’s silly, it’s fun. We’re working on “Over and Over.” And we just added “Sisters of the Moon”; we incorporate it into “Rhiannon.” It’s another way to get a song into the show without doing an entire song. We do that with a medley of [former Mac guitarist] Peter Green tunes: “Oh Well, “Black Magic Woman” and “Green Manalishi,” which we just learned. It’s a good chunky blues song; we get a lot of requests for it. It was actually a big hit for Judas Priest; that was the version I knew. The Mac played it after Green left; I found an old grainy video of Lindsey doing it when he first joined the band.
At first we were averse to playing stuff from older records like “Bare Trees”  because it was new to us. Now we’re enjoying delving back into that back catalog. We may add “Sentimental Lady” [a “Bare Trees” track], which became a hit for [former Mac guitarist] Bob Welch [in a new 1977 version on his first solo LP]. We may rotate in “Hypnotized” [a Welch tune on the 1973 Mac album “Mystery to Me”]: everybody asks for that.
We have to be careful. We can do more Peter Green songs but you can only go so far; then the show becomes more obscure and it becomes beyond a tribute. You have to remember that most people come to hear the hits. If you do too much avant-garde material, they won’t come back to hear you. So we keep things fresh by rotating three or four songs a show. If we get to do a longer show, we’ll rotate more tunes.
Q: How has the Mac tribute-band landscape shifted since you formed TUSK six years ago?
A: It’s shifted into a higher gear now that the Mac members have reunited with Christine [McVie, long-lost keyboardist/vocalist/songwriter]. We were wondering if Christine coming back to the Mac would affect us negatively, but actually it has propelled the number of offers we’ve gotten. Promoters book us to play in areas where the Mac is playing because they know people will come to see us because our tickets are much cheaper than the Mac’s tickets. In our first year we did eight to 10 shows; last year we did 37. We have 20 to 25 shows booked this year and we haven’t really started booking the fall and winter.
We don’t want to rush things, or overshoot our goals. We want to be comfortable; we want to be in situations where everybody succeeds. We’ve had success with a string quartet playing “Songbird” and “Landslide” and a marching band playing “Tusk” and “Don’t Stop.” We have two members of the group [drummer Tom Nelson and keyboardist Kim Williams] who are high-school music teachers with master’s degrees. Kim went to USC, so she reached out and got the band director to send the sheet music for horns [that was used for the original recording of “Tusk”]. Tom conducts a marching band so he could score “Tusk” for us. We’ll probably bring a marching band to our [Sept. 13] show at the Sands Events Center [in Bethlehem]; that should be quite a big gig.
Q: When does faithfulness in a tribute band become anal or downright ridiculous? Would you, for example, grow and blow your hair up to the height of Buckingham’s ‘70s white Afro?
A: [laughs] I already kind of have his hair. If I didn’t, I’d probably wear a wig. Actually, I just had a couple of silk shirts made that he wore back in the day. I also bought some ’70s-style bellbottoms.
You have to give people what they want because the tribute market is really lucrative now. Kathy [Phillips], our Stevie Nicks, has the whole Nicks wardrobe down. Our bass player [Randy Artiglere] is looking for the kind of sports jerseys that John McVie wore. We’re emulating the sound and the look of the Mac’s ’75-’79 period and we take it seriously. Some Beatle bands tend to talk with English accents; I don’t feel the need to actually talk like Lindsey.
Q: Would you consider playing the Brian Wilson song “Farmer’s Daughter,” one of my favorite tracks from the Mac’s 1980 live LP?
A: We’ll consider absolutely everything. There’s nothing in this band that we’re opposed to doing. If it’s a song we don’t know we’ll immediately research it. We’ll rotate it if it’s melodic and catchy without detracting from the show. We’re happy to make diehard fans happy. We like to have someone come up to us and say: “I’m so glad you played that Peter Green song.”
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: To me it’s all about finding more time to research, rehearse and perform live. I have a full-time job [as a social worker], I’m a husband, and I’m the father to a two-year-old. And then I do the music after all that. My son has so much going on; when I want to go over a Fleetwood Mac song I have to go upstairs so he won’t pull the guitar off the stand and hit himself in the head with it.
On the other hand, it doesn’t take much time for the band to get back into the groove. We’ll have a period where we play six, seven, eight shows in a row and by the second or third show we’re just firing on all cylinders. Playing with these guys is so much fun. They’re my best friends. We all look at everything from the best viewpoint. In six years we haven’t had one single band argument.
Q: It seems sort of strange that musicians who get along so well with each other are playing musicians renowned for messing up, and messing in, each other’s sandboxes.
A: Isn’t that odd? We should be fighting; the music would probably sound better [laughs]. It might sound even better if we start marrying and divorcing each other, but that’s not going to happen.
The Scoop: Scott McDonald
The first song he couldn’t forget was “Jailhouse Rock.”
He once thought Stevie Nicks was a guy.
One of his favorite non-Mac tracks is “Don’t Let Me Down,” which premiered on a 1973 album starring future Mac members Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham.
He and his TUSK mates also play in the band Stockton Bridge.
His full-time job involves finding jobs for the developmentally disabled in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
His Bucket List includes a West Coast tour and a cruise.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His Fleetwood Mac favorites include “Second Hand News,” “Bermuda Triangle” and “What Makes You Think You’re the One.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.