"Mr. Texas Heat!"
by Ken Burke
Mack Stevens is the heir apparent to the great Rollin' Rock artists of the 70's. A prolific songwriter, his work sparks conflicting pinball associations of spiritual zeal, rhythmic celebration, and shockingly dark human thirsts. Less a rockabilly revivalist than authentic modern day originator, his sanctified redneck vocal style conjures compelling images of constant battles between heartfelt salvation and egregious sins of the flesh.
On top of which, he can flat-out rock'n'roll.
Sporting surly good looks and a brawny 6' 2', 250 pound frame, the Texas-based rockabilly appears almost as dangerous as he sounds. Depending on the situation or inclination, he will juggle snakes onstage, swing his guitar-player around by the legs, and literally set himself (or the customers) ablaze with his ever-handy can of lighter fluid. Wild stuff. But is it all just an act? Or is the seemingly mild-mannered, quick-witted Stevens truly the Psychotic King Of Western Bop? We decided to find out for ourselves in this freewheeling interview wherein Stevens discusses his influences, the economic pitfalls of rockabilly, serial killers, showmanship, and his latest Rollin' Rock CD Texas Heat.
When and where were you born?
Gee I should lie about this, but I was actually born in Newhall, California in 1961. Dad was an Oakie, and still is for that matter. He was born out in Oklahoma and mom is from Arkansas, so like most Oakies he felt he had to make that once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the Bakersfield area. So, in 1959 or '60, pop ended up in California working in the oil fields and I was born out there. Then at about age seven and a half we moved on out to Texas, where I have remained ever since.
Is your dad still in the oil business?
He retired from Texaco about a year ago, and enjoys it immensely. (Laughs.) They tried to kill him a million times through various industrial accidents and he managed to survive. Small miracle.
What about your mother?
She was always a housewife, in fact she turned me on to rockabilly. My earliest musical memories are listening to mom's copy of "Jive After Five" by Carl Perkins. She also had "Dixie-Fried" by Carl, all the Johnny Cash stuff, and an old Sun 45 of "Mystery Train." And there were other Elvis records, "Baby Let's Play House" and such. Dad was more into hillbilly and country, but recently I was playing some rockabilly stuff and he said, "You know I did listen to a lot of this when I was a kid. We just called it hillbilly."
Do a lot of folks from that era just assume rockabilly is fast country music?
That's exactly right. In fact, I recently became friendly with Lew Williams and he called it "Cat Music," and said that's how they all referred to it. You can see old advertisements, especially here in Texas, where they'd have "Cat Music" nights, and that would be '53 through mid-55.
Mack Stevens isn't the name you were born with, was it?
No, my real name is Steve McClanahan, a good old Irish name. My brother Jerry is a rockabilly nut but he can't even play a radio. He's an artist. He travels up and down Route 66 doing interviews who own businesses there and characters, does paintings, and maps it out. He's found sections people haven't seen in 50-60 years. He's devoted himself to it and he's very, very good. He has a million dollars worth of talent; he just needs the million dollars now.
When did you get your first instrument?
When I was about six. Mom and dad bought my brother and I those non-descript Silvertone type guitars you could get for $15 -20. Naturally, with nobody to give us lessons, I didn't learn much. I didn't start actively learning until I was around 13 or 14 years old. I had a local preacher who showed me some things and my uncle Ray showed me some things. Uncle Ray was a helluva good steel guitarist up in Oklahoma -he used to play behind Johnny Lee Wills, Freddie Hart and people like that who would pass through. Johnny Lee Wills wanted him to join his band and Grandpa said "no," so Ray just kicked back and became one of the more illustrious alcoholics in all history. Which was a shame, the man was great! He was a legend around there and now he has nothing to show for it.
When you finally learned to play, what type of music did you first attempt?
It was rockabilly. All my musical memories are stuff like "I'm Sorry, I'm Not Sorry" by Perkins, "I'm Left You're Right She's Gone" by Elvis - really about anything that Elvis did. Of course as a little kid I thought "Teddy Bear" was real cool, but as I started getting a little more discerning I realized he had pretty much sold out by that point. I have a theory. After Sun 223 was released by Elvis, aliens took over in the form of Col. Tom Parker, they did some sort of soul/body dimensional switch and put this pretty good imitator out there who made the Colonel very happy by selling out and making him a rich man.
What song did you first learn how to play?
The first song that I remember doing was "Ooby Dooby" and the Slim Rhodes' "Uncertain Love." Sun # 216, that was the first Sun 45 I ever found, that was a number from early '55. I liked it! It was just plain hillbilly. I had no idea who Slim Rhodes was, turns out he was an elderly guy who died in a fall from a ladder back in the mid-60s. When I was about 17 years old, Warren Smith was THE man. Vocally, I found I could sing a lot more Warren Smith songs than some of the others. But, I mainly learned how to play from listening to Johnny Cash's Sun records because you could hear each instrument individually. You could hear Cash's guitar with the paper in it, the bass, and Luther - and I learned how to play lead guitar and bass off of Cash records. It took a while, but I taught myself to play in that simple style because there was nobody around to teach me.
Was the country aspect of rockabilly what drew you into it?
Sure was. My favorite rockabilly is that which is not teenagery. It mentions rockin' and boppin' and such, but the voice is not quite so youthful. Kind of like Jimmy Grub's "Let's Rock Tonight" on Mac Records, "Lonesome Rhythm Blues" by Wayne McGuiness - the real primitive, raw stuff doesn't have to have drums and the singers don't necessarily have to be talented. Just as long as they're doing what they really feel, that's what I like. You could tell that nobody was telling them what to do, this was what they felt, which is what I like to do with my own records.
I think it's pretty obvious that you're a record collector. Has your personal taste have been shaped by thrift-store and flea market finds?
Very much. In fact, they still are. The other day my wife and I went out and bought 4,500 records a guy had stockpiled in his house. So we still dig records and finding stuff. 90% is junk, but that remaining 10% -- oh my god! Most of what I find and buy 75% of it something I never heard of until I've found it and played it. I always carry a battery powered children's record player with me, one of the last models Fisher-Price ever put out. When I'm at somebody's house and I see something I don't know, I run out to the car, get it and play the record. If I like it, then I buy it. It's great, because I have found quite a few rockabilly records that have never been documented, and I'll either keep 'em or in weak moments I'll sell 'em or swap for other stuff I like.
Have you been able to make your record collection support itself through sales and trades?
I have. For years I had a near complete Sun Records collection - I needed five records to have everything Sam Phillips put out as singles. BUT, those five I needed were impossible. I needed the Harmonica Frank, the D.A. Hunt, and I some of the impossible ones as well. It got to the point of being too obsessive; I had to get out, so I sold those just a head of a much-needed divorce.
A lot of artists of your ilk seem to prefer their flea-market finds over the superior works of say Perkins, Vincent, or Lewis. Is that because they found it themselves?
I think so. There's a thrill in that. When you're shuffling through boxes of records at a convention and they've got records for $600 to $1000, you get kind of jaded. But when I'm out in the wild and I run across Sterling Kelly singing "Lonely Heart" on Kel Records - a local Waco record, which to me is one of the ultimate things in life. It's not the high-dollar record it should be - three or four hundred dollars, when I run across something like that for a quarter, I smile for the rest of the day. It's just a really good feeling.
By using these "found" songs in your repertoire, is this a way to show off one's record collecting skills to like-minded musicians?
Definitely. It's a good source of material too. Like Jimmy Johnson's "All Dressed Up" on Starday. Hardly anybody has the record and it's just starting to be reissued, but that's been a staple of my live show for a long time. Things like that, that people haven't really picked on as much, I put those into the live show. When it's something that's real common though, like "Blue Suede Shoes?" Nah! It's been done already and who's going to beat Carl Perkins?
When did you decide you were going to get serious about the music?
Well, I've been a water-meter reader and I was lead singing in small churches when need be. But I was at the Austin Record Show in '91 and I talked to a German guy named Paul Kosel. I told him I played rockabilly and he said, "I want to put out some new rockabilly, maybe we could do an album." I said, "Sure - I've got a band." Which was a lie, I had no band." So, he put me in touch with Johnny Patterson out of Longview. Johnny is a guitar-player par excellance. He played with Don Fager back in the 50s on the Ebony label, and he played with Charlie Pride in the 60s, Bob Wills, and other people. But he did a lot of rockabilly session work. So we did a sixteen-song session for Eagle Records and I think they put fifteen of 'em out. I went back to Johnny's and recorded a little more material for myself. But for my Eagle record, Paul had done a lot of reissues but no modern stuff, so essentially they didn't know how to mix the darn thing. So, it's in stereo and it has no echo. When I realized it was in stereo, I was a bit pissed. I would've muddled it up some, gave some echo and put it in mono and it would've sounded a lot better. But I did reissue one of those songs "She's My Medicine" on my Freedonia CD, and I mixed it back into mono and echoed it up a bit.
There's a picture of you on the back of your Eagle LP with a slap bass.
I had been playing it for about two weeks before that picture was taken. I had fooled around with one at the local college. One night I was playing it at the house trying to learn it and back came off! So I glued it together and just gave it back. A few years later, when I was going to do this LP, I went out and bought a little half-sized one for about $400. It didn't have good tone or anything but in about two weeks I learned pretty much how to play it and just bluffed my way through for that album. It came out all right, not terrible. There's a few songs on there I probably will do again.
Let's talk about your transformation from Steve McClanahan to Mack Stevens.
(Laughs) For a long time, Mack Stevens and Steve McClanahan were different people. Mack was just the alter ego. Then I realized that Mack would take a lot of chances that ol' Steve never did take. But, I've learned how to pretty much incorporate the two so that Steve is just as big an asshole as Mack is. (Laughs/) And I have no problem with that at all. I'd get home from playing music on the weekend and say, "Damn I had a good time."
So, the concept of Mack Stevens had me questioning everything I ever held dear in my life. A real spiritual awakening as it were. Of course at that time I was in a disastrous marriage which I refer to as "the prison sentence" and my identity as Mack Stevens gave me the courage to actually step out and say, "I want to live! The hell with this, I'm going to go out and actually enjoy myself." GLAD I DID, because I never would've met Karina. We've been married a couple of years now and, oh my god, what a life. First time in my life I'm truly happy.
Does Karina know Steve?
Oh, she's met him. Actually, in many ways she prefers Steve to Mack.
Your stuff contains a certain amount of evangelical zeal. Does that stem from Steve's upbringing in church or is that a side benefit of the character we know as Mack Stevens?
It's a little bit of both. When I was a teenager, I had a band and my drummer was literally a holy-roller Pentecostal. So, we would play county fairs, because we were all underage, then on Sundays we'd play in church. It was wilder in church than anyplace. They'd scream, holler, jump up, talk tongues and do all that stuff. I could play rockabilly licks and nobody'd say anything bad about that - they liked it. You couldn't take real long solos but the Merle Travis or Scotty Moore type licks would fit right in there. There is a wild abandon in country-gospel music that you won't find anywhere else. In fact, as far as the record collecting goes, I've now gotten into collecting raw, honest, unforgiving sincere, bizarre gospel, some of it borders on rockabilly. I recorded one of those, the "downward Road," that's the one that goes "Your wicked daughter screams in hell." That's a Curt & Fay Bartmess song, they were traveling evangelists. Bob and Barbara Jones, who recorded out of Oklahoma City, they did one called "Crying Holy." I just found this on a 45 and I defy anybody not to proclaim it one of the five best rockabilly records they've ever heard. It's like Elvis, Scotty, and Bill but it's a male-female duet and they're screaming the lyrics the whole nine yards. Nobody's ever heard of these people.
So this music gives the character we know as Mack Stevens a chance to wallow in the throes of sin and redemption?
That's pretty much it. I like things that are intense!
Was that your idea of what your persona and sound should be like from the start?
Yes. Intensity. I don't like anything that's forced. If a person is singing or playing something and they are honestly sincere and single-minded towards it - whether it's somebody preaching or singing their song, you've got to respect that. Maybe they should be locked up for it, but you've got to respect it.
What is your weirdest musical influence, the one we don't expect?
Howard Serratt, who was on Sun #198 and St. Francis # 100. He made a third record back in the 50s, no collector knows about it except me and the guy I sold it to - and I'll just let people worry about that. His Sun record went more than a thousand bucks for a 45, and the St. Francis disc went for two thousand. I've owned 'em both. He had a wonderful, marvelous voice. Guitar, harmonica, and vocal; he played in a simple but intense country-gospel style and he could convert anybody. He had been paralyzed by polio as a child Well, back in 1980 or so, my dad and brother went out to California and I had them look up Howard. He sent me some photographs of when he was young. I tracked down all his family - I track down singers in my spare time, and I bought from his sister a couple of those real rare records. I also had a promotional poster that Sun, put out - Sun didn't put out many promotional pictures, not even on Presley but they did on Howard. There's this picture of Sam Phillips, Howard on his crutches, and the Governor of Tennessee all shaking hands.
Frank Clement. (Recites verse from Prisonairres song.) "What about Frank Clement? He's a mighty, mighty man of God." Speaking of which, about five years ago I met Johnny Bragg. [Bragg was the lead singer of the Prisonairres, a group Sam Phillips recorded while they served a prison term. Their ultra-rare recording of "Walking In the Rain" is said to be worth $5000.] I was in the little tourist trap part of Sun Studios at 706 Union, and at the foot of the stairs in Johnny Bragg! He's just a little guy, about five and a half feet tall. I said "Johnny Bragg?" He said, "Yes?" I just threw my arms around him. He was kinda bemused, but I got to talk to him for a while. The sweetest man, and the only survivor of the Prisonairres. But that's what Karina and I do in our spare time, we look up old singers and if they're dead, I find their family. If they've kept records or guitars and such, I'll buy whatever I can get a hold of. You meet some of the coolest people that way.
When you did your early demos, did you play all the instruments?
That's right, I did. I didn't have a slapbass early on so I'd improvise making sounds with my mouth, or else I'd tune a guitar down low and do use that, and at one point I actually went out and used a bass guitar. I learned how to create my own slapback echo just by turning the monitor up while recording onto another channel. I managed to get some real primitive dubs made.
Do you prefer vintage equipment when you record or does it matter?
Really, I love a good vintage guitar and instruments like that and I prefer using tube equipment. But my favorite record of mine that I've cut is "Rockin' Guitar Gal," it's real tinny quality, I recorded it on a Yamaha 4-track which I use for my home stuff. I'm left-handed, so I had a little lefty Mexican-made Squire Fender Stratocaster and a Peavy solid-state amp with built-in distortion. The song sounds like it was done in 1956 or '57 and I was very pleased with the results. So you can get that old sound with non-vintage equipment. Incidentally, I wrote that song in just under three and a half minutes and did the demo the demo in slightly less than an hour, then decided the demo would be the finished record. At lot of my songs go that way. Even at Rollin' Rock, I'll write a song and get it recorded in under an hour - that's from concept to finished product.
Is that because you've been writing so much that you can spill out the words anytime you need to?
Yes. Case in point, there's a story in the liner notes of Texas Heat about the song "Turn Me On." Ronny says he and the others were going to take a salad break and, "You and Karina have ten minutes to come up with a real hot song." I had one, but had left the lyrics and all at the house and could remember enough of it. Ronnie claims we wrote that song in ten minutes - which is a complete falsehood, we did it in about six minutes. (Laughs.) But, I give credit where credit is due; I didn't write the thing. Karina said, "I have idea for song." She wrote down the basic concept, couplets and such, I cleaned the English up, put it in meter and rhyme and we had our song. They came in and I said, "OK, we've got our song," and Ronny looked at me and said, "You're crazy!" About twenty minutes later, Ronny was screaming his lungs out and jumping up and down the way Ronny does when he's excited. So he was very pleased with the results. On that same CD, there's a song called "The Moon's Not Mine Anymore," which is my favorite off the whole thing. I wrote that the day before we recorded it. We were on our way to Vegas and everybody was asleep in the van, and I had my little pocket cassette recorder and I just sat there and dictated it with ideas for the guitar parts and what I wanted to do with the song. We got there, I woke everybody up and I told 'em exactly what we needed. I even showed Billy Disonante the lead I wanted and said, "Don't deviate from this - this is exactly what I want." Billy doesn't speak English so that doesn't exactly do me any good. He's married to a local lady, Jessica Rooth, who now records for Rollin' Rock, so he's learning.
Your "hooks" are these scarier types of songs. Stuff like "Burned Beyond Recognition," "They Won't Find You," "Hate And Gasoline, and "Mama Stop Me Before I Kill Again." Do you have folk-music sympathy for criminal psychos?
Yes - and all you thought we did was f**k chickens and pray. That's one of my favorite lines from a Nick Tosches book.
(Laughing) These songs could be taken as satire, but they have such a realistic edge to them.
Like I've said, I like intensity and who in the heck is more intense than somebody who sets at home by themselves, keeps away from society, or walks around in society like a normal person, but then gets these ungodly urges. Then, they either go up and down the road killing teenagers or dig up graveyards. Now THAT'S intensity.
Oh sure, but isn't this a conflict with your religious background?
Not essentially. Most preachers I've met have been stinkin' graverobbers anyway as far as I'm concerned. I have had some conflicts and that, but I've had to step back before I believed everything that they told me. Whenever I've had a bad patch in my life the church people acted like, "Well, you're having bad troubles so we don't want to be around you." It taught me a lesson - that man is essentially morally bankrupt and I think God has a sense of humor. I don't go halfway at anything.
Do you collect things like Serial Killer trading cards?
I don't, but I recently got one interesting collectible, Ed Gein's hat. I have a new song about him called, "Dig, Eddie, Dig." I've already done some demos and that'll be recorded, I guess for Rollin' Rock, or I may save it for one of my own more bizarre Freedonia releases. I went into Wisconsin last year and visited Gein's grave and took a friend back some dirt from the grave, and made a good contact or two up there.
Is this an obsession with you?
Well, I'm studying. If I'm going to be a graverobber, then I oughta learn from the best. Like my friend up in Dallas says, "He was the Elvis of serial killers." John Wayne Gacy might say, "Before Eddie, there was nothin'." But I have studied serial killers and I'd like to do a four song EP with a couple of songs about Eddie Gein and a couple of others, because I've got good photos with me at Gein's grave with one arm around his tombstone and the other around his mama's.
This is all just for fun, right?
Oh yeah. I just want people to know that there's more to country music than twenty-three verses of "Your Cheatin' Heart." I like to keep people off-balance.
What was the Johnny Cash parody you did?
"Headless Darlin'." I actually managed to get airplay of that in Finland. I played there a few years back with the Barnshakers. We did some radio work and got to play that song. I've had a lot airplay at college radio stations with that one song.
Does your newer, Rollin' Rock material get much airplay?
"I Hate the Moon" has gotten Song Of The Month several times on European radio shows. I've gotten a lot of action over there for about two years now.
Does overseas airplay put any money in your pocket?
Nah! And God bless Ronny. He's the only man I've ever met that paid me royalties. Generally, he's a straight forward, honest guy.
Tell us how you came to write "Momma Stop Me Before I Kill Again."
Well, one morning while I was shaving, I thought of this one serial killer that wrote on his victim's body, "For God's sake, please stop me before I kill again." That stayed with me while I was shaving and five to ten minutes later I've got the song written and that afternoon we recorded it.
You also write songs about stimulants - "Diet Pill Boogie," "Benzedrine, Dexedrine," are these reflective of your personal habits?
To be honest, I stay away from illicit substances. But I was on Fen-Fen for quite some time. I have no idea what it did to my heart but I lost forty-five pounds quickly. It was like I was on a rough, fast idle for six months, and it was great! (Laughs.) I literally ran everywhere I went. If I didn't squirt water in my eyes every ten seconds they'd dry out - it was really cool. When I found out they were dangerous, I thought, "Well, hell, I'll just throw 'em away." But there was this dog that kept knocking over my trashcans and rooting through my trash. So, I took a can of Vienna sausages, pushed all the pills in that and just set it out. Heh-heh. I think that dog is STILL doing laps around Navarro County. Every now and then I'll see him crossing the street at 180 miles an hour. But I stay away from that stuff.
A lot of your approach is definitely caffeinated though.
Yes, it's not Mack-Lite, it's kind of like Jolt Cola - twice the caffeine and all the sugar.
Do the crazier songs help you exorcise some of your own demons?
Oh yes. There's a lot of times when all my rage, frustration, self-hatred, and things like that manifest themselves in my songs. I can't believe I used the work "manifest." Well, I did used to live next door to a college. But yeah, that's true, music can be a good exercise in exorcising.
Tell us about the formation of your own Freedonia label. Did you take the name from the Marx Brothers?
I did, from Duck Soup. My daughter Rachel is a Marx Brother fanatic and I've been a fan since the eighth or ninth grade. I just loved their stuff. They were intense; they were maniacs. I'm a very uninhibited person, especially since I met Karina. We like to shock people and if I shock somebody, then they'll remember me, won't they? I like to be remembered.
Tell us why you formed your own label.
Well, the Eagle LP left a bad taste in my mouth and I thought I should produce my own stuff, but I had also started recording for Fuzzy Whitener at his little studio here in Corsicana. Fuzzy is the son of the man who was on Starday Records - Fuzzy Whitener Sr. did one killer rockabilly record, and it's rare! Every now and then I'll dig up a copy and get three or four hundred dollars for it. Anyway, I recorded "Ice Cold Water" for Fuzzy Jr., and incidentally that record was by bootlegged and credited to "Mister Mack," they were passing it off as a record that supposedly had been made in '57.
To be bootlegged and thought of as one of the original rockabilly artists, is that a weird sort of validation of your music?
I was on cloud nine. I didn't even know it was out - it was out for quite a while. I was at a record collector's house from Fort Worth looking through his LPs when I saw Mr. Mack - "Ice Water? What?" I played it and there's my own voice on a 50's compilation. That was fun! Then I heard a DJ in France had it listed as one of his favorites. About a month or two later I put it out on a German label, Waterhole, and they put out an EP called Killing Spree. A couple of Johnny Patterson numbers on the flip side, then my "Ice Water" and "Killing Spree." When that came out, "Killing Spree" really kicked open some doors for me. That really got me a lot of attention in the neo-rockabilly world. I had really avoided the neo-rockabilly world up until that point. I didn't want to know what people were playing nowadays that was considered rockabilly. I had heard some Billy Hancock stuff I liked - of course my wife thinks I'm a square for ignoring them, but I avoided the Stray Cats like the plague. I didn't want someone to come up to me later and say "Well, so and so influenced you." Forcing me to argue, "Hell no! If anybody did it was Carl Perkins, Hank Williams, and Sleepy LaBeef."
What's the difference is between an authentic rockabilly and a neo-rockabilly?
Well, a lot of the neo-rockabillies started in punk. They followed the Cramps and all sorts of punk bands, Dead Kennedys, stuff like that. Then they heard the Stray Cats and thought, "Well, this is pretty cool and they're all tattooed up and they look wild." So they got into rockabilly that way, but when they were learning guitar, they learned all the modern stuff. They could play Heavy Metal or Punk if they wanted to. Myself, if it's past three or four chords, I can't play it, don't know it, don't want to know it. All I ever fed myself growing up was a steady diet of the Charly reissues from England which had all the unissued Sun stuff, all these Collector Records on the White label out of Holland, and whatever I'd find at garage sales. I'm pretty proud of the fact that I have no post-1960 or '61 influences on my music. I was born in '61, so when I was hatched is where I draw the line musically.
One of my favorite tunes on your Freedonia CD is your version of Conway Twitty's "You've Never Been This Far Before."
(Laughs.) Sometimes when I'm working I'll be forced to hear modern music. I remember at a time when there was a sea of horrible music, there were good songs like that. Conway Twitty was the sexiest male singer there's ever been, voicewise. Elvis was pretty good, but when Conway was singing, he was sliding those panties right down those women's thighs with his voice alone! Ronny Weiser can't stand that version of it, by golly. So, I did hear modern stuff but I just dismissed it. The only new things I allowed myself to really get into were the Rollin' Rock Records. Those are the only modern rockabilly records that I listened to when I was a teenager. I understood what he was doing. He was recording these guys in his living room, which made perfect sense to me. Of course the covers were done on a Xerox machine at best or with crayons. (Laughs.) But personal note to Ronny, now that we're in the CD age, I want better covers for my records.
How did you manage to get Malcolm Yelvington to record on the Freedonia label?
I bluffed my way into it. I had met Malcolm years before when he was working in the tourist part upstairs at Sun Studios. Nice old guy, a real sweetheart. One day, I was sittin' around and thinking, "Who could I get to record for Freedonia?" And I kept thinking of Malcolm Yelvington, because when I spoke with him his voice hadn't changed much and I knew he still sang a little bit. So, I called him up and said, "Malcolm, I've got a song for you." The truth was I had the title but I hadn't written it yet. He remembered me, or at least said he did, he's a true gentleman. I told him I wanted to do a 45 but wasn't going to press more than three hundred of 'em, but when I said, "I want to record you and get a good 50s sound," he said "If you want to come on up this way, I'll do it! Come to my house, set it up, and we'll just do it." So I took my guitar and my little Yamaha tape deck, he got out his old '48 Martin and we recorded him in his living room. I recorded three songs with him, took 'em back home, added fuzzy and my slapbass to it. Actually, on "There's A Little Life Left In The Old Boy Yet," I messed up the back-up track, so all I had was Malcolm acapella. So I had to tune my guitar just to his voice and reconstruct the whole recording all by myself. It worked out! He was just as tickled, he took it to the Sun studio where he was recording his new CD - that's a killer CD by the way, he re-recorded my song as the title track. Anyway, he took that 45 up there and said, "Y'all don't look. I'm going to play something for you." And they all thought it was an unreleased Sun cut from the 50s. I was very happy when he told me that. We still stay in touch and I took Karina to meet him two years ago. When I recorded him he was a fresh, youthful 78, and that was five years ago.
Are most of your Freedonia singles on the Home Made Tattoo CD?
Yes! That came out in 1997, that was a culmination of my favorite Freedonia recordings and some new recordings I made with a band I had at the time, the Slapback Rhythmaires. A lot of the Freedonia CD contained things I had recorded on my Yamaha 4-track. Before the Freedonia compilation came out, I had done the On The Hill CD for a Japanese label. I recorded it all at Fuzzy Whitener's place, with Fuzzy on lead guitar on most songs, and a really great drummer here in Corsicana called H.M. Davenport, Jr., he's a real firecracker. It really worked out good.
You recorded one single with your daughter that I like a lot.
(Laughs) "Cuttin' Boogie." I said, "OK when I point you scream." She had had headphones on and did it one take. She's so proud.
Let's talk about how you ended up on Rollin' Rock. One of the stories we see is about how a 12-year old female drummer contacted Ron Weiser.
Her name was Annie Bennett. Brash little gum-popping kid, same age as my oldest daughter at the time. They'd visit together and such, then I found out she played drums! One day she sat in and she played good. She's on three cuts on the Freedonia CD. Her dad David played bass with me at the time. So, one day I went over there to practice and Annie says, "Oh, there's some guy named Rockin' Ronny on the internet who wants to talk to you." A.) I didn't have any idea what the internet was, and B.) I thought, "Ronny Weiser?" So I talked to him briefly and he said, "Hey, send me an album." So I sent him the On The Hill disc. Within a week he wrote back saying, "This is the best most fantastic stuff," in the usual Ronny Weiser style of writing on the Rollin' Rock stationary. So I put that on the wall for a while. Then he wanted to record, so we talked it over and went ahead and did it.
Did you like having your first Rollin' Rock productions come out on a respected independent like Hightone?
It didn't bother me because I never ever spoke to anybody from Hightone about it. Ronny did all that.
Would you have preferred to stay on Hightone?
Nah, I didn't see any advantage to it. It had been my ambition to be a Rollin' Rock artist since I was 17 years old. If I had stayed with Hightone, I don't know whether it would've been recording for Ronny or some corporate type at Hightone. You know; one of those guys who only let you cut four songs in three hours and no more than that. My first day at Rollin' Rock, we cut thirteen songs. That broke the Johnny Carroll record by one song.
What does Ron Weiser do in the studio that's different from what you were already doing?
He has good equipment, aside from occasionally sending feedback through your headphones and blowing your eardrums out. (Laughs.) But I would never be able to record a full band with drums and everything because I just don't have the equipment to do it, but Ron does. What I like about Ron is how excited he gets about it, if he doesn't like it he'll tell you - and unless you're talking about somebody's wife or sister, honesty is the best policy. And Ronny's enthusiasm is damned infectious - I don't know if you could catch off a toilet seat, but it's infectious. The time passes when you're doing it, of course. He'll run you into multiple takes, getting it just right. Y'know, about half the time or more, when I sit back and listen to it, I'm glad I ran in to multiple takes.
Does Ron make lyric suggestions or coach your vocals in any way?
He'll make vague suggestions like (imitates Weiser's Italian accent), "More sexy, more sexy. Give me more of this rowwwrrrrrr!" Lyric changes? He won't allow the word "f**k" on records. (Laughs.) I did slip one in on him and he barely caught it right before it went to the pressing plant. He called me up and said, "I heard that damned 'f**' you put in that record, I had to pull that down." What can I say? That's just part of my life as a scam artist.
Your sound grew markedly during your recordings for Weiser and includes elements of Western music that I think suits you.
Well, I'm not so much of a Western or hillbilly singer as I am a rockabilly, but my dad is a big fan or Marty Robbins. That's stuff that I grew up on. I'm not sure if Ronny knows this but I'm probably the only Rollin' Rock artist to ever sing about anal sex. You know, "Rocket Ride To Uranus?" I'll bet you've hardly listened to the words on that.
(Laughing.) I guess not, it hardly occurred to that was what you were singing about.
Just listen to "Rocket Ride To Uranus" and I think you'll finally understand the true meaning of the phrase, "Houston, we've got a problem."
Has Ron helped frame your musical persona better?
He did. He actually provided a good outlet and a direction for a lot of this. I gotta give the man credit there. You know, I get frustrated about little quibbling parts of my records that I should've done better, but on the whole I'm very proud. Last year was a very traumatic year for me. I actually went hungry, went broke. But I made some of the best stuff I ever recorded essentially, and when I played "I Hate The Moon," "Peckerwood Rock," the sequel to "Woodpecker Rock," and then "Turn Me on," things like that I sat there and wept. I had forgotten how good the production sounded. Ronny has a way of getting the best out of somebody.
Have you two ever disagreed about a song or performance?
Oh sure, especially on this last CD. He wanted me to record "Yo Te Dije." It's a song from essentially a Hispanic point of view and, well-I'm not Hispanic. A good friend of mine Roger Casanova writes it. I still treasure the demo he cut; it's wonderful. Well, Ronny kept pushing this and I said, "Ronny, it's just not me. Record Roger singing it because it's perfect for him, but it ain't me." He got mad and insisted. So, the night before, we were sitting at Sam and Christine's apartment in Vegas, running through the song half-heartedly. But in the morning when we tried it, something clicked. Ronny had my drummer lay his bass-drum face-down, and beat it tom-tom style, and I told our guitar-player Billy, "Just play it Buddy Holly style all through out." On top of that, Karina did all the translating to the bass player and guitarist. Sometimes it's hard to translate what I'm saying in "Texana" into the Argentine version of Spanish, but it worked! Now, I have goosebumps for it, it's probably my second or third favorite song on that CD. I chalk that up to Ronny's persistence.
After so many years of producing your own music, was it hard to turn the reins over to another producer?
Ronny's the only guy I've let produce my music and it still terrifies me to let somebody else do the final mix after I walk out. Some things I haven't agreed with, but on other things I've said, "Yeah - he done good."
Let me ask you to speculate a bit.
OK, I've got my speculum out.
(Laughs.) Does rockabilly have a chance to break mainstream or is its appeal in not being able to attract the larger audiences?
It'll break through the mainstream for about a year or two, probably like swing did, and probably with a real sanitized artist. It's very sad. Y'know, I don't watch music videos, to me they take all the imagination away. When Johnny Cash is singing "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," ever since I was four, I've remembered in my head how the sequence plays. When Elvis is singing "Blue Moon Of Kentucky," I've got my own thing running through my head. But I have seen a few videos when I've been trapped at people's houses and they've had the TV on in the background. There will some rockabillyish guy playing some real sanitized stuff and there's a lot of pink and black. So, when it does hit the mainstream again, it'll be something like that, I'm sure. I don't believe any raw, authentic rockabilly artist will ever break nationally. If one did, I'd hope it was me. I'd love to be able to shove people's noses into it and get people all up in arms over the "bad content" of my music. I would like to Rap people look at me and say, "That guy's sick !"
Could you be slicked-up and made more palatable for mainstream audiences?
Well, I'll take a bath and comb my hair.
Do you fit neatly into the preconceived notions of the rockabilly cult or are you just too "out there?"
I am too out there. There were some people after the last Viva Las Vegas thing complaining "That's just too much." Some other people responded sarcastically, "Ooh, we're sorry. We all know that there's no place at all for wildness in rockabilly."
Let's talk about your stage show. What songs do you usually do and when does the "fun" start?
Oh, I'll usually kick off with "Hepcat Heaven" or one of the old Starday-Dixie songs. To me, Pappy Dailey's Starday label is the best thing that's ever happened to modern man, it even eclipses Sun in my estimation. Anyway, I'll open up with a couple of really hot ones, then I'll go to "Ice Water" or that heart-stopping "Lonely" song. About two-thirds into the set, we'll start cranking things up a bit. Especially if we're doing one night, one gig - a forty-five minute show. We'll do even more uptempo things like "Woodpecker Rock," which is usually the key to get everything going. For a while we'd always end up with "bad Bad Boy," "Train Kept A-Rollin'," and then "The Scream." "The Scream" has become my trademark. In fact, I'll be playing Hemsby this next year, and I'll more than likely be closing with that. That's when I'll generally get the lighter fluid out or I'll start throwing people around.
That's a great picture of you throwing your guitarist around. Are you some man-mountain of a giant or is your guitar-player really tiny?
(Laughs.) Actually, Billy weighs about 155 to 160 pounds. He didn't always practice the best hygiene on the road so he'd be kinda funky when he'd get up on my shoulders and play. But in that photograph, you see the mike stand falling. On the very next revolution, his head smashes the monitor and he starts bleeding profusely. We have video of it. I didn't realize it at first. So, I see him bleeding like a stuck pig, so I sat him on the edge of the stage, where he looks like he's about to fall over, but he keeps right on playing! Well, I run off the stage. I just leave and he keeps playing for another minute or so, and the camera zooms right in on his face as he puts the guitar down. He tries to stand up but he's real unsteady and it's the best image I've ever seen. He's got blood pouring down and a very vacant yet determined look in his eyes.
Tell us how you came to do snake handling on stage.
I was telling Karina that I had to something a little different up there and she kinda hit upon, "WellÉyou could handle snakes." I thought about it and said, "Hell yes I could!" So, a week before we went to Vegas, I would go out on the backroads of the Corsicana area armed with my homemade snake loop and a bag. Could not find a damned snake.
What type of snakes do you use?
Texas rat snakes. They look like copperheads pretty much, and they're very nervous and will strike. They strike hard but don't bust the skin generally.
Are they poisonous?
Only to small animals, it's like a minor poison. Unless they hit you in the eye or something, they're not going to hurt you. Anyway, we stopped at the reptile farm in San Antonio and I bought a couple of the rat snakes for twenty bucks, put 'em in a bag, threw the bag in the back of the van and forgot about 'em. That's what the guy said to do with 'em. Unbeknownst to me, my bass-player had a phobia about snakes, and they were sitting two or three feet behind his head. He was on edge for the whole trip, scared shitless. When we got to the hotel, I kept the snakes in a bucket all covered up. While cleaning the room, one of the maids went to clean the room and pulled off the cover - and she shouldn't have done that! She came out of there screaming a string of Spanish words that Kari translated for me later. The hotel was kinda pissed but I explained, "Hey, they're my snakes and they're not dangerous - they're part of my act." Well, we got up on stage that night and we were doing "Train Kept A-Rollin'," and I had that bucket beside me, and I let my guitar player just go on and on with that introduction and whipped the snakes out. Well, the people started screaming and hollering and the little snake started hitting me in the face and shoulders really hard. He was only two and a half, three feet long. The other one was about four feet. The funny thing is that the bigger snake really got into the music - he'd do that little Egyptian snakehead strut and wrap around the microphone and all around my neck. My bass-player was edging farther and farther away all the while. Eventually I threw the smaller one back in the bucket because I was getting damned irritated about getting hit in the head. (Laughs.) At that point we went into "The Scream," so the snakes went back in the bucket and I started throwing my guitar player around. That was a good show! But now I have people wanting me to use snakes in Hemsby this next year - but I've got something major planned. Just stay tuned.
What did you do with the snakes afterwards?
The next day I drove out to a subdivision, picked out a real pretty lawn, and just said, "Go! You are free!" And they slithered off and found a home under some ornamental rocks. But at the hotel, as a joke, I put up a sign that read: Lost - Two Snakes! Then I described 'em and stuff. It got a lot of laughs, but some people believed it.
Is playing with fire a normal part of your club act?
It is. If it's a good crowd and they deserve it, I'll give it to them. A lot of times though, I won't. I've had people set a can of lighter fluid up there, and I've finished the show without it, because I want the show to be special. I don't want to just give it to anybody on the street.
When did you start using the fire onstage?
We were playing a show with Deke Dickerson and Rip Carson was the opening act. I figured that since Deke was closing it "Let's make it difficult." That's the same show at the Bowl-a-Rama where I broke open Billy's head. Anyway, I got out the lighter fluid and lit off my guitarist's back. I was pickin' on him that night; he was playing and he turned his back on me. Normally, all through the act, when we're playing a hot song, I'll call out "Billy!" He'll play and I'll start kicking him in the ass, or I'll grab him by the collar, and I'd shake the little guy around like a rag doll and he won't miss a lick. He's that good. For a while he was quite terrified, but once he saw that the audience was getting into it he liked it and said, (Argentine accent) "Mack, Mack - no worry. I love it!" He sounds a lot like Manuel on Fawlty Towers. So, bless Billy's heart, he turned his back and I squirted him with my lighter fluid and lit him off. Well, his back was roaring along and he didn't realize it - for the first four seconds. From then on, I would like the drums off, light me own shoes and dance, light the bass player. Then it got to where people would put their legs up on stage and offer to be burned, so I'd light them off. In some places that was the big thing, "C'mon down and get yourself burned by Mack on stage." Especially in Houston or oddly enough, Michigan. That was a great place to play.
Have you ever surprised anybody with the fire?
Well, the extreme case was when I lit Barry Klein in Vegas last year. The Barnshakers were backing me up and we were ready. My lighter fluid was ready and so was the lighter. Well, Barry was making announcements and it was taking some time, so I edged behind him and lit his butt off. The people started tittering and pointing. So Barry turns around and looks at me and I'm just standing there minding my own business, then he turns back and I mention nonchalantly, "Barry, your ass is on fire." At that moment it hit him! (Laughs.) At first I thought he was going to slug me, but later on I heard him remark later, "I was Mack Stevens' warm-up act."
Do you take any precautions when you're using the lighter fluid?
Essentially no. I've lit my hair off, my arms - in fact, right now as we speak my left hand doesn't have any hair on it.
Have you injured anybody with the fire?
Oh-I've burnt people, a little. I've burnt myself considerably and just didn't let on. I burned a pretty good blister on my guitarist a couple of times. But I did a wonderful thing, and I have a full video of this. Last year we played the 66 Bowl in Oklahoma City. Good bowling Alley, you play right behind where the bowlers are so the people can't escape you. This punk band opened for us, then the Poison Oakies, who just are great friends of mine, a bunch of crazy hootin' hollerin' Oakies. They put on a wild show so they thought they were going to get the best of me, right? No. The place was run by a real young guy who had all my CDs and he asked, "Hey Mack, are you going to burn anybody tonight?" I said, "yeah, you." He says, "Will you?" "Hell yeah, we're buddies ain't we?" Then he said, "You nod at me and tell me when to come up." Well, there's a divider between and behind the bowling area, where you walk around like in all bowling alleys. So I'm standing on that just as we're starting to do "The Scream." I've already burned my bass-player; his shirt had a hole or two in it. The place is packed and everybody's rockin' hard, it was really a great show. Things were going at a true fever pitch. Well, I get the lighter fluid out again and say, "I need a volunteer!" So he comes running up there, my shill. He gets up there on the bar and I soak his pants down. Denim's great because the flames usually don't burn through. So I light him off and he is dancing and being cool. Well, he had some stylish hole cut in his jeans, and after three or four seconds of dancing on fire, he's in extreme agony. He jumps off the stage and ran flaming, big flames, to the soundman. On the video you can see the soundman pushing him away saying, "No! No! You're on fire, don't come near me!" At this point you can hear me saying, "Stop! Drop! Roll!" He does and that puts out the flames, but after we finished the show, even though he was wincing pretty bad he said, "Y'all come back."
Was he OK?
Well, he went to the hospital and he had some pretty good blisters going up his left leg, and some on his right. He was on pain pills for about two weeks after that, but he didn't tell anybody. Some people went up to his house and said he was laid up there in his drawers with big blisters on his legs. But we had a message on our machine from him, "You boys come back anytime! Anytime."
Some of the pictures you sent are wild.
Thanks. The most memorable two or three snapshots I've ever taken on stage were in Phoenix. We played at the Rhythm Room last year and during the show, the crowd was really getting into it - particularly some young ladies on the front row. At the break, Karina asked, "You didn't wear underwear, did you?" "No." "You split your pants, didn't you?" I said, "Oops." So, there exists two or three "tackle out" pictures of me, literally shaking around.
Have you had trouble keeping bands together?
Yeah, generally due to day jobs, psychosis, some have had substance abuse problems. If it's dope, I don't want 'em in the band because it's my van and equipment and if they get caught with it, I'm in a sling.
Let's talk about the economics of American rockabilly. Tom T. Hall once sang, "There ain't no money in it, it'll lead you to an early grave."
He's absolutely right. The thing is, if you want to go broke, play rockabilly music, and play it religiously, don't try to make a living at it. Here are some gripes I have on that score. People claim they love rockabilly, they claim to support it. Well, we have a little radio show on KNON called the Rockabilly Revue - I'll go guest on it every now and then. But people are miserly about sending in their support. There are all sorts of problems. You might have a local disc jockey that is really pushing for you-and I love those people to death. If you go to play a show in Houston, people are going to be there because Big E is gonna move and shake and make people come. But, you've got some places, like California; some of those folks are just a bit too much into their own looks to get into the music. If they show up at all, they're real busy making sure that their socks and underwear is all vintage and their britches are rolled up at two and three quarters inches. A bunch of them are holdovers from the Swing movement or they're ex-Stray Cat types. The whole point is you have all these people who say they support rockabilly, but just try and get them to come out to shows and buy the records. I understand that a lot of rockabilly folks don't have money, they're like me. They're sweating it out, trying to make a living. So, when they're faced with the choice of buying beer or a CD, I can understand them buying the beer. I'm still going to burn their house down and shoot them while they run screaming with their hair on fire - but I understand them.
Up until a couple of years ago you worked for the post office.
I made thirty-eight thousand a year, which is pretty good locally, but I hated it with a passion.
What was your game plan when you left the post office for music?
I thought I'd just try it and get it out of my system if I could. We went on the road and did what I set out to do. We just got a little more broke than I thought we would. I thought I had another month and a half left before I went completely belly up. The thing was, I enjoyed it. The good thing was, I had just met and married Karina and she encouraged me. I knew she believed in me more than anybody else had, and she said I could do it, so I knew I could. We made a lot of good music and really established a good reputation out there. OK, so the monetary part didn't work, but really, aside from making house payments and paying child support, it really wasn't that important, because we survived.
Are you still booking yourself these days?
I'm not because I no longer have a regular band. The Poison Oakies back me up whenever I need them. We're going to start doing some things up in Oklahoma City and then have them come down here for a few things. Day jobs make it pretty difficult to get many things accomplished.
Is that what you see for the future, rockabilly as a passionate part-time interest?
More than likely unless I can find somebody to back me financially. I've really had my fill of some of these booking agents who say they can book shows but then can't or will pocket the money and then won't answer the phone. I wasted about two and a half to three months with one guy. I would've loved to get with a guy like Mark Mencher, but he just had too many guys going at once. So, I figured that maybe it wasn't my time and I really, really like my life here. I just want to record more. Hopefully thirty or forty years from now some pimply-faced kid is going to want to buy all my old records, and I'm gouge the hell out of him. (Laughs.) Maybe one day Bear Family will put out the Mack Stevens boxed set. I don't know what format it'll be, maybe they'll have holographic discs by then.
Is there much of a difference between American audiences and European?
Well, I can tell you this. Finland is the place to play. Whether it's a small or big venue, the place is packed, and the people in front are always reaching for you and trying to touch your shoes. With the Barnshakers behind me, I really felt like I was Sleepy LaBeef 1956.
What's coming up for you?
Well, Ronny called me up to tell me his game plan for next year. He told me he was going to concentrate on three artists next year, and I'm one of them. He's only going to put out three CDs next year and really concentrate on his distribution and promotion.
You have the final word.
If you say you support rockabilly music, when a rockabilly band comes through your town, be there. Then, if you like it, clap like hell, and if you DON'T like it, buy a damn CD anyway. You SAY you're a hepcat and support the music, RIGHT? Thought so.
Thanks to Steve & Karina McClanahan for graciously providing photos, discs and safe access to the world of Mack Stevens. Mack's highly recommended Rollin' Rock sides can be purchased through Rockin' Ronny Weiser at RockRonny@aol.com. Copies of Bop Rockin' Rockabilly on Eagle Records and Home Made Tattoo CD featuring Malevolent Mack's visceral early Freedonia sides can be purchased from the artist himself. You can reach the Corsicana Cauterizer at firstname.lastname@example.org or write him at 1112 Farm Rd. 1839, Corsicana, TX 75710.