MACK SELF HIS OWN WORDS - Mack Self was inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1998. As Mack, himself, would tell you, that probably has as much to do with his association with the legendary Sun label as it does any strong leaning on his part toward pure
rockabilly. Strictly speaking, Mack never was a rocker. At least not in the sense that Sun label-mates Billy Riley and Sonny Burgess were. Riley and Burgess, by the way, shared more
than a label affiliation with Mack; all three men hail from Arkansas. The similarities, however, pretty much stop at the state line. Unlike Riley and Burgess, Mack Self was
and is pure country. Sun label owner Sam Phillips, to his enormous credit, allowed Mack to be just what he was.
Three of the four tracks issued by Mack on the original Sun and Phillips International labels wore unabashed country songs
during a period when Sun was dominated by southern wildmen. The releases adjacent to Mack's ''Easy To Love'' (Sun 273) include Ray Harris's ''Greenback Dollar'' (Sun 272) and Carl Perkins' ''That's Right'' (Sun 274). Billy
Riley's ''Red Hot'' (Sun 277) came along two months later, and Jerry Lee's ''Great Balls Of Fire'' (Sun 281) barely a month after that.
The same was true of Mack's ''Mad At You'', issued on Phillips International 3548. Adjoining releases on the label included Charly Rich's ''Rebound'', Carl Mann's ''Rockin' Love'' and Sonny Burgess' ''Sadie's Back
In Town''. All in all, Mack's ''pure as country water'' offerings were surrounded by some pretty hard-edged rockin' company.
Mack's uptempo songs like ''Mad At You'' contained down home lyrics like "My cows gone dry/The hens won't lay''. His ''Going Crazy'' - a track that never saw light in the 1950s - offers lines like "You got me barkin' like a dog/ rootin'
like a hog/ skinning saplings/ eatin' paw paws''. It doesn't get much more country than that.
For all his back-country
charm, Mack Self remains beloved by rockabilly fans and collectors. This is pretty easy to understand. Years of Sun archaeology has unearthed undeniable rockabilly gems by Mack like ''Vibrate'' and ''Lovin' Memories''. Although they were
never released during the 1950s, these tracks provide strong credentials for Mack's Hall of Fame status. At a personal level, Mack Self is a man who, as Johnny Cash sang, "was there when it happened''. Self's sessions included players
like Roland Janes, Stan Kesler, Jimmy Van Eaton, Johnny Bernero, W. S. ''Fluke'' Holland, Billy Riley and Martin Willis. The man in the control room hitting the record button was either Jack Clement or Sam Phillips. The bottom line
is that Mack's name appears on nearly a dozen tape boxes full of songs recorded at what he calls "that little ole rinky dink studio" in Memphis. He's the real deal. In fact, it's good to remind ourselves that Sam Phillips auditioned both Mack
Self and Harold Jenkins a.k.a Conway Twitty, an Arkansas running buddy of Mack's - at just about the same time. Phillips passed on Twitty and decided to work with Mack.
At the least, Mack Self is a survivor. Settling into a comfortable chair, Mack begins to summarize his life. ''I'm Mack Self. I was born in 1930. I'll be 77 years old the 22nd day of May.
My daddy was a farmer and he played the fiddle. My mother played the guitar and they got me started. After that I taught myself. The first performing I did was at a street dance in Barton, Arkansas. I was about 15 years old and I sang
two Hank Williams songs. I went up there with a guy named Henry Henderson. He told me about the dance and we decided to go. We stopped at a little ''grab all'' grocery store out in the country and Henry got us something to
drink. I took a shot of it and said, 'That's good. What is it?' He said, 'That's Bobcat wine'. I never drank nothing before that and I really still don't drink. But when I got up there I was feelin' pretty good. It woke me up a little
bit. Made my nerves get right, you know?''.
''They had a good band, at that dance. John Hughey (Conway Twittys steel
guitarist) might have been playing with them. I'm not sure but I know they had a good steel man. I finished my songs and folks went crazy. I thought. 'Man! I m gonna try this a while''!. "I went in the Army around 1948 and
I was 19 when I got out. After that I started playing with David Jackson and the Arkansas Cotton Choppers. We had a radio program on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Harold Jenkins was with that band too, and so was John Hughey. I also had
a show on KXJK in Forrest City. Arkansas. We started around 1952. I sang with a band called Johnny Farmer and the Farm Hands. Charlie Rich was playing up there at that time or a little later. He was from a little old town, just a wide
place in the road up above Forrest City''.
''I wrote a song called ''Easy To Love'' and I sang it on the radio. Brother
Hal Webber was a disc jockey at KXJK at the time. We'd tape a week's worth of shows on Monday night and he'd broadcast them over the next week or so. I taped ''Easy To Love'' and he got in touch with me, said 'That's a good song!
You need to do something with this.' Hal knew about Sam Phillips because he had heard those first records by Elvis. Nobody knew what to make of those records at the time. But he said, 'You ought to take this song up to that record company in Memphis.
''Its unclear at this point whether Webber or Johnny Farmer carried the tapes to Sun,
and whether it was Bill Cantrell or Sam Phillips who first heard them. In any case, the folks at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis were impressed. Mack recalls hearing that Sam played the tape and said 'Who's this boy singing this
song right here?' and they told him. So Sam said, 'You tell him to come on up here'.
''So we went up to Sun. I carried
Jimmy Evans and Thurlow Brown with me. Jimmy was a lifelong friend. We go back to the David Jackson band. Jimmy played doghouse bass. You know, one of them big standup basses. Jimmy was Conway Twitty's first bass man and also played
for Ronnie Hawkins. Thurlow picked guitar on all my Sun records. A fine, fine picker. I met him when I was playing a talent show up in Helena. People started saying to me, 'You hear that guy picking over yonder? I walked back and he was
playing ''Sugarfoot Rag'', just eating it up. I asked him his name and said, You want to play?'. He said, 'I ain't got a guitar', I told him, Well get you a guitar'. Thurlow played with me for years. He died in 1975. Sam said,
How many songs you got?' I said., Just them two right there'. He said, 'What the hell you mean coming up here with just two songs? I said, 'That's all it takes to make a record. He said, Come on, boy. Lets go get some coffee'.
''Anyway, we came back to Sun later on with more stuff and cut it all in that little studio up there. I came back home and just forgot
about it. Just kept playing my dances locally. Just messing around and writing songs. Then in 1957 I got a call from Jack Clement. He said. 'Mack, come on up here. They're going to release y'all s record'. So we drove up and Jack
carried us over to Plastic Products and gave us ten records each. I think it was.
"I came on back home and we started playing around
promoting the record. We played up in Memphis quite a bit and they had me playing clubs. That's no way to promote a record, though. You got to have radio exposure. I did appear on shows like Wink Martindale and Dewey Phillips.
But there really wasn't any promotion. They wanted me to go on the Louisiana Haynde. They weren't going to pay us but $15 apiece to go down there and sing a couple of songs. From where I live its a pretty good drive and it seemed kind
of stupid to me. But I know some of those boys from Sun made the trip, like Elvis, Warren Smith, Johnny Cash. I just decided not to go. I was working full time at the time. I'd stay up all night then, go in and punch a clock at 7
or 8 in the morning. I worked 10 or 12 hours a day''.
Mack acknowledges that Sam Phillips was not releasing much pure
country music at the time. "Me and Ernie Chaffin was pretty much it. Sam was balking at a lot of it. It had to be pretty strong or he wouldn't fool with it. Guys like me and Ernie Chaffin... We didn't know what a contract was. But
you learn. Eventually you learn. I was just messing around, having fun''.
Mack has long ago come to terms with
the fates of the music business. Like other artists before and after him, he didn't always feel treated right by Sun and Sam. Being a secondary artist meant that he was unlikely to benefit from Sun's meagre promotional energies.
Having your latest release shipped in the same package with a disc by Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash usually meant being consigned to
the No Play list. As Mack told Sun historian Martin Hawkins, '' At Sun Records, the stars' pink Cadillacs would be parked up front on Union Avenue. Out back would be the beat up Fords and pickup trucks of the country boys trying
to make it''.
Sometime around 1960 or 1961 Mack decided, ''that Sam wasn't going to do anything for me''. He moved on
to the Zone label and has recorded for a number of small, independent labels since, including a number of self-produced projects.
Looking back at his career, Mack holds few regrets. The lack of a hit record? ''I didn't worry about that kind of stuff back then. It's not till you get older that you start thinking about what you might could have done. Or
would have done. I didn't do too bad, though. I tried to write good songs. My wife tells me I ain't never wrote a bad one'' (laughs).
''I never did try to big time' nobody,. I just never did do that. I went to the seventh grade in school. That's as far as I ever got. I educated myself by reading Stop signs and billboards. I learned to draw blueprints. If I
had gone through high school, I might have done a little better. But I also might have been a better drunk, You never know''.
observes, "Mack wrote some good songs. They deserved to be hits. But he never pushed himself. He never got out there and did personal appearances. That's the only reason he never made it. But we've had a good life together. You never
know how it would have been if he had made it. Sometimes the worst thing can happen to you is to have a hit record''.
Mack has always maintained a job in the non-music world. 'I did sheet metal work when I got out of the army. I started my own business and I made a living doing it until I retired in 1990. We'd build cotton gins, heating and
air conditioning units and stuff like that. I had about five trucks and at one time I worked ten men. After retired. I got to playing again. I'm enjoying it and I've started writing again. I got a little studio out there. I just write
my songs and go out there and set down and sing. I've never really left it'. I had some great guys played with me over the years''.
Mack and Hazel Self are approaching 50 years of marriage. They have ten grandchildren and one great grandson. That doesn't include the children and grandchildren from his first marriage. Mack can barely keep track
of all his progeny and readily turns to Hazel for the details. "That's a mess of them," he gleefully concludes. ''You see why I have that studio out back?", he asks, laughing.
In June, 2007, Mack was looking forward to his first European concert tour and, in fact, his first trip to Europe . "I've loved airplanes all my life. Years ago, we lived in an old farmhouse
right in the middle of a cotton patch. We picked cotton and pulled that sack. My momma, she'd pick 300 pounds of cotton a day. I was about seven years old and one day I got my little wagon and went to town hunting scrap iron. People were
giving me little pieces of iron and 'sold it and made a dollar and a half. Man I was rich! The first thing I went looking for was a model airplane with a rubber band for the propeller, just mad out of balsa wood''.
"So I bought it and went home and my momma said, 'You mean to tell me you wasted that money on that little airplane when we ain't got
enough food in the house to feed a cat!' She whupped my ass, son, till it burned! I ain't never forgot that!
stuck - sort of. Mack made no more childhood trips to collect scrap iron to buy model planes. But some twenty years later, he went and got his pilot's license so he could fly real ones. "If I don't like the way that pilot's flying the
plane over to Europe, I may just go up there and take it over'', he laughed.
Mack recalled that he had gone back to 706
Union Avenue for the filming of a documentary on the 50th anniversary of Sun Records. Standing there taking in the scene, Mack spotted Sam Phillips. He went over to Billy Swan, another guest at the filming, to confirm Sam's identity.
''I walked up to him and said, 'Sam, how you doing?' He looked at me and had no idea who I was. I said, 'Mack Self.' He said, Well Ill
be dogged and gave me a big hug. I wanted to hit him. I guess that's what I should have done, (laughs). But I know that none of that stuff would have ever happened if it hadn't been for him''.
That observation may be true, and Mack also knows today that he was among the more fortunate country boys who never made it big. He saw his name on two of those original Sun
(and Phillips International) labels. All told, the eight or nine titles he recorded multiple takes of during Sun's Golden Era have benefited from 30+ years of musical archaeology. Every time he picks up his custom-made guitar with ''Easy To
Love'' inlaid on the neck, he knows he's a somebody. Like many Sun alumni, Mack has experienced the attention and respect of people he never expected to meet. Today the grandchildren of people who first enjoyed his records know his
name. His reputation is assured.
Wiley Laverne ''Mack'' Self, of West Helena, Arkansas passed away on Tuesday, June 14, 2011
at his home of the age of 81. Mack is buried at the Caldwell Family Cemetery in Aubrey, Arkansas.
Interview with Mack Self, July 2005 by Hank Davis