Pat Donohue

March 31, 2011

Pat Donohue

Grammy™-nominated Pat Donohue (guitar) is a native and resident of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is a National Finger picking Guitar Champion and an innovative songwriter, with several albums to his credit on Red House Records and Bluesky Records.

His songs have been recorded by Chet Atkins, Suzy Bogguss, and Kenny Rogers. He has performed on A Prairie Home Companion as a regular member of The Guy’s All Star Shoe Band for seven years.

Listen to "Cold Weather Blues"

Can you tell me a little bit about your musical childhood?
There was always music in the house. My sister Mary Ellen played guitar, piano and sang. Her friends would come over and they’d listen to the Everly Brothers on the radio. I started on drums when I was 10 and played in my folks’ basement until it drove my father nuts. Then one day when I was about 12, I was home sick and picked up my sister’s guitar and learned some chords from a book. I started playing in garage bands with high school friends. I got interested in blues guitar playing at this time and stated searching out recordings and performances by some of the older blues masters. My friends and I would go see them at concerts at the University of Minnesota whenever we could. Sometimes we would even pester them after the show for tips on playing the blues. One time, we even got to jam with Big Joe Williams.

Who were some of your early influences?
My earliest influences were Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson and Blind Blake.

At what age did you first pick up a guitar? You have said it’s not essential to read music when you start playing, aside from desire, what is essential for a fingerpicker?
Developing an ear for listening to music is essential. I learned by listening to the tunes I liked and trying to reproduce the music, developing my ear in that way. When I began playing there was very little in the way of finger picking instruction. I would just listen to the records and try and figure it out, and in failing to do so, developed a style. For me, the essentials were a good ear and a high threshold for embarrassment.

How many different guitars do you have and what is your favorite to play… how did the Pat Donohue Custom Edition Guitar from Martin come about?
I have about a dozen guitars, acoustic and electric. I really like my Kevin Ryan guitar and I once won a beautiful Ervin Somogyi in a national fingerpicking contest in Winfield, Kansas, but my favorite to play is the Pat Donohue Signature Model Martin.

A few years ago I got a call from Dick Boak of Martin Guitars who was interested in having me design a Pat Donohue model. I worked with a local luthier, John Woody Woodland, and we came up with a design that features a wide neck, deep body, and some antique appointments. Each is personally signed by me. I love the feel and the balance tone, and it looks pretty too.

Freewayman, your last CD, along with American Guitar featured mostly instrumental selections. Nodoby’s Fault seems to be more reminiscent of Radio Blues, an album which featured live performances from A Prairie Home Companion, with more vocal performances. How would you describe Nobody’s Fault?
I look at it mostly as a CD of original tunes with a few covers that I just felt like recording. Many of the songs have been heard on A Prairie Home Companion over the last few years and have become big fan favorites at my shows. I’d say the tunes vary from folk to rock to blues and some things that I haven’t classified. Basically, it’s a sampling of what I do these days in regard to guitar, songwriting and singing.

Listen to “The Irish Blues

I know asking a performer to choose their favorite song is like asking them to choose their favorite child so I will ask what song has the most interesting back story or history.
I remember writing “Irish Blues.” APHC was in NYC during St. Patrick’s Day a few years back. At rehearsal, Garrison said, I think we need an Irish blues and he was looking at me when he said it. It materialized shortly thereafter. I wrote it at rehearsal. Being a St. Paul Irishman, a little of myself crept into that song.

That has got to be one of the best songs to perform live. What are the Irish blues? Sounds an awful lot like a hangover…
A hangover is only part of it. It’s a combination of a hangover, haplessness and an irrepressible urge to live life to its fullest.

Listen to “Too Gone”

My favorite song on the new cd is “Too Gone.” This song is already a fan favorite, first being heard back in 2007 and then again on the first cinecast performance of A Prairie Home Companion. What can you tell us about the song “Too Gone?”
I remember it was written pretty much in one sitting, which is unusual for me. It’s an emotional song but very relaxing to play so I like to include it in my shows. I wrote it on a Fender Telecaster electric guitar that I had just bought.

There are only 3 non-original tunes on the disc – how did you select “Hound Dog” and “Come Back Baby” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Fault But Mine” for the CD?
They are songs that I love to perform, especially with these musicians, so I included them on the CD. The musicians, who are mostly Shoe Band members, are my favorite people to play with, and the kind of musicians with whom you don’t have to talk much about the music. You just play, and they start playing, and it sounds good.

From the 14 songs, 11 are originals plus one with original lyrics. What is your songwriting process? Do you usually write songs for the show and then save them for a CD release?
While I don’t have a specific process, I often do write songs for the show and am always looking for new material for the Shoe Band. Sometimes I begin with a melody or even just a guitar part, and the lyrics fill in later. Other times it’s just the opposite, where a lyric will lead to an entire song.

Watch “Waiting for You” by The Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band

What does a work week for The Guy’s All Star Shoe band look like? When do you start discussing and rehearsing the music for each weeks show?
While we all work on our own aspects of the show throughout the week, we generally get together on Friday afternoon and rehearse what we’ve brought in for a few hours. Then Garrison joins us and we rehearse the songs he wants to do with us. If there is a guest artist making use of our band, we will also rehearse their tunes with them. Then on Saturday, we go through the things that are likely to be on the show for most of the day. Then the scripts are rehearsed, dinner is eaten and the show goes on.

With A Prairie Home Companion, you have gotten the chance to pick with some legends: from Chet Atkins to Sam Bush and Brad Paisley. What is the best or most useful piece of advice you have received? Or what is the best piece of knowledge that was passed on to you?
One of my favorite tips is from Chet Atkins who told me that if you make a mistake, you should make it again later in the tune so that people think you meant to do it. It sounds funny, but I have used this trick.

Listen to “Stealin’ from Chet”

What is your favorite PHC moment?
There are so many great moments, but playing “Stealin’ from Chet” with Chet Atkins at the Ryman Auditorium has to be right up there.

Listen to Pat & Chet on “The Day Finger Pickers Took Over the World”

What is the best advice would you offer to any young fingerpickers?
Accounting is a great career path. No, seriously, enjoy playing because there’s so much practice time involved with getting good that you couldn’t do it if you didn’t love it.

Learn to play with Pat

Who would you tell them to listen to or watch?
I still watch videos of my favorite performers like Reverend Gary Davis, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Wes Montgomery. YouTube has all sorts of performance and instructional material. If a person wanted to, they could be a pretty good guitar player by watching YouTube videos and practicing what they saw. Vestapol Videos, Stefan Grossman’s guitar workshop, has lots of videos for fingerpickers, including some of my own.

What kind of information will fans learn if they visit your website www.patdonohue.com?
That I don’t update it too often, except for the appearances! But I am working on becoming more “social.”

Old Sweet Songs: A Prairie Home Companion 1974-1976

Old Sweet Songs

Lovingly selected from the earliest archives of A Prairie Home Companion, this heirloom collection represents the music from earliest years of the now legendary show: 1974–1976. With songs and tunes from jazz pianist Butch Thompson, mandolin maestro Peter Ostroushko, Dakota Dave Hull and the first house band, The Powdermilk Biscuit Band (Adam Granger, Bob Douglas and Mary DuShane).

Available now»

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