Mac in his garden

Garden Full of Songs —
The Beginning of Backbone & Gristle

It is Sunday 2:00pm. This is morning time for most musicians. I drive past the Happy Cow Dairy Farm in Pelzer South Carolina. They sell the best milk, cheese and butter, its all made fresh there on the farm. Barbed wire fences and old barns that have withstood the test of time scatter throughout miles and miles of pasture. Just a stone's throw down the road nestled away on 80 acres is Mac Arnold’s home. As I pull into the driveway, his dog Buster greets me with a playful bark, nudging the fence with his big head, for attention. Rows and rows of collards paint the backyard green and the aroma of Mac’s original chicken legs smoking on the grill get my taste buds jumping. His wife Vonda is quick to open the door so I can lug my equipment in from the cold. Mac is tossing logs into his black iron wood heater. He always wears a big smile and welcomes me with a hug as he does everyone. I grab a roasted peanut and then sneak a peek into the pot steaming on the stove, crowder peas cooking down to gravy, great with cornbread and Happy Cow butter.

band at dinner table

The rest of the band staggers in, ears and head still numb, trying to shake off Saturday night. As we are still setting up, here comes cousin Troy, the fish fry king, driving his big red Dodge Dually pickup truck. More folks will soon show. This is very typical being Mac is from a family of 13. Everyone is always welcome so we got used to a crowd of people being around during every practice.

The country, farms, cows, dogs, collard greens, crowder peas, chicken legs, family, and friends have become our recipe for writing songs. It’s all around us. Mac himself is a living Blues song. His brother James, well you just can’t help but love him. Another brother Isaac, he’s the man! He always dresses smooth, with the perfect crease in his jeans, and one hell of a carpenter. We could write a book on Leroy, Mac's eldest brother, the founder of the gas can guitar. Leroy visits every Sunday after church, decked out sharp as a tack. To tell you the truth, he’s always decked out! When he speaks, it is like a melody, his words and phrasing are all in some kind of spiritual Arnold timing. You could put music to his conversation. When that old Detroit engine fires up, other than Mac, he is the first one on the bus.

iced tea on the porch

The stories are always thriving, like a garden full of songs. When we need one, we just pick it. On the way back from Memphis I over heard Mac and Leroy reminiscing about old times. Their father caught them standing around in the cotton field and ask them what they were doing. They told him that their “backbone hurt”, and he said, “y'all ain’t got no backbone just a gristle, now get back to work.” This kind of old expression is second nature to the Arnolds', but to me it sounded like music. Later we turned it into a song, and that became the name of our latest CD “Backbone & Gristle”.

Once our equipment is setup, we kick it off, usually by someone fiddling around with some off the wall lick. As we are pulling ourselves together, Mac is gathering some extra wood out by the barn, where he keeps his precious John Deere tractor. He wears this goofy World War 1 pilot looking hat, to cover his ears, fighting off Buster, as he is coming in the back door. He is already singing before he gets in the house good, grabbing his microphone that is plugged into his 1970s Ampeg bass amp. Turns it on, and shuffles around to stop the feedback. Then he proceeds to ramble out some deep southern style lyrics, a cross between field hollers and Motown. Austin begins molding the perfect guitar licks and rhythm to fit the lyrics. Everyone plays an instrument in the Brashier family, so playing guitar is like breathing for him. Danny explores many unique bass lines with extreme perfection. He can play a 4 string, 5 string and 6 string Bass. He even has an upright Bass given to him by Willie Dixon himself. As for me, I am usually running around in circles between harmonica, piano and guitar looking for the best instrument to match the tune. When everyone has found their place, Mike locks it all in with the drums. We just throw all our ideas out on the table, know matter how crazy they may seem.

plate full of food

About two hours into the rehearsal, you can really start to smell the beans and cornbread cookin’, the same as with our music. This is when the volume cranks up and the juices really start to flow. Before you know it, we have a small audience surrounding us, but we are playing as if we were in front of 5000 people. Macs’ house has marble floors and high ceilings, so this captures the true tone of the instruments. What A sound! We have pondered the idea of doing some recording there.

Just as the sun goes down, yep you guessed it, time to suck a little grub! After 4 or 5 hours of non-stop rehearsing, we've worked up a good ol' country boy appetite. Friends, family, the band, we all know what to do, just help ourselves. Crowder peas, collard greens, cornbread, Happy Cow butter, sliced tomatoes, chicken legs and sweet tea in a mason jar, that’s the way we do it. We forget about the music for while and just enjoy each other. Ya know, not everyone knows how to play a musical instrument but we all sure know how to eat.

Max Hightower 2008

band at dinner table