By Steve Sherlock

Special to Encore

With seven generations of small-town Maine values flowing through his body, singer/songwriter David Mallett has lived a life where independence, a strong work ethic and commitment to producing quality goods are part of everyday life.

So it is not surprising to hear Mallett describe the recording process as “gut-wrenching.”

Master craftsmen are renowned for a stubbornness for getting things done right. But the best ones understand that constant tinkering can also ruin a masterpiece.

On his latest project, Mallett said he felt like he crawled into a hole in March and didn’t emerge until October when the album “Artist in Me” was completed. Some things on the disc still bother him.

“There are always little things you wish you could go back in and fix,” Mallett said during a phone interview earlier this week from his home in Sebec. “But a record is nothing more than a snapshot. If you airbrush a snapshot too much, you take away something.”

Few artists have captured Maine’s lifestyle in song the way Mallett has throughout his long career. The Orlando Sentinel wrote “what Garrison Keillor is to Minnesota, Mallett is to Maine.”

His songs have been recorded by artists like Pete Seeger, Emmylou Harris, John Denver, Alison Krauss, Kathy Mattea and the Muppets. Mallett said his best-known tune, “The Garden Song,” has been recognized as one of the 50 most popular folk songs of all time.

The folk singer returns to the Twin Cities next week to kick off the 2004 L/A Arts Cabaret Series at Lewiston’s Ramada Inn.

“Artist in Me” is Mallett’s 12th album and first in four years. Instead of leaving his homestead in Sebec (population 612) for a few months, Mallett brought the studio to his property.

“I don’t have a recording studio and I never wanted anything that highly technical because I’m not a technical kind of guy,” he said. “For this record I rented a guy with a digital studio to come in. He set it up in this old house on my property and we created a studio to do it right there.”

Mallett began his career performing with his older brother at fairs and Grange halls when he was 10. Soon after graduating from the University of Maine in 1973, he caught the attention of Noel Paul Stookey – of Peter, Paul and Mary fame.

“He was the first musician that had come from the upper ranks that saw what I did and said this is great, this deserves a greater audience,” said Mallett.

With Stookey’s guidance, Mallett put a band together and recorded his first few records at Stookey’s studio along Maine’s coast.

Stookey was also the person who saw the magic in “The Garden Song.” He introduced it to Seeger, who was the first to record the song. But it was Denver, who recorded it at the height of his career and later sang it on the Muppet Show, who brought Mallett national recognition as a songwriter.

He eventually moved to Nashville to write country songs, but found the experience frustrating. His core Maine values never meshed with Nashville’s style and he soon returned to his roots, where his Northern voice is much more welcomed.

“I sort of skirted the music business,” said Mallett. “The music business has never done much (for me.) I’m just sort of an anti-business guy, I guess. I’m pretty independent. For most of my career, I like to call it a journeyman. I go from place to place and I carry my tools and people come and I do my job.”

White back for an encore

Opening for Mallett is Kenny White, who returns for the second consecutive year. The New York keyboardist was one of the more popular performers during last year’s Cabaret series when he opened for long-time friend Jonathan Edwards.

Since last year’s appearance, White has released the six-song EP “Testing … 1, 2.” Four songs are live renditions from his past disc “Uninvited Guest.”

He also received some stunning accolades last month from Rolling Stone. Peter Wolf’s tiny 2002 classic “Sleepless,” – produced by White – sold just 30,000 copies but was named one of the 500 best albums of all-time by the magazine.

White also played keyboards for Mallett for several months during the early 1980s.

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