A Mack for All Seasons
Kicking Back with Ronnie Mack
Crossing the Kern River and heading into Oildale with Ronnie Mack at the wheel feels a lot more like an expedition into California country music history than it does a quick trip to Wal-Mart. The long, tall rockabilly man has somehow folded himself into the driver’s seat of a well-traveled Mitsubishi Outlander and he is, typically, rattling off deep insider anecdotal thrills.
“Sharon Sheeley, we became friends there at the Palomino,” Mack said. “Oh yeah, she used to call me up, drunk, at 4 am. You know, she wrote ‘Poor Little Fool,’ which became Ricky Nelson’s first #1 hit and later she was Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend, before that she had a thing for Don Everly. I don’t know how long he led her on, but Sharon was backstage in San Francisco before the Everly’s show, Phil was talking to her and he says "Well, you know, Don is married." She was shocked and hurt, immediately left and got on a Greyhound back to L.A. On the bus, she pulled out a pencil and paper and started writing the lyrics that became "Poor Little Fool." She was only 16 . . .”
Mack lives and breathes the California country legacy with an intimately familiar encylopedic zeal that, at this late date, very few others can match. It’s a hard-earned trove of cultural lore amassed over the better part of fifty years spent toiling in the Golden State’s honky tonks and beer joints, a pursuit as much punishment as it was pleasure, and he’s got the scars to show for it.
“I did work for decades in really bad places, like Pixie’s in Sun Valley on Foothill Boulevard,” he said. “It was hardcore, just awful, the dance floor was more for fights than dancing! I’d usually end up just playing for the bartender and when people were there they’d be yelling ‘Shut up, go home! We’ll listen to the jukebox.’ I was just doing it for my own enjoyment.”
Revered as the history making ring master of his long-running Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance roots music showcase, distinguished by his actions with the late 70s Rollin’ Rock records crew and characterized by inexhaustible drive and immeasurable repertoire, Mack knows the American pop vernacular inside out. Yet Mack, bleakly self-deprecating to the point of squirm, frequently seems incapable of understanding his own cultural significance, serially painting himself as a musical failure when in fact his legacy and influence in Southern California eclipses that of almost any of the Barn Dance’s innumerable headliners—which he booked for nearly thirty years.
He arrived in Los Angeles from hometown Baltimore in the mid-70s and began performing everywhere he could.
“I was playing bars, American Legions, VFW halls, just doing everything, country, oldies, cover tunes,” he said. “I used to bug [Palomino owner] Tommy Thomas like you wouldn’t believe. I’d call him all the time, he’d say ‘come up, we’ll talk’ but I never got a show, he’d always have a ‘come back on Friday,’ and he put me through that for six months. I did see a lot of great shows, Kinky Friedman, Asleep at Wheel, everyone played there.”
“Tommy finally says ‘I got Dennis Colt [the ‘King of Elvis impersonators’ and a Pal staple] coming in and you kind of look like Ricky Nelson so why don’t you go up and open for him?’ I wouldn’t be a Ricky impersonator but I did do a few Ricky songs, and it was packed, both Friday and Saturdays nights. I used the house band, I think Jerry Cole was in it. Those were my first real shows at the Pal and the Ricky thing kind of put it out there so people at least people knew who I was.”
“Tommy finally gave me a date, says ‘This your big night,’ and he tells ‘People are asking why Ronnie Mack and not me? Why? Because Ronnie Mack calls me up and bugs me every day!’”
It was April 1978 and Mack quickly fell in with Palomino regulars Ray Campi and his Rockabilly Rebels. Campi was a Texas trailblazer who took part in the mid-1950s big bang and Mack became part of the Rollin’ Rock Records crew, a mix of young upstarts and old school veteranos like Campi, Tony ‘Wildman’ Conn, Jackie Lee Waukeen Cochran. They became his West Coast family. Everything changed.
“Ray Campi was the godfather, he’d been playing since the 50s and now he was playing the Starwood and Madam Wong’s,” he said. “He was looked at with respect, he’d been doing it all along, but he wasn’t part of the new rockabilly scene which was just starting in LA. Levi & the Rockats were the big thing, really young guys, and I formed Ronnie Mack & the Black Slacks, doing rockabilly only.”
“And the Blasters were starting out, a new band at the time, doing blues, R&B, Jimmie Rodgers—what was called roots music back then, now it’s Americana. I wasn’t anywhere near known enough to get on bill with Levi, but I did a lot of shows with the Blasters at Club 88, Madam Wong’s—and there’d be 15 people there. I’d been doing a slicker type of sound, but they showed me what rock and roll should be—from the heart, that emotion, I remember that like it was five minutes ago.”
Mack was releasing 45s on Rollin’ Rock, playing constantly on stage and in the studio with Campi and Cochran, and he developed an ambitious, downright militant attitude: “It was a battle mission against Nashville, to change country radio, to popularize rockabilly, to make it viable, to show there's an audience and market for this music.”
But ten years later, from his perspective, it all suddenly seemed futile.
“I stayed on that circuit until 1987 and had a following of zero,” Mack said. “James Intveld, Rosie Flores shot up, became very popular and I thought, ‘here I am playing all the time and I can’t draw a single person, I was playing for the fun of it, playing bars, from nine to two a.m. to make a little money for my band. They were very loyal, stuck with me, but they weren’t that great of players. And then I realized that I wasn’t enjoying it, it was depressing, I wasn’t making any money. It was awful.”
Just then came an offer from North Hollywood honky tonk the Little Nashville, asking if he’d like to emcee a recently instituted weekly country music showcase, with a live remote broadcast by college radio station KCSN, and Ronnie Mack’s Barndance was off and running.
With talent like James Burton, Billy Swan, Rose Maddox, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores, and an always stellar house band, it quickly outgrew the room and Mack eagerly accepted when the Palomino pitched woo in 1988. “I remember one night, not long after we moved to the Palomino,” Mack said. “I was onstage and there was a hardcore rockabilly girl, a punk kid with an orange and green mohawk and a 60-year-old cowboy with the hat and belt buckle — they were all dancing together and I thought, 'This is exactly what I want at the Barndance.'”
The Barndance was like Oz, a vibe supreme, a wonderland where anything could happen—and Ronnie was the Wizard. Nashville stars like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Travis Tritt and the Mavericks recognized the phenom and all performed when in town. Rockabilly scion Billy Burnette brought his then-bandmates Lindsey Buckingham and Mick Fleetwood in one night and Burnette and Fleetwood jammed onstage. “Mick Fleetwood was turning around between songs and shoving stuff up his nose,” Mack recalls. Bruce Springsteen, too, had heard of “this Opry type show they do at the Pal on Tuesdays” and eventually he too would take the stage to perform more than a few numbers. Screamin' Jay Hawkins got up, R&B sax legend Big Jay McNeely was a regular attraction. “Whenever Jay played,” Mack said, “The girls would lift up their tops and flash him.”
He established himself as a benevolent kingpin at the center of a fast-moving phenomenon that became compulsory for musicians and fans alike. His reputation and skill really paid off in 1992, when he and his Barndance posse traveled to Manhattan to participate in an all-star rockabilly event at (can you dig it?) Lincoln Center.
“The booker who did the Downtown LA Street Scene [a multiple stage outdoor festival with national level talent] called me from New York and explained that every summer the city would honor a specific genre of music at Lincoln Center,” Mack said, “They’d have great jazz shows, or blues, soul, and he decided to do a rockabilly event, with Billy Lee Riley & his Little Green Men, Ronnie Dawson, the Sun Rhythm section with Paul Burlison and Sonny Burgess and DJ Fontana. They flew us out, we had a hotel right across from Carnegie Hall.”
“Ray, James, Rosie and Rip Masters [Rollin’ Rock’s ‘bare knuckled piano man’] were there and we all backed each other up on 6 song sets. They had Rocky Burnette [Johnny’s most capable son] to do all the Rock & Roll Trio stuff. James and I knew Rocky, and he invited James and I to sit in. We played acoustic rhythm and at one point, James did the Paul Burlison solo—note for note—on “Train Kept a-Rollin’’ and Burlison is just staring at him, can’t believe this kid knows it, and there’s DJ Fontana right behind me, it was unbelievable. We got to sit around with them and they’d just tell these incredible stories, it was really something. 2000 people in the crowd and the whole thing was filmed for a PBS special that never happened.”
It was a stunning pinnacle and delicious metaphor for everything Mack had thus far achieved, artistically, culturally and personally. Mack was a figure and presence widely admired by everyone in his orbit, and the Barndance’s success guaranteed an ever-expanding musical galaxy. After the badly mis-managed Palomino tragically closed in 1995, Mack rode over to Jack’s Sugar Shack at Hollywood and Vine—a move that initiated an entirely new creative wellspring for the musician.
“Sometime in 1998 [club owner] Eddie Jennings asked me if I wanted to MC a Pop/Power-Pop show at Jack's,” Mack said. “I did and became infatuated with one of the bands on the bill that night. I don't remember their name but they were young and their songs had very catchy melodic chord changes and played with a lot of energy and intensity. Eddie had me MC a couple more of those shows and though I didn't care for some of the bands, there were a few that really inspired me. So, I wrote a bunch of songs just for my own enjoyment and feeling of creativity, doing something totally different from rockabilly and country.”
Completely removing himself from the familiar, Mack ignited, crafting 12 power pop originals perhaps best described as bubblegum with a brain, lethally infectious bombons upon which he joyously gorged: “I was so happy about what I had done—for a change—and having gotten more involved in that scene, I put a band together to see what kind of response I would get.”
Set to open for Adam Marsland’s Cockeyed Ghost, a top pop force in the very flourishing Los Angeles underground pop sect, Mack definitely got a reaction: “As soon as we finished our last song, Robbie Rist comes running down to the front of the stage, points at me, and says ‘you have 3 or 4 hit radio songs. I want to produce an album on you!’"
“Robbie was the king of that scene, playing in 11 different bands at the time, hoping for one to hit big. The Andersons were his priority and they were also my favorite,” Mack said. “I just laughed and said ‘I appreciate it, Robbie, but I'm 44 now and nobody will take me seriously doing this. I do it for my own enjoyment.’ Robbie just said ‘I will not take no for an answer.’"
The madly prolific Rist, of course, is a pop culture zeitgeist of the highest degree, starting from his recurring Brady Bunch role on to CHiPs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sharknado and beyond, and he made good on his threat, producing and contributing to a fast moving, bright, tight, full realization of the Mack power pop equation.
Unfortunately, the album was stillborn, but Mack continued to perform them every chance he got. For a while . . .
“As far as why those songs have never been released, I just didn't know how to do it and could not afford putting any more money into it,” he said. “We recorded and mixed all 14 songs, totally finished them. But with working a day job seven days a week, and still putting on the Barn Dance every week which cost me money, playing the dingy bars like the Rodeway Inn and Rae's Lounge at nights for very few, if any people, the pop stuff had to take a back seat, especially since I knew that I would not be taken seriously in that genre. My only hope of having any success would have been if some big-name popular band or singer would record one of my songs.”
Mack is yet beleaguered by a constant churning riptide of self-doubt, one that draws his spirit out to sometimes perilous depths. At the core of this is, perhaps, the poor reception which his brilliant power pop material received. That was Ronnie Mack, naked, truth telling, gloriously rocking, nigh on perfect. Tellingly, the album included “You Gotta Turn It Down,” which Mack calls his “autobiographical song.”
The lyrics are scalpel edged: “Twenty-five years of doin' this / playin' places people wouldn't wanna stop to take a piss . . . Most of the time there's no one there / the ones who are don't even care / I'm gettin' tired of playin' for free / but it's not their fault, I know that it's me . . . “.
“I recall Ronnie was doing his own solo set at Jack's and some of us pop folk were in the audience watching it,” Adam Marsland (who played keys on Mack’s pop sessions), said. “We were sitting there and watching it a little bemusedly. Then Ronnie busted out this song reflecting on his own career. It was all about how you can make all these excuses about why you don't make it but in the end he comes to the conclusion that "I don't have what it takes." And it was just a jaw-dropping moment when he sang that, that level of honesty and self-reflection and I remember me and my friends just looking at each other stunned. Our respect for him went way up after that.”
The Sugar Shack shut down several years later, orphaning the Barndance anew; it finally settled at Burbank’s Crazy Jack’s/Joe’s Great American. The pressures (financial) and politics (musician ego) became harrowing, and after 25 years, Mack was exhausted. He finally pulled the plug in January of 2013, opting for his current semi-retirement in Bakersfield.
Back in the Outlander, rolling up Chester Avenue, Ronnie offered a circumspect summation: “Nobody up here knows who I am,” he said. “But almost nobody here knows who Buck and Merle were anymore either, except that they have streets named after them.”
Jonny Whiteside is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.