Willie Mack is like a fish who swims against the tide.
Unlike the droves of Canadian country artists who travel to Nashville to launch their careers, Mack, a Texas-bred country singer/songwriter, left his Nashville home to write and record in Toronto.
And his trip paid off big-time.
Mack’s album, Headlights and Tailpipes, opened a whole new audience for him in this country and yielded four singles that made it onto Canada’s Top 30. His song Don’t Waste Your Pretty, spent a month in the Top 10.
“I feel very blessed to be doing what I love,” said Mack, who’s amazed and grateful that Canadians have taken to him so strongly. “Everyone’s been so nice and welcoming,” added Mack, who spends so much time north of the border — where his strongest fan-base is — that Mack considers himself half Canadian.
Perhaps the best reflection of his dual identity is the song Howdy Eh, which he wrote for his latest CD, The Journey. Mack will perform it at the album’s release party on Friday at the Capri Centre, with special guests Shane Yellowbird, Clayton Bellamy and Shane Chisholm.
Mack admitted he gets a charge out of hearing “eh?” and other Canadian-isms.
“We were crossing Saskatchewan and pulled up to use a rest-room at an Esso Station, but it was closed.” An onlooker suggested the musicians drive their van “a couple of clicks around a bend in the road so that we could ‘give h’er’ by the side of the road,” recalled Mack, with a laugh. “I said ‘Give ’er?’ What do you mean ‘give h’er?’”
Mack credits this country for being accepting of all kinds of country music — from the southern country/blues of The Road Hammers (the group’s helmsman Jason McCoy co-produced Mack’s albums), to the “quirky country” of Corb Lund, and the soul-country of Johnny Reid. “You’ve got rockin’ country, bluegrass country, cowboy country…”
Mack’s own influences are Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle, but his music might just as well be called pop-influenced country because he has a good ear for a melodic hook. He’s written songs for many other artists, including Sara Evans, George Canyon, the Oak Ridge Boys, Mark Willis, Aaron Pritchett, and Collin Raye.
One of his tunes, We Can’t All Be From Texas, was even used by George W. Bush during his 2004 election campaign.
But while Mack’s career as a songwriter was taking off in the U.S., he found it harder getting a break as a performer. Mack believes big record labels are becoming loath to invest in new country artists.
When Canadian singers such as George Canyon, Adam Gregory and Brad Johner began recording Mack’s songs, he began making trips to Canada and writing with Canadian songwriters. One of them was McCoy, who would go on to co-produce Mack’s 2007 album, Headlights & Tailpipes, and produce his latest, The Journey, which was recorded in Toronto and Waterloo, Ont. and is distributed by Fontana North.
While Mack’s previous album was all about lonely highways, fast cars and open skies, his newest one is more personal.
The married father of a nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter said he came to realize that he was spending so much time touring, it was taking a toll on his family. “I really hated missing my kids’ baseball and soccer games. I’d let my priorities get way out of line.”
The Journey features songs that put the focus back on the things Mack believes are most important: His relationship with God and his family. The album features a couple of gospel tracks as well as the song She Won’t be Little Long, which was inspired by his daughter Maycie’s handprints left on a car window.
“It made me smile because I realized that her little hands are going to grow and she won’t be my little girl forever.”
Who: Country singer Willie Mack and special guests Shane Yellowbird, Clayton Bellamy and Shane Chisholm perform at Mack’s CD release party, which is also a benefit concert for CASE (Central Alberta Special Equestrians)
When:9 p.m., Friday
Where: Capri Convention Centre, Red Deer
Tickets: $35 in advance from Jones Boys Saddlery and Western Wear or on-line from williemack.com, or $45 at the door. (Entry includes a copy of Mack’s CD, The Journey. A portion of proceeds will benefit CARE’s disabled children’s equestrian programs)