photo by Steve Craft

Michael McClanathan

Written by Judy Harper Category: Spotlight Issue: December 2018
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This bagpipe virtuoso brings the sounds of Scotland to the greens at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa.

Come sundown, you can find Michael McClanathan dressed in full highland regalia with hair flowing and cheeks puffed with air as he breathes life into an antique set of bagpipes. It’s a nightly ritual at the Westin Kierland Resort and Spa celebrating the contributions that Scottish immigrants made to early Arizona.

Michigander McClanathan first heard the pipes as a 10-year-old visiting Canada with his native Scottish family. Touched by the sound, he began learning the cumbersome woodwind instrument. By the time he was 14, he was performing at weddings. He has since entertained George H.W. Bush, Dick Van Dyke and George Benson. Piping has taken him to a Hollywood movie set with Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch, funerals for dignitaries and destination weddings. There’s even an image of McClanathan on a beer tap at the Westin called Piper’s Pale Ale. McClanathan also runs Claymore Imports, a shop specializing in bagpipes and highland wear.

Along with such standards as “Amazing Grace,” the 66-year-old often throws in a rogue selection, from “Open Arms” by Journey to the theme from Star Wars. Aye lad, anyone up for a little Black Sabbath?

We see bagpipes now in parades and at Diamondbacks games. Are they making a comeback?
When I was young it was a dying art. Braveheart helped, and also after 9/11, most of the fire departments wanted bagpipes to honor their fallen. I taught five different honor guards to play, and that’s just locally.

How did this gig at the Westin come about?
They approached me to come play for a week, and at that point a week was a long time. When a bagpiper plays it’s usually a one-time thing – with weddings or funerals, you don’t get asked back! They had good reviews from guests, and now I’ve been here 15 years. My son, Wheaton, plays when I’m not here, and I’m teaching my 9-year-old grandson.
 
How long does it take to learn to play the bagpipes? What is the process like?
It’s one of the hardest instruments to learn because it has four reeds – three single and a double. It’s like three clarinets and a bassoon hooked to a bag of air. It takes about a year to get started and seven years to master. You start on a practice instrument kind of like a recorder for six months to a year, and then onto the pipes and that’s another six months to a year, and after all that you may still sound like you’re squeezing a cat.

Tell us about that kilt.
The Westin wanted a corporate tartan, so I created this for them. The red, blue and gold represent the Arizona flag; the white stripe is for the cotton industry and the red stripe is for copper. It’s a full 8 yards of heavy-
duty wool. That’s where the saying “the whole 9 yards” came from, as a bigger man would take the whole 9 yards.

Do you play Christmas carols?
“We Three Kings” works really well, and I’ve played “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” I was playing Christmas tunes one year and a group of ladies asked if I knew any Jewish songs. I played “Hava Nagila” and they were dancing around the firepit when one of their coats caught a wine glass. It broke and I yelled, “Mazel tov!”

Any special memories from playing the pipes?
A few years ago, there was a couple who came out to their balcony every night when I played and then would go inside as soon as I stopped. Their last night here they came down and bought my CD. They came back the next year and told me they had just lost their son the year before; they played my CD every morning to start their day and it helped them to heal. I thought I was just there to entertain but here I was helping someone heal through my music… it’s been quite a journey.

DIGITAL EXTRA
Go to phoenixmag.com/web-extras for an exclusive video of McClanathan performing a Black Sabbath song for PHOENIX.