By Nicole King
You know him as Mike — the charismatic, joke-telling, and insanely talented guitarist and vocalist for After Midnight. But for 32 years, hundreds of students grades K – 12 have known him as Mr. McCullough, their music teacher. He’s also been a church worship leader for more than 34 years, runs his own recording studio, and serves his rural community in eastern Colorado along with his wife of 42 years, Lorraine, playing music for weddings, funerals, parties, street dances, civic concerts, and county fairs.
Mike has played with After Midnight for 21 years — since 1999. I recently sat down with him at his home in Vona, Colorado, and asked him about his early influences, musical heritage, teenage shenanigans, and more. (Unfortunately, the more colorful stories have been omitted due to the family-friendly nature of this website.) What follows is the edited version of the interview, but if you ever catch him off-stage at one of the After Midnight concerts, hit him up for some stories. You won’t be disappointed.
Tell us about some of your early influences.
The Beatles are on the list. “Meet the Beatles” was the first album I ever bought. I was in third grade. Another influence was The Lettermen, a vocal trio from the late 50s, early 60s. I remember listening to the album “Portrait of my Love” when I was eight years old — I listened to it a lot and I liked it. I still like it. Also a 45 record that my mother had (for some weird reason). There was a song called “The Hot Guitar” on one side and the “Steamboat Stomp” on the other. I listened to that thing over and over again, and I’ve since discovered that the guitar players were Hark Garland and Chet Atkins. Jimi Hendrix was a big influence for me as well — that was after I started playing guitar.
Why the guitar?
I just happened to have it. I took accordion lessons in first and second grade. My Uncle Tony gave me lessons. He taught accordion, he had a studio, and he taught me how to read music — just the whole notes and half notes, that kind of stuff. I had a little blue accordion. I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t doing it, and one day my dad asked if I wanted to quit and I said, “Yes sir,” and he said “We’re done,” and I didn’t play it any more.
When I was in the 5th grade, we went to Chattanooga and my granddad gave me a guitar. It was a guitar that my father had had, that was set up like a Hawaiian guitar. I started playing that when I was ten.
When did you first start performing?
In 6th grade we tried to make a little band. Really in 7th grade is when I started. I went to Junior High School and met Mark and Jerry and some other guys. We played rock ‘n roll together from 7th grade all the way through my first year of college. HJ & Company was the name of the band.
We played in Jerry’s garage [in Pueblo] and any place we could play. When we were 14, we played for some bikers up in the mountains. By the time we were 15, we got together with some other guys and were playing weekends. We would travel from Montrose and Cortez to Lamar — up and down Highway 50. We would play up to Monument and Colo Springs. Those guys got arrested for dealing pot. So that ended, and we started playing with some other guys, Cooter and Davis, my junior year of high school. Steve Cooter played the C melody saxophone and the flute, and sang, and had an Echoplex. Steve Davis was a really good guitar player. We played every weekend, somewhere.
Have you always been a vocalist?
I would sing, but we had other singers. I sang harmony and some of the songs, but I wasn’t really “the singer” with HJ & Company. My senior year of high school, that was the year my life changed. I started playing singles and singing in places in Pueblo. I was reading a lot, reading the Bible a lot. That’s when I started working on classical guitar.
I played anywhere I could — I played with polka bands, which was a huge influence. I played bass, banjo mandolin, and guitar, and once they discovered I could sing, I sang all the time. I avoided rock bands because of the drugs. That’s when I met Lorraine.
I went to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, as a vocalist. They didn’t have a guitar program. I started playing with a local variety band when I was there. I was also able to play in the studio there with Michael Henry Martin, who owned Castle Sound Productions. I learned more from him than at college, as far as harmony and playing guitar — I learned about arranging for strings and chord voicing. I sang on local jingles, played guitar on demo recordings, and studied voice — straight on classical music. I sang German, Italian, and French art songs.
When did you get into jazz?
I’ve always loved jazz but for a long time never had the opportunity to play it. You need a group to play jazz. It wasn’t until I started playing country music in college that I started playing jazz, because I realized that jazz and country swing were the same thing. The guys were such good players down there [Abilene]. Really they were playing jazz. I was around players that were better than me, and I would just be in shock. I remember this guy who was a cotton farmer — he was so talented. He had a custom pedal steel guitar and would play solos that were flatout bebop. So good.
How did you get hooked up with After Midnight?
When I came here [Vona] in ‘89, I didn’t play guitar at all until I met Gene Leverett, and that was in ‘93 or ‘94. We played together every Thursday for about ten years. He was playing with Roger and Rick and I subbed for him occasionally, which is how I met them. Now I’ve been with After Midnight for 21 years.
What are some of your favorite songs to perform?
I like playing things that are surprising and that I haven’t played before.
What are your favorite venues to play?
It’s not about the venue as much as it’s about the vibe. I love the Avalon Ballroom, with all the dancers. Dazzle’s a nice place to play. The Evergreen Jazz Festival is always wonderful. I like the civic concerts in the city. But it depends, you never know when there’s going to be good energy. Those few people who really hear you make a huge difference. It’s not the prestige, necessarily, that makes it; it could be something much smaller, like a house party and it’s really great. When people are paying attention and there’s communication between the band and the audience — when you have a good rapport with the audience — that’s when it works. I’ll play for three people if they’re into it.
Why do you sing along with your guitar?
A lot of guys learn that you have to play certain scales over certain chords, things like that, but I thought, that’s not actually what I hear. What do I actually hear in my head? I read a thing about some teachers that would not let their students play their horns, for instance. Don’t play your horn, sing the solo that you hear in your head. I thought that was kind of interesting and so I started trying to sing solos and see what I actually heard. You know, you try to increase your vocabulary. I was playing to play honestly what I heard in my head. There were things I could sing that I didn’t know how to play on my guitar because I was just playing patterns or whatever on my guitar, so I was trying to put the two together. And that’s how I started scatting.
Vona is about 150 miles east of the Denver metro area. Do you mind driving so far for gigs?
I don’t. There are times when I’m tired and I don’t want to drive, but once I get there, I always enjoy the gig. Fortunately, I have family in town so I don’t always have to drive home the same night. I have a place to crash and get some sleep before I get up and go to lead worship at church the next morning.
You’ve been teaching music for a long time now. What do you most enjoy about it?
Teaching music in Vona was NOT on my list of things to do ever. But the opportunity came up at the right time — that was back in ‘89. I had been on the road for several years playing shows every night. Then Lorraine and I started a family and I was working at The Sound Shop in Colorado Springs during the day, playing gigs at night, not getting much sleep. That’s when my sister-in-law called and asked me if I wanted to teach music at her school.
I had to go through alternative certification because I didn’t have a teaching degree, so I was going back to school at the same time I was teaching. The first year was pretty tough, but I really took to it, I liked it. I’ve taught elementary music, high school band, high school choir, Spanish, Drawing, Drama and 7th and 8th grade reading.
Studying and teaching are intertwined for me. All the reading that I’ve done has led to an interest in experimentation with other music. Every school concert, I try to include something in Latin, something in jazz harmony, something that is very choral, or pieces of classical music. I never like to use pop arrangements, but you have to sometimes. Every piece we study is an education for the students, which is why we do arrangements of Beethoven, John Philip Souza, Duke Ellington, you name it.
Tell us about your home studio.
I’ve got a setup here at the house to record, mix, and edit tracks. In addition to work I’ve done for After Midnight, I’ve also recorded various local artists, and four albums that Lorraine and I made. And yes, I’m available for hire. Contact me for details.
The live music scene has taken a huge hit in light of COVID-19. Show your support for After Midnight and other local bands that you enjoy. As soon as you’re able, come on out! Upcoming shows are posted on their website. In the meantime, you can download their excellent albums online as well.
Keep swingin’ Colorado!