So, let me tell you what music does…
I have a recurring memory. I don’t know how accurate it is. It may be bits and pieces mixed together, I can’t be sure. Thirty-five years is a long time. But the texture is real.
I’m pretty young, not sure how old exactly. Six, maybe? No more than eight. I’m laying on the floor in a Chevy conversion van between the back and middle seats. The carpets red, and there’s a metal-ringed hole in the floor that would support the leg of a table if it were there. But since it’s not, I’m using it as a dungeon for my G.I. Joes.
It’s an older van, even for back then. There’s an eight-track in the dashboard, and a song is playing…
“Rolling down a backwoods, Tennessee byway.
One arm on the wheel.
Holding my lover, with the other.
A sweet, soft southern thrill.”
I hate this song. I want to hear real music, but my dad is driving, and this is what he likes. I want to hear “Eye of the Tiger” or “Born in the USA”. But what I really want to hear is“The Rainbow Connection” from the Muppets album. I try to hear it in my head, over my dad’s music. I even move my lips with the lyrics. But the conflicting sounds just get squished together in a glob of noise…
“Why are there so many…worked hard all week…
Songs about rainbows…got a little jingle…
And what’s on the other side…on a Tennessee Saturday night…”
The vibration of the van against the highway is keeping me calm and relaxed. At some point, I doze off…
When I wake up, the sun is gone. I’m tangled around my father as he’s carrying me into someone’s house. My eyes are blurry with sleep, but I hear a voice that’s as sugary as it is southern.
“Oh, Billy!” the voice says. “Is that little Matthew?”
Then I hear the next part of the song…
“Couldn’t feel better, I’m together, with my Dixieland delight.”
That last part isn’t from the memory. I know that on a conscious level. But somewhere along the way, my mind added it into that moment, and that’s just how it is now. A complete memory, both real and imagined, exiting symbiotically inside me. It stays dormant until, from time to time, I hear the song…
“Rolling down a backwoods, Tennessee byway.
One arm on the wheel…”
Then I’m right back there, every time. I’m pretty young, not sure how old exactly. Six, maybe? No more than eight.
I’m tangled around my father as he’s carrying me.
Music is a special gift. It weaves together the fabric of our lives with accidental perfection. It carries us like raindrops on a leaf from one moment to the next, until it is our own memory that lives on in someone else’s favorite song. It’s funny how the dots connect when we allow our eyes to close.
Over time I grew to like the song. I began to look forward to the random instances when I would hear it. The song eventually became so intertwined with the memory that it carried the same sentimental heft.
That changed when my father died. Suddenly I was afraid to hear the song. It amazes me how music affects you in ways that other things don’t. I welcome other memories…
Making him have to hold me down so the doctor could give me a shot, but still buying me a new baseball glove afterward…
Being so excited to see him watching from the sidelines of the football field that I lined up in front of the wrong guy…
The way he smiled when I became a dad, too…
These memories give me comfort. But that song, it has terrified me for the last three months now. I miss my dad.
But I miss the song, also. And I miss the way it felt to be so young and to be tangled around my father while he was carrying me. So today I was a little braver. Today I listened…
“Whitetail buck deer, munchkin’ on clover.
Red-tailed hawk, sitting on a limb.
Chubby ol’ groundhog, croakin’ bullfrog.
Free as a feeling in the wind…”
And I was right there. Six, maybe? No more than eight. I was tangled around my father, and he carried me while I cried. And now I can be braver tomorrow.
My father lives in that song now. And whenever I need him to carry me, all I have to do is listen to it. Raindrops on a leaf.
And that is what music does. All we have to do is listen.
And listen, I did.
On the evening of Monday, April 12, I spent nowhere near enough time on the phone with Academy of Country Music nominee for “Bass Player of the Year,” Steve Mackey. We talked for maybe an hour and a half, and it felt like five minutes. But hands down one of the coolest conversations I’ve ever had. If you’re reading this, and also alive, then you’re very familiar with Steve Mackey. Maybe not his name, but most definitely his music.
A 1984 graduate of Greenbrier East High School in Lewisburg, West Virginia, Mackey has been a professional musician since I was playing with G. I. Joes and mouthing the lyrics to “The Rainbow Connection” in the back of that Chevy conversion van. And in that time, he has made music with artists like Peter Frampton, Dolly Parton, Luke Combs and Tom Bukovac. (Matter of fact, he told me a few really great stories about Frampton and Dolly Parton, which I promise I’ll get to in just a bit.)
On second thought, I won’t make you wait. We’ll take a little break and do the Frampton story right now…
Here it is, as told by Steve Mackey:
“In December of 2018, I got a call from Peter Frampton’s bandleader, and then later we all (Mackey, bandleader and Frampton) got on a three-way phone call. He basically said ‘we need somebody for New Year’s Eve right now. It’s two weeks, can you do it?’
When I think about it…”
Mackey pauses right here for just a second. His excitement at the memory is as palpable as it is contagious.
“The first album that I ever bought with my own money, my parents drove me to Lewisburg… drove me to Fairlea, and I went into Hecks to buy ‘Frampton Come Alive!’ I was 10-years-old, and I will never forget coming home and putting it on, and hearing it right when the needle dropped on the record.”
Another short pause. By now, Mackey’s goosebumps have traveled through the phone and are making their way up my arm.
“So anyway, I get this phone call. And I thought, ‘there is no way I can turn this down.’ But it wasn’t only cool in that respect. It was cool because it was one of the most musical gigs I’ve ever been on. He (Frampton) was a pleasure to be around. Also, everybody else in his band had been there for 10 or 15 years. They’d all heard his stories, and I hadn’t heard any of them. So, when they all rolled their eyes and went back to their bunks, I stayed up ’til two in the morning with him. And he’d go, ‘oh Steve, you haven’t heard this one.’
He had the coolest stories…like 60’s rock stories, especially. He was basically a rockstar since he was 15-years-old when he got kind of discovered by Bill Wyman. So he grew up around the stones and all those people, and he looked at them the way we do, but they were just a little bit older. So he was right in the middle of it. And to hear stories about Bill Wyman calling his (Frampton’s) mom to ask permission for him to come pick him up to take him to see Hendrix at a club in London, it was incredible.”
One more short pause. But this time it’s me who needs a minute. I haven’t taken a breath since Mackey started talking, and my fingertips are tingling. For some reason, I’m fixated on the image of Peter Frampton’s mother standing at a rotary phone; asking Bill Wyman what time he’s planning on bringing little Peter home and telling him not to give her son any of the marijuana cigarettes.
I blink away the thought because Mackey is talking again…
“The Peter Frampton thing, that, literally, was a dream come true. And so is the good relationship that I still have with him. We worked in the studio, and we did a record. And when he’s ready to go back, you know, if everybody’s time allows and schedules allow, I’ll play with him again.”
Alright, well since we did Frampton, I suppose we may as well let Mackey tell the Dolly Parton story now, too.
“Dolly Parton, who we grew up with, and everybody in the world grew up with…that (playing with her) was really cool.”
Mackey laughs a little right here. You’ll get why in a second.
“My wife and I used to joke, back when I didn’t have work. We would come in and it got to be this running joke, and she would say, ‘well, did Dolly Parton call you yet?’ And I’d say, ‘no, not today.’ And then there was one day when I walked out in the yard. She was working in the yard, and she said, ‘yeah, what’s up?’ And I said, ‘hey, Dolly Parton just called.’
So yeah, it’s crazy. It’s crazy, but also it’s just this — and this is really important — and I tell this to young musicians, and really, to anybody. It’s really cool to do these things, and you have to be in certain circles to get those kinds of calls. You have to get to that level to get those kinds of calls, and I don’t mean to dismiss that at all. But, more important than anything, I have not quit. You know what I mean? I’m still doing it thirty-whatever years later. And if I had quit when I didn’t want to, none of that stuff would happen.”
Humble? Absolutely. Deserving? Double absolutely. (Just check out the 100th episode of “Tom Bukovac’s Homeskoolin” on YouTube. That’s Mackey on bass, and it’ll change your life.)
But despite ACM Award nominations and late-night raps with Peter Frampton…
Despite rolling down a backwoods and the Tennessee byways to get to Nashville…
In his heart, Mackey will always be a Greenbrier Valley kid.
“My mom would always take my brothers and I floating down the Greenbrier River in the summertime,” Mackey told me, after I asked him about his favorite memories growing up.
“We’d pack sandwiches and drinks and put in at Caldwell, or maybe even Spring Creek if she thought we’d last that long, and float to Ronceverte.
And then anytime we could see a concert at Carnegie (Carnegie Hall in Lewisburg), that was a treat; the same with shows at the Fair (West Virginia State Fair). I didn’t even have a concept of doing it for a living. I was always just caught up in the moment of it.”
Mackey went on to say, “Before I ever was in any kind of band, I’d play guitar and sing in different churches. Sometimes we’d stick close to home, and sometimes we might go as far as Talcott. Those were my first road gigs, although it’s not the same when your mom is driving.”
Mackey may not have had the concept of playing music for a living back then, but luckily for our ears — and, in many ways, our souls — he ended up doing exactly what he was meant to do. And even though his talent was obvious from a young age, after thirty-whatever years of not quitting, that ACM award nomination removes all doubt. Whether he wins or not really makes no difference., because the irrefutable truth is just this:
Steve Mackey, the Greenbrier Valley kid who floated down the river to Ronceverte with his mom and his brothers and carried his guitar to every campfire, is, hands down, one of the most talented musicians in the world.
But, since we’re talking about it, what does this nomination mean for his career?
“I’m not sure what it means for my actual career in work terms,” Mackey said. “But what it does mean, well, it’s nice to be officially recognized like that. I’ve done this, I’ve been in Nashville since 1988. And I’ve made a whole lot of friends and I’ve played a lot of music. But to have that nomination really feels good because it’s a recognition from this industry that I’ve made my living in. And somebody at some point will come along and say, ‘okay, let’s call him for some work.’ It’s all about where the next gig is coming from, anyway.”
Like I said, I spent nowhere near enough time on the phone with him. We talked about his life, his career, his influences. And I have so much more to write. But we also talked about my first concerts and my artistic influences.
So yes, this guy, Steve Mackey…
This Greenbrier Valley kid, whose talent and dedication lets him live these incredible experiences that I’m excited just to write about took time in between recording an album in New York City and the Academy of Country Music Awards to tell me about hanging with Peter Frampton and talk about my first concert. How cool is my job?
What I promise you that Steve Mackey doesn’t get, is that someday I’ll be telling somebody all about the time I got to have a late-night rap with Steve Mackey. And when I do, I’ll be talking to that somebody about Steve Mackey the same way that Steve Mackey was talking to me about Peter Frampton. And I’m pretty sure that somebody will feel like we do.
Like I said, that is what music does. All we have to do is listen.
So, most definitely, to be continued…