Johnny Mac — the ordained doctor of electric blues, rock, and funk — is a highly revered, longtime Charleston musician and bandleader. He calls his hard-working trio’s material “a sinfully delicious cornucopia of aural sensations … a heady mixture of rhythm and blues, funky grooves, and low-down in the street rock ‘n’ roll.”
The stylistic variety, wide-reaching versatility, and broad technical proficiency of Mac’s current project, The BootyRanch, is above most in the local scene.
“It’s pretty difficult to put a tag on it,” says Mac, speaking by phone last week. “People always ask us what we play, and I’ve never felt comfortable saying that we’re a rock band, ’cause that’s just not what we do. We’re not a blues band, ’cause that’s not what we do. Sometimes I refer to it as blues-based swamp music, to an extent, because everything we play is based in the blues, but there are also elements of rock, funk, and other things as well.”
Older scenesters might remember Mac for his work with ’80s rock trio The Jumper Cables — a mainstay in the beach bars and downtown music halls for years, featuring drummer Stevie Kent and bassist Paul Tucker.
“With the Cables, I think we were really the first real jam-type band that came outta here,” remembers Mac. “We’d go on stage and whatever we were playing, we’d stretch it out and stretch it out — almost as an homage to the Allman Brothers.”
Kent and Tucker initially dove into the music biz in the rich ’70s-era Macon music scene. Naturally, the Allman’s influence was quite strong. They played together in a fusion band called Tall Dogs, and with others from that scene, including Chuck Leavell and members of Sea Level.
“They both had this improvisational experience, while I was really just a goofy rocker that liked to play the blues,” says Mac of the Cables guys. “When we started the Booty Ranch, we wanted to take a lot of that improvisational thing and just play some fun rock ‘n’ roll stuff. While that evolved, we started adding these little dance grooves to get the little girls up front who like to shake it around … and we like watching that [laughs].”
Mac’s Air Force family moved from Milledgeville, Ga., to Charleston in 1972 — about the time he was learning a variety of instruments and getting into singing and jamming with others.
“I’ve been playing some form of music since I’ve been three,” he says. “I started out on piano, then switched to guitar around 14, but I’ve always been singing. Just like so many kids in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I started out with all those British guys. I still think that Jeff Beck is like the most huge guitar player that ever lived. He’s the perfect example of someone who has progressed and kept things fresh.”
The guitarist cites the Allman Brothers, Deep Purple, Johnny Winter, Santana Albert King, Robert Ford, Derek Trucks, Storyville’s David Grissom, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Eric Johnson as heavy musical influences. As a singer and arranger, he points to Ray Charles as one his strongest inspirations as well.
In the early ’90s, Mac moved from Charleston for stints in L.A. and Austin before returning to town in 1996. The BootyRanch formed in late 1998 with Mac on guitar and vocals, Chris Watts on bass, and Jay Vane on drums. The trio covered a lot of ground — from traditional Chicago and Delta blues to Texas-style electric riffery to southern-fried funk and soul.
“I had to start an entirely new band, so I called up Chris and Jay, both of whom I’d played with before in the Bad Riff Band,” Mac says. “We got together and whipped up a bunch of stuff and started from there.”
Last fall, Vane stepped aside and Kent came back on board as the full-time drummer. Kent had recently recovered from stomach surgery (for an aortic aneurysm) and was ready to get back into playing.
“It was like getting part of the Jumper Cables and part of the BootyRanch,” says Mac. “We were playing similar stuff along with a lot of funk-oriented things.”
Most of Mac’s band experiences have been in the classic power trio setting of guitar, bass, and drums. He feels that over the years he’s graduated from a rougher style in which he banged out chords and often switched over to lead duties into something more polished and complex.
“It depends on what I’m doing,” says Mac. “You really have to orchestrate things if you approach it as a trio. You have to focus on what actually needs to be there. It’s minus all the bells and whistles and more stripped-down. It requires me to really think about what I’m playing. I have to play really good rhythm, I have to fill in holes where they need to be filled, and I have to leave space where it needs space. I do like a three-piece because there’s a lot of freedom involved — as well as a lot of responsibility.”