Featured Music: Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Gave Himself the Blues

New disc, same ol’ mission — Johnny Mack is back.


For me, the zenith of the 2003 Fort Worth Weekly music awards show at the Ridglea Theater back in May was drinking a toast to Robert Ealey and Lady Pearl Johnson with three veteran local bluesmen: singer/master of good vibes Johnny Mack, his frequent stage partner, guitarist-vocalist James Hinkle, and drummer Reno Ochoa.

Moments before, while watching Mack receive the year’s Best Blues honors, my mind drifted back to a gig he played with Hinkle a decade ago at the Pennsylvania Pub in the hospital district, and to the countless nights since then, when Mack fronted the band at the Captain’s Den’s Tuesday night open jam or sat in with Lady Pearl’s BTA Band at the now-defunct Swing Club. The jovial Mack is instantly recognizable by his trademark Stetson and frottoir (zydeco rub-board). His powerful pipes take a back seat to no one, and his very presence in a room can raise the fun level ten- or twentyfold. Sometimes, nice guys do finish first.

At the Keys Lounge on the Fourth of July, Mack was playing with Hinkle’s regular band — bassist Roy Robbins, drummer Gunzy Trevino, and keyboardist Robert Cadwallader. Special guest Kenny Traylor shared guitar duties with Hinkle. The crowd was small but suitably festive, and the band was in a relaxed and jocular mood. Mack told a story about a gig he’d played at the club — then called the Keys 88 — with Robert Ealey on drums. Mack remembered hitting his head on a microphone the club had suspended from the ceiling back then.

Mack had a lot to celebrate on that holiday evening. He’d just received copies of his first c.d., Gave Myself the Blues, from Dallas’ Topcat Records. (The disc’s “official” release date is in September, but you can buy it at gigs until then.) Three years in the making, the c.d. showcases Mack’s volcanic vocalismo in a variety of settings, from the swinging Joe Turner-ish jump blues of “House Party Y’All” to the sweet gospel-soul of “Looking for an Angel” to the Louisiana swamp pop of “Wait an’ See.” Most of the 11 tracks are live-performance length, allowing the players plenty of solo space. Even better, all but three of the numbers are original compositions.

Hinkle plays an incendiary, distorted solo on “Crosstown Girl,” while Traylor provides vocal assistance on ace covers of Jimmy Reed’s “Go on to School” and the Looziana R&B classic “Sugar Bee.” Trevino ably anchors the proceedings on most of the tracks, in harness with bassist John Garza. Cadwallader tickles the ivories on four songs, while Danny Ross mans the 88s for the rest of the record. The initial sessions took place concurrently with the recording of Hinkle’s Podnuhs collaboration with Austin harpman Ted Roddy, who appears on one track and also designed the cover art.

“It took us so long to record [the album] that we started out recording on 8-track reel-to-reel and finished up going digital,” said Mack, giving his pal Hinkle props for “ramrodding the whole project through, from start to finish.”

Mack was born in Tennessee 44 years ago and grew up in various locations around the Midwest. His father, a meat grader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was subject to frequent relocations. The family finally settled in Wichita, Kan., a town better known for its aircraft industry than its music scene. It was there that Mack found his way into blues “through the back door,” starting out by exploring bluegrass, western swing, and progressive country.

Hearing western swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel playing the zydeco classic “Big Mamou” solidified Mack’s liking for the style, a rollicking, accordion-based blend of Cajun music and Louisiana R&B. “That also came from hearing my uncle Eagle Matulich, an old coonass from Mississippi, playing it in fishing camps,” he said.

Mack cites two Cowtown icons as his main inspirations: R&B love rustler Delbert McClinton and western swing daddy Bob Wills. But the catalyst that brought him to the blues and Fort Worth was poet Wes Race, another expatriate from Wichita to Fort Worth. Race wrote for Living Blues magazine and served as road manager for Chicago slide guitarist Hound Dog Taylor in the ’70s.

When he and Mack first met, Race was president of the Wichita Blues Society. Said Mack: “In places like Wichita, blues societies are really important. They get people out to the gigs. There was a little jam scene there, and, because of Wes, we used to get performers from Chicago and Texas coming through.” In a town like Fort Worth, with a large and loyal audience and knowledgeable champions of the music like Race, Record Town impresario/Juke Jumpers guitarist Sumter Bruton, and 89.3/KNON-FM air personality Don O., Mack feels there’s less of a need for such an organization.

Race heard Mack singing Johnny Paycheck’s “11 Months and 28 Days” with a top 40 country band in a Wichita club in the late ’80s and told the singer, “You need to be singing blues all the time.” Race, who had first visited Cowtown in 1982, made Mack aware of the thriving blues scene here.

Mack came to Fort Worth in 1992 after his father, whose work had brought him here, suffered a heart attack on Thanksgiving Day. Sitting in at Robert Ealey’s jams, the singer first encountered James Hinkle. “I used to wonder, ‘Who the hell is that cat?’ ” said Mack. “I didn’t even realize he was a musician until his band the Hoodoo Cats opened a show I was playing with Lou Ann Barton.” Race recalls that when Mack returned for a visit to Wichita after six months of living in Texas and soaking up the local influences, the quality of his performance had improved dramatically. “Those Fort Worth guys really tightened him up,” said Race.

Since then, Mack’s become a mainstay of the Cowtown blues scene. His weekly jams at J&J’s Blues Bar helped revitalize Sunday nights at the club before a money dispute with owner Jim Schusler got him banned from the venue. More recently, he’s had a lengthy run at the Captain’s Den in the company of guitarists Paul Byrd and J.B. Wynne (both bandleaders in their own right), bassist Stoney Bass, and drummer Ochoa.

While Mack acknowledges that 20 years of living the musician’s life have required some sacrifices, he’s clearly in love with what he does. A seasoned road rat, he’s already toured nationally with Hinkle and Holland K. Smith. In October, he and Hinkle plan to venture out again to support Gave Myself the Blues’ official release, spreading the Fort Worth gospel to folks in less blues-rich communities.

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