By Jonny Whiteside
7:41 PM PST, December 30, 2012
When the barkeeps announce last call at the next edition of Ronnie Mack's Barndance, it'll sound the death knell for an extraordinary musical showcase that has been a backbone of the Los Angeles country scene for the past 25 years.
What began in 1988 as a low-key weekly shindig at North Hollywood honky-tonk the Little Nashville quickly roared into life as a resume-must for both local and touring performers, and has attracted such guest performers as Bruce Springsteen and Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
But with the next Barndance on Jan. 7, Mack is calling it quits, and his departure is going to leave a significant void in our musical culture.
For decades, the offer to appear on one of Mack's Barndances signaled a rite of passage for Southern California musicians, one that afforded an aura of down-home prestige. For fans, it was a delightful, de rigeur good time that always combined social merrymaking with plenty of first-rate music. Featuring a stellar house band and half a dozen guest acts on each edition, Mack's kaleidoscopic variety format and wide-open booking policy ensured a great evening.
The singer-bandleader, a Baltimore native who arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s first made a name for himself at the world-famous Palomino club with a popular Ricky Nelson tribute act. He quickly fell in with the few renegade rockabilly performers trying to reintroduce that near-extinct sound. Working with Texas originator Ray Campi and guitarist Billy Zoom (soon to join Hollywood punk royals X), Mack barnstormed Europe and the West Coast, played on plenty of Rollin' Rock Records releases but by the mid-1980s settled into life as a professional country entertainer, with a regular “sit-down” job at Johnnie White's Little Nashville.
“Johnnie had a deal with KCSN radio to broadcast live from the club for an hour a week as the KCSN Barndance, and he had a talent show every week and put the best performers from that on the air.” Mack explained. “I was playing there regularly also, and after people like Rosie Flores, who had just put out her first album on Warner Brothers Records and was getting very popular, and James Intveld, who was in her band at the time, started sitting in and drawing some pretty good crowds, he asked me if I wanted to host the radio show.”
Mack gladly accepted the offer. “On the first show we had Dave Alvin, Rosie, Ray Campi and [country hit-maker and Elvis Presley's cousin] Billy Swan, James Intveld, and there was a line down the street; the club had never experienced anything like this. And that's how it started. And then [club owner] Billy Thomas started showing up and asking if we wanted to move to the Palomino.” Mack's wild Hollywood followers didn't fit in with the Little Nashville's conservative regulars so the move was logical. “Our first time at the Pal we had Lucinda Williams, Big Jay McNeely and George Highfill. We packed the place — and Jerry Lee Lewis was sitting at the bar!”
A 1989 KCSN format change ended the radio broadcast, but the Barndance continued to thrive, and began to attract some astonishing drop-in guests. There were some wildly memorable occasions: “James Burton [Elvis and Ricky Nelson's guitarist] got up and played, Travis Tritt showed up, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Mavericks — they even called first and said they wanted to play,” Mack recalled. “One night Mick Fleetwood and Billy Burnette came and played — Lindsey Buckingham was there but he didn't get up. Later on, after we moved to Jack's Sugar Shack in Hollywood, Bruce Springsteen showed up. He'd been to a Barndance at the Palomino a few years earlier and he stayed all night, and finally it was late, we were doing the jam, and he played a few songs and sang harmony with me. I gave him a bunch of guitar solos.”
After the Palomino closed in 1995, the showcase entered a gypsy phase and moved from club to club almost 10 times, usually departing because of Mack's staunch refusal to impose a cover charge on his followers. Mack and the Barndance were the subjects of filmmaker Jim Hollander's award-winning 2003 documentary “First Tuesdays at Ronnie Mack's Barndance,” but by then momentum had slowed.
“Ronnie is an underappreciated legend in the L.A. music scene for doing the Barndance for this long and giving everyone in the genre a chance to get up and do their thing,” said Tex Troester, leader of the Hollywood country band Groovy Rednecks. “It started for us at the Palomino, and we've been playing it for the last 20 years. People just kind of take it for granted, and think that the Barndance will always be around. He has put so much of his time and effort and money into it, and it is getting tougher nowadays. The economy and the crowd is getting older, and there's not a lot of young talent out there anymore. He shouldn't have to struggle to put the show on.”
Settling at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill in August 2009, Mack faithfully shepherded his flock but has grown bone-weary along the way. “We used to be once a week, but we cut it to once a month,” Mack said. “I try to make it more of an event. The mission and vision behind it was fighting for traditional country music, but that's not even in many people's minds anymore. They have all gotten older; they have families and mortgages. They're putting their kids through school. I've been propping the Barndance up, trying everything to keep it alive. I just wanted to make it to the 25th anniversary. And so here we are.”
The end of the Barndance's wildly colorful run is a profoundly sad turn of events. “Ronnie Mack is a treasure for this community, and his presence will be sorely missed,” Troester said.
“There's no one to take his place, and it will never really be the same.”