Mack MacKenzie is the last of his breed: a singer-songwriter with an author's depth and a Rock'n'Roll heart.
It starts, as it should, with a border. Between genres. Between nations. Between solo and band. Between greatness and… the other thing. And Mack MacKenzie was not having any of that. Montreal’s universally acclaimed singer-songwriter has always believed that music is a horse that never saw a fence it wouldn’t jump.
Born in the northeastern U.S. (you can’t get much more nor’east than Maine), raised in Montreal, Canada (you can’t get much cooler), Mack MacKenzie has crossed borders his entire creative Rock’n’Roll life. As a solo artist and the songwriter, vocalist and driving force of Montreal alt-country band Three O'Clock Train, Mack has played over 2000 gigs in every rock club, honky-tonk, theatre and dive across the wide expanse of Canada and the U.S.A.
So it also starts, as it should, with a tune. He grew up a fan of all the elemental good stuff: Johnny Cash, Buck Owens and The Beatles as a kid; Bowie, Elton, and Jimmy Page as a teen; and Big Thief, Ghostland Observatory and, you know, Keith, as an adult. But the IT moment that turned a fan into an artist was Paradise by Americana folk legend John Prine. “I was 11,” says Mack. “I had the John Denver single version and noticed Prine's name in parentheses in the liner notes. I asked one of my older sister's, ‘Who's the guy in parentheses?’ and she explained to me that he was the songwriter. Epiphany! That's what I want to be! The guy in parentheses!”
And we’ll get back to Mr. Prine. The first song Mack wrote that answered that inner questing voice with Yes, you can was the anthemic Train of Dreams. And having learned all the categories, he would dispense with them. “I tried to get away from the genres and just write for myself and just write songs that pleased me.”
There would follow the smolder and heft of Muscle In, the momentum of Fingers, the scary passion of Stupid Little Angel, the defiance of I'm Not Your Indian Boy, the grandeur of country-rock ballad Love To Rain. The quality that binds them all is an unflinching authenticity, a seriousness. From the beginning, Mack Mackenzie was writing with the uncommon maturity of an alt-country statesman, like a lover who’s also “ready to fight for what's right.”
And speaking of I'm Not Your Indian Boy and fighting for what’s right, Mack has never worn his heritage on his sleeve, or marketed it. “I'm Not Your Indian Boy was probably the only obvious standout. Dealing with not being JUST an ‘Indian’ in some people's eyes.” However, as part Mi’kmaq, he takes a certain pride in watching the spotlight finally shine on the pioneering and pivotal role played by Native musicians in the history of rock 'n' roll in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. You can hear the resonance and influence of Charley Patton, Link Wray, Robbie Robertson and others in half the riffs, power chords and plenty of the raw attitude that made rock’n’roll what it was/is. Part of a tradition within a tradition, and one Mack MacKenzie is happy to play in.
Some of his songs are uplifting underdog anthems, but in terms of approach, “I’m definitely in the ‘dark and heartsore’ camp. There’s the flame of the outsider smoldering in the lyrics and the approach. Likewise, there was the unsettled childhood, “Eleven schools in eleven years and two countries, the U.S. and Canada. My parents divorced when I was ten years old. Growing up in Montreal, dirt poor.”
But also finding fertile musical ground. The Train was formed in the wild Montreal scene of the ‘80s. There were bands everywhere, with no prospect of making a buck in a broke city with too much talent, too much crooked bureaucracy, and too few A&R men, but the bands spawned like salmon, all with different colours. And the Train was at the head. “It was very inspiring, actually,” Mack says. “Every band made an effort to pretty much have their own sound and look. And not just rock’n’roll, either. There was punk, rock, electronic... We went with country just to be different. It was the only genre in Montreal that wasn't already taken!”
Well, Canada is a big town – on tour, your next gig might be a 19-hour drive through a 30-below-zero winter white-out, and it kills rock’n’roll bands like insects on a windscreen. Eats them alive. And through all that, Mack and the Train never, ever phoned it in, building a rep as one of the country's most powerful live acts.
The Train had a creative, tumultuous time. Their three-night stand at Montreal's Terminal to launch the "It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry" album is still heralded as one of the great gigs of its era. Members came and went, including Mack’s brother Stuart, but the real question was: how did this critically heralded, beloved band not become the biggest band in Canada?
“Montreal wasn’t really the ideal place for us,” he says. “A Francophone city, not too many country fans. We should have moved to Toronto and hired a proper PR firm, as well.”
Being rock’n’rollers, they did not. Other Canadian bands were handed the thunder the Train had earned.
But hey, Three O’Clock Train is just the vehicle. The engine is Mack Mackenzie’s songwriting. Descending from a tradition that embraces the weight of Robbie Robertson, the insight of Neil Young and the authority of JR Cash, MacKenzie’s songs burn, bristle and even soothe with the inspiration and desire of an artist who, as one critic wrote, “Writes songs like he needs to.” Big names. Big borders to ride herd on.
Aside from songwriting, Mack’s extensive compositional work for Canada’s National Film Board won him praise and a solid reputation in that genre. Now, working with a vengeance as a songwriter with a legacy and a future, he’s heading back in the studio in Vancouver with Chip Kinman and famed Canadian producer, Bob Rock.
Stories matter. And their need to be told and sung is at the very heart of human experience – the rock’n’roll experience. And like the great singer-songwriters whose work inspired Mack – and in whose tradition he walks – the artistic voice of the pen is literally matched and amplified by the actual vocals. Mack has the kind of inhabited, whiskyed voice that would barely need lyrics to tell you he’s lived and loved hard and lost, the kind of tough/tender timbre and depth that welcome a listener into a burnished place where verities like integrity, experience and authenticity are still saluted. It feels in the heart and gut like something believable, like the truth. Steeped in the earthy humanity of country, vital directness of punk and irreducible realness of rock’n’roll, it’s a careworn, soulful instrument that takes emotional risks few male singers ever do anymore and pays them off, strikes to the simple personal core and has been known to reduce grown men in an audience to tears. And that’s not a rhetorical comment.
So yeah, that John Prine story. Songwriters. Twenty years after hearing that single Paradise and having his world rocked, Mack would have another Epiphany: finding himself onstage sitting next to that elemental influence, trading songs before a rapt audience. “It was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival,” he remembers. “John Prine sat next to me. On my other side sat Townes Van Zandt. On either side of them were Guy Clark and John Gorka.” That’s a Songwriters Hall of Fame right there.
“John told me to go first, and I sang a song called A Blessing Called Love,” he says. Mack MacKenzie wrote that. “He leaned into me right afterward and said that he loved that song. That was the moment I became the ‘Guy in Parentheses’. Most of all, it felt like I had arrived.”
Arrived, but the ‘Guy’ and the Train keep rollin’ ever on. So much freight to deliver. So many more truths to tell, so many borders to cross.
Three O’Clock Train
- “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry” BD 2017 Three O'Clock Train Records DD
- Train of Dreams 2016 Three O'Clock Train Records DD
- Moon 2012 Three O'Clock Train Records DD
- Wig Wam Beach 2012 Three O'Clock Train Records DD
- Muscle In 2012 Three O'Clock Train Records
- Anthology: Wig Wam Beach/Muscle In 1996 Just a Memory Records CD
- “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry” BD 1991 Justin Time Records CD/Cassette
- Love to Rain / Be My Baby (He Says) 1988 Pipeline Records 7” 45rpm Vinyl
- Muscle In 1987 Pipeline Records Vinyl LP
- Wig Wam Beach 1986 Pipeline Records 12” Vinyl EP
- Ride for Glory 2000 Sony Records CD
- Mack MacKenzie 1996 Justin Time Records CD/DD
- I'm Not Your Indian Boy 1996 Justin Time Records CD Single
FILM & TELEVISION
- Flight From Justice 1993 Directed by Don Kent
- Lip Gloss 1993 NFB Directed by Lois Siegel
- Walker 1991 NFB Directed by Alanis Obomsawin
- Princes In Exile 1990 Directed by Giles Walker
- Indigo Autumn 1988 HBO Directed by Stuart Gillard
- Train of Dreams 1987 NFB Directed by John N. Smith
- Muscle In (Live at Theatre Fairmont) 2017 Directed by Marc De Mouy
- The Devil Likes Me (Live at Katoa Cellers) 2017 Directed by Brian Stegner
- Love Hurts (Live at Katoa Cellars) 2017 Directed by Brian Stegner
- Train of Dreams (Lyric Video) 2016 Directed by H.L. Goyer
- Big Red Sun (Live at the Horseshoe Tavern) 2013 Directed by Marc De Mouy
- Sweet Little Honey (Live at the Horseshoe Tavern) 2013 Directed by Marc De Mouy
- Sweet Little Honey 2013 Directed by Marc De Mouy
- Three Steps to the Moon 2011 Directed by Lee Shnailberg
- I'm Not Your Indian Boy 1996 Directed by Roy Pike
- Train of Dreams 1993 Directed by Anthony Seck
- Love to Rain 1991 Directed by Robert Ditchburn
- Train of Dreams (Theme) 1987 Directed by John N. Smith
- Website: threeoclocktrain.com
- GoFundMe: gofundme.com/threeoclocktrain
- Twitter: @3OClockTrain
- YouTube Channel youtube.com/threeoclocktrain
- Facebook facebook.com/threeoclocktrain
- Facebook facebook.com/mackmackenzie
- Instagram instagram.com/3oclocktrain
Photo: Eva Blue 2016
Logo: Susie Acheson 2017