Max Hightower

keyboards, harmonica, guitar, vocals

Max with harmonica

It could be said that Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues all started with harmonica player and multi-instrumentalist Max Hightower. When he’d first heard the 1969 “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Waters Live” album at the age of 12 — playing it from sundown to sunrise, with the batteries and tape dragging — he didn’t realize it would play such a pivotal role in his life. He also didn't know it would resurface some 11 years later in rural South Carolina, when he’d first met a former member of the blues legend’s Chicago band.

But back that up.

Max decided to buy that old recording — and subsequently kickstart his relationship with the blues — after catching Jimi Hendrix on a late night television special. After being blown away by Hendrix’s guitar wizardry, Max researched him, and learned that some of his influences were the old blues masters, like Robert Johnson, Albert King, and of course, Muddy. With Max growing increasingly interested in the instrument (yet money too tight for his single mother raising two children to buy him a new one) his grandmother tracked down his father’s worn and battered 1950’s Silvertone guitar for him to fool around with. It wasn’t long before his grandmother observed Max’s frustration (he only had three rusted strings which were cutting into his fingers as he tried to play along with the album) and she brought home a brand new harmonica for him to try out.

And well, you see, within no time flat, that old “Muddy ‘Mississippi’ Live” tape was worn out, and nearly every single lick by James Cotton — Muddy’s ace harmonica stylist — had been memorized. Max had found his favorite tool for the blues.

Mickey with guitar

Mickey Fowler

After knocking around in a few bum bands — even getting booed offstage during his first official onstage performance — Max came across one of his father’s musician buddies, Mickey Fowler, a local Carolina Upstate master of the Outlaw Country genre. Too young to navigate the bars and clubs at the age of 15, Fowler took Max under his whiskey-stained wing, teaching him the do’s and don’ts of the barroom, and letting him play along like a member of the band.

Mickey with guitar

Pearl's Cotton Club

Mickey with guitar

Big Roger Collins

But it wasn’t until 1991, when he moved to Houston, Texas, for school that Max really began sharpening up his musical chops. It was around this time, though, that he learned the harmonica player was an expendable position, so he began to pick up the piano, guitar and stretch out his vocal chords. But it was primarily at the weekly jam at the cinder block blues haven — Pearl’s Cotton Club in Houston’s 5th Ward — where he honed in his skills, working alongside such blues maestros as Big Roger Collins, Joe Jackson and Spare Time Murray.

After bouncing across the Lone Star State, immersing himself in the electric blues, Max eventually found his way home to Greer, S.C., working various jobs, and playing through more blues, country and rock n’ roll bands, like Cootie Starks and Chocolate Thunder.

But it was while he was working with a trucking company as a mechanic — listening to that same Muddy Waters album that started it all — he struck Chicago blues gold when Mac Arnold waltzed into the building. It could have been a simple twist of fate when Max heard the cowboy hat-wearing, oversized belt buckle-clad bluesman singing along to his favorite recording playing in the mechanic shop that day. And when he asked him if he knew who that ol’ fella Muddy Waters was, well, yea, Mac knew him alright. And after their initial meeting, it took about ten years of checking out different musicians through newspaper ads and rehearsals to find the right band — a band good enough to hang. Smokin’ enough to cook up some blues for the South, Chicago, Europe and beyond. Hot enough to be called Plate Full O’ Blues.

maxhightower.com

by Taylor Moore