"Eighteen days of rain can bring a fella down," sings Oregon's McDougall in his gruff, bedraggled Tom Waits-ian baritone. "So come 17 days you won't find me hanging 'round."
The lyric typifies the dramatic, time-worn style of an artist with an oversized love for old trains, overcast pasts and tales of life on the road. Accompanying himself on a kick-drum and hi-hat, he strums with the fury of a punk, but he also enjoys banjo-driven bluegrass and the dulcet old-country trill of Celtic folk.
All those influences coalesce into the vibrant style of Americana found on his newly released album, A Few Towns More.
McDougall says he's been on the road so much that it's virtually impossible not to write about it. Still, he always tries to slip some sort of life lesson into his lyric, so that his songs don't end up becoming what he refers to as "pointless songs of frolicking around the country."
"I don't want to be pigeonholed as a travel song writer," says the Portland-based artist. "It's just something I do that comes out a lot."
McDougall's history plays a significant role in his approach. He grew up playing in the church and with his family, whose Scottish background meant there was always Celtic music in the house. Like many, he found punk rock in high school. He played with a band called Glassell Park 3, with whom he released several albums. In his early 20s he found his way back to the gospel-country-folk he grew up on, and started playing acoustically.
A big influence, he says, was hearing Lester Flatt and the recently departed Earl Scruggs. "It's pretty much punk-rock," he says of the duo's take on bluegrass. "There's three chords, sing-along choruses, [and it's] really fast," he says. "I liked the idea of simplifying what I did."
At the same time, McDougall wasn't all that comfortable with the idea of becoming a conventional singer-songwriter, and wondered if he'd always have to be in a band. But then he borrowed a friend's one-man-band setup, and fell in love with being able to produce a bigger, more energetic sound on his own.
"Drums were my first instrument, actually," says McDougall. "It just kind of came natural and now, it's like it flows really well."
The same can be said of A Few Towns More. There's a harmonious mix of songs, from a pretty folk ode to solitary moments called "Evening Tide," to the weathered harmonica-driven gospel-blues of "When God Dips His Love in My Heart," and then on to the wondrous two-part "The Travels of Frederick Tolls," which shifts from a spunky Violent Femmes strut to an Irish-folk stomp halfway through.
A born storyteller, McDougall carries on the age-old tradition of troubadours who take their music from town to town.
"I just want to share with people that there's things we can do for each other, and there are different ways to look at life," he says. "I hope somebody can get something out of it. It means more to me when I'm not just entertaining somebody, but when they come up and they say, 'That really helped me thinking about this.' That's the stuff that really gets me excited."