Ronnie Mack – Broadsides from the Barndance brigade
It’s almost too easy to get Ronnie Mack’s hackle standing on end. This usually mild-mannered promoter of the Barndance, L.A.’s long-standing roots-rock showcase, gets all riled up by the mere mention of Nashville and its local arm, radio station KZLA.
“Legends and pioneers [of country music] have disappeared because country radio has turned its back on them,” Mack says over lunch at a Santa Monica coffee shop. A salad sits before the tall, middle-aged Mack, whose puffed hair hints of pompadours the one-time rockabilly musician might have once worn. He pushes lettuce around the bowl with his fork, but rarely does the roughage reach the mouth. Another thought overwhelms him before he can take a bite. “Hank Williams can’t get a song get played on his birthday on KZLA. Two minutes of that would offend their audience? Johnny Cash is in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame and the country hall of fame and can’t get one song on country radio. He had one of last year’s most critically acclaimed albums on [Rick] Rubin’s label, he got a Grammy for it.” He stops, staring wild-eyed. The silence punctuates the point, as if any greater punctuation is needed.
The front lines of Mack’s holy war are in Hollywood at Jack’s Sugar Shack, home to the free Barndance every Tuesday since the showcase moved from the famed Palomino earlier this year, ending a near-eight-year run. Here, Mack, who is not compensated and jokes about the efforts being an “expensive hobby,” corrals up-and-coming artists. The only requirements are that they be regularly working Southern California acts whose music is traditional, American roots-based.
On any given week, young bands like the western-swinging Lucky Stars or the Bakersfield-fueled Plowboys and one of dozens of rockabilly greasers gig with local heroes such as Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores and Lucinda Williams. It’s not uncommon for an unannounced guest like Dwight Yoakam, John Doe or even Bruce Springsteen to strap on a Telecaster and kick out some country or ‘billy gem.
But commercial breakthrough even for more mainstream regulars such as Dale Watson, Wylie & the Wild West Show and Kelly Willis has been nonexistent while the “big-hat boot-scooters,” as Mack calls them, continue to dominate the charts. Mack says the scooters have the four ingredients for success these days: “how big your muscles are, how tight your jeans are, how good you shake your crotch around and what kind of line dance can you do to the song.” With that, he is nearly out of his seat, slapping his ankle in mock-demonstration of the line-dancing regimen that now holds the mainstream hostage.
“I don’t knock [country radio] for playing Billy Ray Cyrus,” he says, still going strong after more than an hour of verbal tirades and nary a taste of his lunch. “I think there should be room for everything and people should be given the option of deciding for themselves what should be the best, as opposed to some marketing research people in New Jersey. I’ve never understood why Jimmie Dale Gilmore can be on Jay Leno and David Letterman, sell out wherever he plays and have Robert Hilburn do an interview with him in the Sunday Times, and then be told that nobody cares about that kind of music so it can’t be played on the radio. I don’t think you get on Leno and Letterman if nobody cares about you.”
Meanwhile, the holy war rages on. New recruits are always needed.