Long-running Los Angeles roots-rock revue Ronnie Mack's Barndance, held at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank, has seen an extraordinary evolution over its 25 year run. From its original 'bold voice in the wilderness' phase to early-'90s top of the heap phase, the Barndance has now reached ornery, grizzled buzzard status.
Always a magnificent crap-shoot, the Barndance was a musical proposition that could deliver thrills of a voltage high enough to fracture your skull, or take a sudden plunge over the cliff into laughably self-indulgent hogwash. But the damn thing was, nonetheless, always fun.
The fact that the Baltimore-born singer-guitarist Mack valiantly kept it running for so long is a wonder, especially considering that it nearly killed him. After the first two decades of scheduling hassles, financial pressures and wrangling overinflated performer egos, Mack fell into a black depression. On regular occasions, after announcing a performer he would withdraw to the wings where he would curl up on the floor, arms around his knees, in the fetal position. While he's since trekked out of that psychic jungle, the oblivion which he so clearly craved is finally at hand, and tonight's edition of the Barndance will be his last.
It's a deliciously weird story. As a youth, “I could never relate to the British Invasion or the psychedelic thing, Woodstock meant nothing to me,” he says. In the mid-'70s he drifted to Los Angeles and fell in with the Rollin' Rock Records crew, a gang of virulently committed rockabilly diehards that included originators Jackie Lee Waukeen Cochran, Ray Campi and such youthful upstarts as Jimmy Lee Maslon, Colin Winski and Billy Zoom. In the socio-cultural context of 1977, that tribe seemed even more like martians than the punk rockers, and Mack assumed an admirably aggressive outsider 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.” A decade later, the owner of North Hollywood honky-tonk the Little Nashville offered Mack a spot emceeing a weekly KCSN-sponsored live remote radio broadcast, and the Barndance was born.
With talent like James Burton, Billy Swan, Rose Maddox, Dave Alvin and Rosie Flores, and an always stellar house band, it outgrew the room and Mack eagerly accepted when the Palomino pitched woo. “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 showcase's first anniversary show busted the Pal's attendance record and it seemed as if Mack could do no wrong.
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 says, “The girls would lift up their tops and flash him.”
At the time, the Palomino wasn't thrilled about Mack's no-cover policy. “But I was adamant,” he says. “It was about the music itself, I was railing against modern country and country radio. I wanted to rub their noses in it and prove that this traditional country was still a viable force. The best way was by doing it for free, to keep the whole mission and vision that existed in my mind. And that's why the bands all wanted to play it.”
The Palomino closed in 1995 and the Barndance wandered through the honky tonk wilderness, going from room to room. Club owners ceaselessly bitched at him out about money. “They all complained, it was always a fight, Always the same exact thing.” he said. “We'd have a good night and when the next one didn't match it they'd start up 'We're losing money, I thought this was supposed to be popular.'”
It was never easy and it only got worse. Many nights, “I'd go home and some angry musician would be screaming at me on my message machine.” Hobbled by depression and health problems, he cut it down to once a month and in 2009 settled at the current Burbank spot. He even began paying the big-name performers, always out of his own pocket. Momentum evaporated, and the hassles grew.
Mack broke down in tears during this interview, but the fact of the matter is that he seems happy as hell to finally be slaying the Barndance dragon. He recently even started paying the local musicians — many of whom should have known better and had absolutely no business accepting it. “I've been doing that to fraudulently make it look like we were doing well.' Mack admits. Worse, “The mission and vision behind it — fighting for traditional country music — that doesn't even exist anymore.”
“Our heyday was really '88-'93 and its been downhill since, a gradual decline,” Mack says. “It's human nature that people gravitate toward the new and discard the old, and that's kinda like what happened to us.”
“So I'm just going to drop out.”
The last edition of Ronnie Mack's Barndance, with the Barndance Band, Big Jay McNeely, Bob Reynolds, Bliss Bowen, Electric Earl, Mark Tortorici & the Hollywood Combo, Maureena & the Maniac Cadillac Band, at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank, Mon., Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m. Free. (818) 729-0805. https://www.ronniemacksbarndance.com