Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Robbie Mack (a.k.a. Rob McLerran) was a central figure on a thriving roots music scene in Boulder, Colorado, during the mid-1970s to mid-1980s. Back in the day, Mack referred to his homespun blend of blues, country, and rock ‘n’ roll as “jug rock.” Today, it would fit comfortably under the Americana umbrella. Following last year’s solo, acoustic guitar release Demolicious, Mack, who lives near Tulsa, once again digs into the archives for Rough Max, ten unreleased band recordings that showcase an under-recognized, master songwriter’s tunes brought to life by an array of the outstanding musicians from that Boulder scene.
What makes Mack’s songwriting so captivating is the variety of perspectives that he covers as each tune opens up a window into a different character or persona’s world. His witty, facile word craft is also wedded to funky, down-home grooves, and he sings in a weathered, down-to-earth voice from the heart of the country. Mack delves into the grain of American life in a way that recalls the legendary Basement Tapes. Highlights abound on Rough Max. “Outta My Dreams,” a blues rocker propelled by Ray Bonneville’s wailing harmonica line, laments love lost and declares determination to leave the memories behind. A Piedmont-style fingerpicking blues line opens up “Sinner Blues” and is joined by Bonneville’s chugging harmonica, Erik Johnson’s driving bass, and guitarist Brad Hayes’ crackling lead as Mack delivers the tale of a prodigal son’s return. “Pushin Up Daisies” is a wry salute to an alcoholic uncle who “polished that bar stool until in would shine.” Riding on the uplifting swing of Washboard Chaz Leary’s percussive magic, “Lovelight” introduces a braggadocio lover’s night on the town, “I got my Sunday best / I’m on my way to town / A dollar to a nickel say / I think I’ll fool around / I got my lovelight burning, let it shine.” The country-flavored “California Waltz” is a farewell with no regrets that features Bonneville’s resonant harmonica and Mack’s Mississippi John Hurt-inspired fingerpicking. A bouncy, country swing underpins “Oklahoma Plates,” a wanderer’s celebration of home following life on the road. Jamie Kibben’s honky tonk piano, Hayes’ stinging guitar, and Ken “Snakebite” Jacobs’ growling saxophone shape a deep, funky blues foundation for “Old Fool’s Lament,” which gives voice to a farmer bracing for a storm to descend, desperately declaring, “I keep trying to tie things down before they blow away.” “Uncle Tomahawk,” with a driving groove built on the interplay between Mack’s acoustic and Hayes’ incendiary lead guitars, is a bittersweet tale of survival and resistance from the perspective of an old Native American who “seeks guidance from the morning star / Wonders how it went so far / And mother earth can wear the scar.” It is a testimony to Mack’s craft that these songs transport the listener into the worlds of these characters and personas and that their stories and the catchy melodies having real staying power.
Robbie Mack was ahead of his time when he recorded the jug rock music on Rough Max all those years ago. Down home and good rockin’, these ten tracks speak to the timelessness of our American roots music traditions and an individual who can shape those materials to bring his creative instincts to fruition.