Will McFarlane

Will McFarlane

You have heard Will McFarlane's guitar work before, whether or not his name rings a bell. His recording and performing career has placed him in some impressive company, including multi-Grammy winning artist Bonnie Raitt, The Pointer Sisters and Jackson Browne. You may remember several Christian albums he recorded several years ago and now as part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, McFarlane is one of that town's sought-after studio musicians.


After a long absence from Christian music, McFarlane is back with a performance on Axe to the Root that he describes simply as "honest." Though the recording is technically simple, musically-a combination of world renowned musicians and earthy R&B makes for an appealing mix, albeit unique in Christian music. Recorded with his friends in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, including musicians who have credits on albums by Bob Seger, Aretha Franklin and Paul Simon; McFarlane approached his music in unique fashion.

"They are just simple R & B songs, but we cut it like a record in 1972," said Will. "We never used any effects or artificial distortions. I wanted to cut my stuff, simple-straight ahead-honest. I've always wanted to play more in the style that I'm playing now, because it's how I play everywhere else except the church. Finally I realized that I want to play better for the Lord, than I do for the world." The result is an album free of the normal conventionality prevalent in Christian music, with a heavy dose of the Muscle Shoals "sound."


Will was born on a Navy base in California, the oldest of two boys in the McFarlane family. He grew up living both in Texas, the home state of his parents, and Northern Florida.


Music was part of his life from an early age and Will recalls hamming it up for Dad's 16 millimeter home movies with a Roy Rogers toy guitar and all the musical expression the boy could muster. At age 6 Will started voice lessons and piano the following year. It was, however, a television program that inspired him the most. "When I was 12, I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show," Will recalls enthusiastically. "They were on for three weeks in a row and I remember sitting there thinking, "I can do that-I can do that!"


After high school, Will left for college in Denver, Colorado. His musical appetite grew beyond The Beatles and the R & B artists he'd grown to love, now to include Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and he loved the Motown sound. "Being a rhythm guitar player, that stuff was just made for me," said Will.


In a market rich with opportunities for talented musicians, Will dropped out of school and began playing in clubs. This began a musical pilgrimage that would take Will coast to coast, first hitching rides to Los Angeles and then back to Manhattan, Washington D.C., and finally to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he had a life-changing opportunity that most musicians only dream of. In 1974, Will became part of Bonnie Raitt's band. He recorded three albums with her and toured internationally through 1978.

"Bonnie is such a beautiful singer," said Will, "so the quality of music we played was very high. At a relatively young age, I learned from the best. We did shows with other major rock artists, not to mention the blues guys, like Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and John Lee Hooker. I got to hear their music close up and even sit in and jame with them. So that was sort of my musical discipleship."


In addition to his work with Bonnie, Will was a studio musician on other projects including the Urban Cowboy Soundtrack, "Suzy" by Terrance Boylan, and "cotton-eyed Joe" by John Boylan, the B side to Mickey Gilley's hit single "Stand By Me." Touring with Bonnie, he performed at the historic No Nukes Concert at Madison Square Gardens which landed Will onstage with top artists including Jackson Brown, John Hall, Phoebe Snow and Jesse Colin Young, to name a few. That same year, during a sabbatical that Bonnie took, Will toured with The Pointer Sisters.


In the late '70s tragedy struck the McFarlane family when Will's younger brother was murdered. "That just really sent me into a tailspin spiritually," Will admits. "I didn't find anything to hang onto and I certainly didn't turn to the Lord. There were about three years of real darkness where I was just closed off and getting high." His wife, Janet, had become a Christian, but Will wanted nothing to do with religion.


Several years after Janet's salvation experience, the family moved to Muscle Shoals and Will had what he calls his "Damascus Road" experience in 1980. "I was just out in the woods one day," Will recalls, "and I just knew he was there. That's when I dropped to my knees and gave my heart to him."


Will continued his work as a session player with The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and during the '80s recorded four Christian albums: Right From the Start, A Colony of Heaven, Only the Heart and Hear the Voice. In addition to his studio-work and tour schedule, Will also serves as an ordained elder in his church and preaches on many Sundays. Janet and Will home-schooled their three children who are now fully grown. The couple also does marriage counseling and teaches at marriage seminars. "We haven't hung out a shingle," said Will, "but people know we really clawed our way out of a deep dark hole. They come to us because they want to know that they can make it too."


Aside from his family, music continues to be a central part of Will's life, and in recent years he has had the joy and privilege of combining the two by taking them on the road with him. His daughter is a accomplished singer and his son an excellent bass player.


Axe to the Root (Freedom Records) marked Will's first solo album after a ten year hiatus. "First of all, I'm really glad to have another open door to go out and just share my life and play," Will expresses his hope for the new album. "Secondly, I'd like to maybe open some different doors--I'd like to play blues and jazz festivals--to offer the most honest musical expression that I can, use the open doors God provides and glorify Him."

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