Mac Arnold: Bluesman with Nothing to Prove
Charlotte, North Carolina, January 2005: At this point my wife Sharon and I had been in Charlotte since July 2004. We were at the world famous Double Door Inn. Everybody from Koko Taylor to Buddy Guy to
Eric Clapton & SRV, among many, had played there at one time or the other.
This was our second visit to this establishment. The purpose of this visit was to see Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues. I was also there to participate in the Blues jam that was to occur after Mac’s set, with other local musicians.
At this juncture, I didn’t know much about Mac except that he had one time been a backing member in Muddy Waters’ Band. This was the Charlotte Blues Society’s Blues Sunday event. Normally, this would have been on the first Sunday of the month. In this case, if my memory serves me well, it was on January 9, 2005, with the previous weekend being the New Years holiday.
At 8PM, it was showtime. I was immediately amazed and impressed by this band’s energy and intensity. They were mainly playing selections from their upcoming album, “Nothing to Prove,” and some choice covers like Junior Parker’s “Driving Wheel.”
On the chorus of their first song, an original, Mac and the majority of Plate Full O’ Blues sang to the assembled Double Door audience.
“What we’re going to do is play the Blues for you…” (“Play the Blues for You,” -Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues c2005)
My wife Sharon and I were immediately drawn to these wonderful Blues musicians. Incredibly tight, focused and fun. Mac Arnold, in his sixties at the time, was fronting the band like a man forty years younger. As far as the backing musicians, Austin Brashier on guitar recalled a young Stevie Ray Vaughan. But Austin had his own touch and approach with the instrument, as I would find out as time passed. Definitely, not a one trick pony.
Equally impressive was multi-instrumentalist, Max Hightower, on guitar, keyboards and most remarkably on harmonica. Max’s playing suggested harmonica greats like Little Walter, Sonnyboy Williamson and James Cotton. The deep thrust of this band was Chicago style Blues.
The foundation of Chicago’s Blues is a tight ensemble that supports the front man; Like the great bands that backed Muddy Waters; A band that plays like one breath with astute solos. Additionally, the drums of Mike Whitt and the Bass of Mark McMakin pushed the band along in a crisply efficient manner.
Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues played a stunning set on that January night. Among the selections from their first CD were the title track, “Nothing to Prove,” and the song “Ghetto Blue.” Ghetto was an especially interesting song to me because it lyrically referenced Mac’s moving from his South Carolina roots and living in Chicago. Where he was playing with such Blues legend’s as A.C. Reed, Muddy Waters and Soul man Tyrone Davis. He also referenced the great Buddy Guy who was playing then on the same Chicago Blues circuit as Mac was.
The song concluded with Mac thanking God for allowing him to continue to grow old playing the Blues after many of his contemporaries had gone on. This song moved me greatly.
It seemed that the two hour set was over in a minute. I was truly inspired by Mac Arnold that night. After his band’s concert, a Blues jam started with local musicians, including this author. One of the songs we played in our jam was the Willie Dixon classic, “Little Red Rooster.”
I was playing slide guitar and I purposely tried to channel Muddy Waters in my playing. I was playing to Mac, Plate Full O’ Blues and the Double Door audience. When I got off stage, Mac paid me the ultimate compliment of saying that he thought he was “hearing his old bandleader Muddy on stage.”
We immediately connected on that statement and in our continued conversation. Mac and his lovely wife, Vonda, made my wife Sharon and I feel incredibly welcome. This was the start of what is a continuous 17 year plus friendship. Mac gave us his and Vonda’s address and phone number.
Thus began our friendship with Mac Arnold. A friendship that has included many visits to Mac’s farm in Pelzer, SC. For Mac comes from a family farm tradition. Those visits included many late night talks about all aspects of life, not just Blues. Visits framed by many home cooked meals by Mac and Vonda. Mac’s broad expanse of humor and sense of fun added to the festivities.
In many ways, Mac Arnold has been like a Father to me, not just a figurehead. He has communicated wisdom to me by example. He is warm and friendly to all.
Mac, his guitarist Austin Brashier and multi-instrumentalist, Max Hightower and their various rhythm sections have honored me by allowing me to sit in with their band on several shows, in various venues. They have also acknowledged my skills as a musician by asking me to fill in for Austin on several occasions. I have included one of those moments in a YouTube video referenced below.
Mac Arnold was born on June 30, 1942 in Pelzer, SC. A small town that is about 30 minutes away from Greenville, SC. Mac’s family was a farming family. His father, Jodie T. Arnold, was a sharecropper until 1946 when he purchased 80 acres in the nearby Fort Shoals community for farming. His mother was named Phebe. Both of his parents taught Mac and his brothers and sisters a dedicated work ethic and Christian principles. In total, the Arnold family had seven brothers and six sisters, Mac was number 11.
Mac’s early musical influences included the Gospel music of his family’s constant church visits and the late night radio broadcasts from Nashville based station WLAC. This radio station had a playlist that drew heavily from Blues and R&B. This is where Mac first heard Muddy Waters and other Blues greats. WLAC, was a Clear Channel Radio station broadcasting with 50,000 watts of power.
I wrote about the Clear Channel radio phenomenon in the December 2021 PolitiChicks article, Paul Butterfield & Michael Bloomfield: The Clear Channel Generation. In the times of Clear Channel stations, radio was an educational entity. The airwaves, in those days, informed the listening habits of many musicians such as Mac Arnold.
Mac initially played his brother Leroy’s homemade guitar that was made out of a gasoline can and a board from the barn. Leroy made that guitar in 1946 and it was passed around in the family for years. Mac built his own version of that guitar. A replica of his guitar from childhood currently resides in the Music Museum of Downtown Greenville and a slide gas can guitar resides in the Smithsonian, also in Greenville, that has a sister connection to the museum in D.C.
By the time Mac was a teenager he was in the process of becoming a funky in-the-pocket Bass guitar player, but he was still learning. Teenage bands are the training ground for most musicians. Sort of like a Boot Camp with notes. That was his main calling card, initially, as a musician being a bass player, but he also sang. Mac joined his first band at the age of 14. The band was called J. Floyd and the Shamrocks, playing around Greenville. Floyd was from Georgia and one of his best friends was a then, unknown, fellow Georgia musician, named James Brown.
James would take a Greyhound bus up from Augusta, Georgia to Greenville and join Floyd, Mac and the rest of the Shamrocks for their many gigs in the Spring Street area. Spring Street was an area frequented by many Black entrepreneurs who owned the nightclubs, cafes, liquor stores, pool halls, in that area. In essence, all the black owned businesses in the area.
A particular favorite club was the Blue Bird Café owned by a Miss Lula Mae White, whom Floyd was dating. The club served as a base for the band for many rehearsals, gigs and meals. When James Brown joined the band he would play keyboards, dance and generally entertain the audience. The band with James included, at times, would play many gigs in places as far reaching as Commerce, Georgia up to Asheville, North Carolina. Most of this period was 1954 to 1955. By 1956, James had connected with Sid Nathan and Ralph Bass at King Records recording his seminal hit, “Please, Please, Please.” The rest was history and Mac did not see James again until over forty years later.
As stated, many of the artists that Mac heard in his adolescence, on WLAC, were the great Chicago Bluesmen like Muddy Waters. When Mac was about 20 he made a foray into Chicago. Initially, Mac was intimidated by the hustle and bustle of Chicago. In 1965, Mac went back to Chicago, driving up in his own car and joined Saxophone Player, A.C. Reed’s band. In 1966, he was approached by a Scout of Muddy Waters who asked him if he would like to join the Waters Band.
He played with Muddy Waters, who nicknamed him “Strawman” for his propensity for drinking beverages through a straw. Mac played with Muddy Waters for almost a year, with an open door offer if he ever wanted to return. During his tenure with Muddy, Mac and the Waters band appeared on two landmark albums as backing musicians, both were recorded at New York’s Café Au Go-Go club. Muddy’s piano man, Otis Spann, recorded an album called, “Otis Spann: The Blues is Where It’s At,” (ABC-Bluesway), recorded on January 1, 1966.
Also recorded during 1966, was when Mac and the rest of the band backed John Lee Hooker on his influential album, “Live at the Café Au Go Go, (Also originally released by ABC- Bluesway). Not easy to back, John Lee Hooker set his own terms as far as when the chords would change in his songs. Mac and company backed him admirably.
The Muddy Waters band also backed Delta Blues Legend, Big Joe Williams. They also appeared at the Café Au Go Go. These were 101 lessons on how to back Blues legends. Invaluable experience. After leaving Muddy Waters,Mac formed a band called The Soul Invaders. In 1968, the band started backing Soul Legend, Tyrone Davis. They worked hand in hand creating a sterling backing band, featured on the great Soul Classic, “Turning Point.”
Mac’s time with James Brown and J. Floyd and the Shamrocks and his Chicago experiences helped him to develop into a remarkable bass player on the Chicago Blues circuit. Comfortable in his own skin, playing in the deep pocket, Mac was a in-demand Bass player.
During his time in Chicago, playing with Muddy and other great musicians, Mac became friendly with Don Cornelius, who had been working as an Announcer, News Reporter and Disc Jockey on Chicago radio station WVON. This station was owned by Leonard and Phil Chess, of Chess records. Chess was the label that recorded Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, among many. Another part of Don’s duties was raising funds for WVON so Mac’s band recorded back-up tracks for Don’s commercial fund raising efforts.
When Don Cornelius developed the idea for the music program, “Soul Train,” Mac shifted gears and migrated to California. There he came aboard the show as an Associate Producer. Mac worked for Don Cornelius from 1971 thru 1975.
During his time on Soul Train, Mac met his future and present wife, Vonda in 1975. They have been together ever since. Vonda never misses a beat or looses someone’s word in conversation. She always has Mac’s back.
Mac’s time in California was varied from everything from playing on the Quincy Jones written track for “Sanford and Son” to going to college and learning fundamentals of television production. That led to him being hired by ABC television, in 1976, as a Videotape Editor. He also worked for Twentieth Century Fox as a cameraman during this period. At the same time, Mac also worked Deluxe General as a film chain operator, transferring film to video tape.
Eventually, in 1990, Mac made his way back to Pelzer, South Carolina to take care of his ailing Mother. With music on temporary hold he worked a series of day jobs leading to his driving trucks for Belk Department stores. During his period as a driver he met future bandmate, Max Hightower, who was working as a Mechanic, playing Muddy Waters on a boom box. This was about 1994.
For the next decade, Max worked tirelessly on getting Mac back into playing Blues. They started rehearsing as Plate Full O’ Blues in 2004. Their first gig was New Years Eve 2004 going into 2005. That was a little over a week before I first met Mac and the band.
What follows are my observations about Mac and the band:
- I sat in, as an observer, on one of their songwriting rehearsals and was amazed how well oiled the band is. With the recent additions of Rick Latham, on Drums, and Mike Frost on Bass, they are better than ever. The band has always had apt rhythm sections composed of good people, but this lineup is my favorite.
- The following is the Discography of Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues, available at outlets like CD Baby and Spotify.
Nothing to Prove (2005)
Backbone and Gristle (2008)
Country Man (2009)
Mac Arnold’s Blues Revival: Live at the Eagle (2011)
Give It Away (2016)
- Mac has been actively playing gas can guitars again since 2006 when he received one as a birthday present from his brother Leroy. These guitars are not a novelty item, but an instrument that requires technique and patience. Lately, Mac has been recalling the late great Albert King in a lot of his solos.
- In 2007, Mac established his own festival known as Mac Arnold’s Cornbread and Collard Greens Blues Festival. That festival has featured such Blues legends as Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Shaw, Bob Margolin, Willie “Big Eye” Smith and Kim Wilson among many, including your humble author. Culinary note: Most of the collard greens are from the Mac Arnold family farm.
Mac has been actively involved in various Blues in the Schools programs. In 2010, he developed the 501C3 organization called the“I Can Do Anything Foundation,” that promotes the preservation of music and arts in the public school systems. Mac is always generous with his time when there is a good cause. Pictured here is Mac and me, where he sat in with the band I was in at the time, Michael Wolf & the Voodoo Brothers, to benefit the Charlotte Blues Society. That was at the Visualite Theater in Charlotte, in 2008.
- In 2014, Mac received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of South Carolina on May 10, 2014. In the same year, he opened Dr. Mac Arnold’s Blues Club in Greenville. The club ran from 2014 to 2017. Additionally, Mac and his band have done several European tours to great acclaim as well as continuing to tour throughout the United States.
- Mac has been the subject of a 2011 Documentary by filmmaker Stan Woodard entitled, “Nothing to Prove: Mac Arnold’s Return to the Blues.” Additionally, Mac was featured in a 2010 collection of photographs by photographer and videographer Brian S. Kelley titled, “Mac Arnold Plate Full O’ Blues.”
The discography, referenced above, along with the book and film, are also available for purchase at www.macarnold.com. Dr. Mac’s legacy continues to grow. In 2017, he was inducted into the Alabama Blues Hall of Fame. I see continuing accolades in Mac’s future.
Dr. Mac Arnold continues to grow and expand. He reached the age of 80 this year with grace, style and was acknowledged by one heck of a party at the Anderson Civic Center in Anderson, SC in July of this year. A huge crowd that included Blues luminaries such as Bobby Rush.
Not surprising to see this outpouring of affection towards Mac. His warm, expansive personality invites the love of the crowd. But with his history, he truly has nothing to prove, if he wished to retire. But that’s not likely. He and the band continue to break new ground, stylistically and thematically. I think Dr. Mac Arnold stays healthy by actively playing the Blues and by maintaining the family tradition of working the farm. Mac Arnold’s story is an American story, one that is both a lesson of the past and a guidepost for future generations. Dr. Mac Arnold has nothing to prove.
“Gitty Up,” from “Backbone and Gristle”, 2008, Mac Arnold & Plate Full O’ Blues: