Musicians often point out that nobody ever built a statue of a critic. Given what critics look like, this is okay. There are also precious few monuments sculpted in the likenesses of musicians. And none to those who relegate their own dreams to the back burner while acting in the service of others’.
Such is the case of Ronnie Mack, whose Barn Dance has, every Tuesday night since 1988, provided SoCal‘s roots-music talent with a place to be heard — booking the acts, hiring and paying the bands, and making sure the showcase has a home. Mack, an impossibly tall Baltimore native who grew up idolizing Ricky Nelson, came to Los Angeles in 1976 and soon wound up playing every Top 40 country bar from Orange County to the Tehachapi Mountains. At the time, there were many, all of them bad places to work.
“I’d be playing ‘Elvira’ or something, and I‘d look out into the crowd,” he recalls, laughing, “and I’d see fights breaking out, or people pulling knives, and I wasn‘t so sure I wanted to play for that kind of people.”
He played for them anyway, eventually falling in with the Rollin’ Rock Records rockabilly crew that spawned Ray Campi, Tony Conn and the Blasters. But unlike most of the Rollin‘ Rockers, Mack makes no claim for his abilities, nor for his place in L.A. music history. When he speaks about it, it’s “the scene” or “the music,” never “me.”
“I‘m not a great guitar player or singer, or an amazing songwriter,” he says. “I gave up on that by the late ’80s and just put my energy into the music.” (For the record, he‘s a very good, rough-hewn guitarist and a completely effective singer.)
Mack stands at the heart of the Barn Dance action, an MC whose lighthearted, aw-shucks demeanor keeps everything moving. After an act does its 20 minutes, he’ll jump onstage and yell, “Put them on the radio!” or something similar. The list of performers who‘ve made the Barn Dance an important touchstone is impressive even by Opry standards — Rosie Flores, Dave Alvin, Jim Lauderdale, Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys, Lucinda Williams, Katy Moffatt, the Lonesome Strangers, Dale Watson, James Intveld and more. The great, the near-great, the tolerable and the terrible all have a home here. It’s egalitarianism with a twang.
Yet Mack‘s never made a dime off the Barn Dance. His self-ordained mission has kept him at his seven-day-a-week job at a pipe and tobacco shop. In 1990, the L.A. Reader ran a cover story with the headline “Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dances Have Changed the Face of Country Music. Maybe Soon He Can Quit His Day Job.” Eleven years later, and still no luck.
After Dwight Yoakam‘s mid-’80s success shocked A&R men, tides turned — however briefly. Dave Alvin, Rosie Flores, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter all were signed, as country artists. Because Yoakam‘s was the premier Cinderella story, his producer, Pete Anderson, was encouraged to sign more artists like that to Reprise Records. He obliged with Flores’ country hit, the Intveld-penned “Cryin‘ Over You.”
“There was obviously something happening with these new acts getting signed, but country radio was still Kenny Rogers,” Mack recalls. “KCSN was playing this other stuff, so we made a deal with them to broadcast the Barn Dance from a live remote. I figured between that, free admission and that there was something good every week, it would work. And in 13 years, we’ve never really hit rock bottom. Even on our worst night, a hundred people come.”
The Barn Dance premiered January 18, 1988, at Little Nashville, a NoHo shitkicker dive where Alabama ruled the jukebox. Mack‘s inaugural bill showcased the rich diversity of the local roots crop. He booked Billy (“I Can Help”) Swan, Flores, Alvin and Campi. And the audience that showed up was hardly the usual Little Nashville crowd.
“It was one of those places where you played ’Lookin‘ for Love’ or whatever Eddie Rabbit had out,” says Mack. “It was the kind of bar that fired Dwight when he played Ray Price and Buck Owens and not ‘urban cowboy.’ When the Barn Dance started there, we‘d have kids with Mohawks coming in. It was the wrong place.” Mack quickly moved things to the Palomino, a famous NoHo club that booked mostly but not exclusively country music. He held forth at the Pal until it closed, then moved to Jacks Sugar Shack (until it closed), then the Culver Saloon (now closed), then the Cat Club, and now stages it at Crazy Jack’s in Burbank.
After nearly 15 years of this, Mack is finally slowing down a bit. He‘s always kept this train a-rollin’, even through the fallow periods. There was a time when artists like Dave Alvin, Lucinda Williams, Jim Lauderdale and Chris Gaffney were weekly fixtures. Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Marty Stuart and Doug Sahm all stopped by. It was a glory time. And it wasn‘t really that long ago.
But things have changed. The Barn Dance is no longer weekly. Many of the better — and better-drawing — acts have relocated (most to Texas or Nashville), found themselves on another circuit (“folk singer” Dave Alvin) or quit altogether. Mack tried peppering the Barn Dance with the Silver Lake power-pop bands that aroused attention a few years ago, but few country fans would endure bands whose roots were more Cheap Trick than Merle Haggard. The new energy that Mack hoped for didn’t materialize, and soon Tuesdays at Jacks Sugar Shack took on the sad, impending-vacancy feeling that characterizes dying nightclubs. The Culver stepped in, closed shortly after, and Crazy Jack‘s — a Burbank neighborhood bar — has filled the void, surprised by the Barn Dance’s large and thirsty following.
Mack has taken to theme or tribute shows that feature more of the higher-quality, bigger-drawing acts. The new location and less frequentmore selective events have been a shot in the arm for the Barn Dance. And it‘s given Mack more breathing room, finally allowing him to concentrate his energies elsewhere. For the first time in more than a decade, he’s cut an album‘s worth of original material. Fiddles and steel guitars are replaced by smart hooks, jangling guitars and airy vocal harmonies. It’s startlingly good. No less than local pop chieftain Robbie Rist (the former Brady Bunch child actor who is in more bands than anyone can name) produced, and, for the first time in years, Mack is enthusiastic about making new music:
“It‘s given me a new lease on life, even if it never comes out, just because I smile when I hear it. I don’t know — maybe I like knowing I can do something else.”
The Barn Dance is truly Ronnie Mack‘s child, but he’s as lovingly ambivalent about it as parents usually are about children whose lives aren‘t working out as successfully as was once hoped.
“The scene’s not what it was,” says Mack unsentimentally, “and it‘s impossible to sustain things week to week. We’re doing really well lately, but I don‘t think there’s enough going on to make it happen with four bands every week. At least not now. There‘s not another Rosie Flores or another Dave Alvin or another Lucinda Williams. When you don’t have people like that, you don‘t have the energy that comes from people like that.”
“There’s always phases in the L.A. club thing,” counters Dave Alvin, “and things ebb, but they come back with a different focus. In the early Barn Dance days, you had me and Rosie and Lucinda and Lauderdale, then things died down for a little while, and the next wave was Dave & Deke, Big Sandy, Russell Scott. And the audience got a little younger. Now that‘s kind of gone, but something will eventually come around. And, trust me, when it does, those kids’ll be playing the Barn Dance.”
The next Barn Dance features a tribute to Gram Parsons, with special guests TBA. At Crazy Jack‘s, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Tuesday, November 6. (818) 845-1121.
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