Nothin’ To Prove.
That’s the title of Mac Arnold’s new CD — a title that perfectly sums up the man’s worldview at this point in his life.
Nothin’ To Prove, released this year on Arnold’s own label, which he’s dubbed Plantation # 1 Productions, is a definite statement from a 64-year-old blues veteran whose credits include a stint as the bass player in Muddy Waters’ band in the 1960s, as well as gigs with John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf and Otis Spann.
Having nothing to prove, of course, means you can do what you want, when you want. Which is part of the reason Arnold recently decided to start gigging again after many years out of the music biz.
Arnold, a native of Greenville, S.C. who’s lived in Pelzer for many years, brings his band, Plate Full O’ Blues, to Westville Pub on Saturday.
The man comes from humble beginnings — he learned to play guitar as a teenager, in the mid-1950s, using a gasoline can strung with discarded strings of various vintages. This contraption was built by his older brother and employed blocks of wood for the guitar neck.
He was evidently a fast learner, because by the early ’60s, he was playing in a band, J. Floyd and the Shamrocks, that often invited a young James Brown to sit in on piano. By 1965, he’d moved to Chicago, where he steeped himself in that city’s burgeoning electric-blues scene. A year later, Arnold was invited to join Waters’ band — except by that time, he’d changed to bass, figuring there were already too many hot-shot guitar slingers in Chicago to compete with.
Arnold’s Southern upbringing turned out to be a key factor for Muddy, who never forgot his own roots in the Mississippi Delta. After a brief stint playing with sax man A.C. Reed, Arnold was invited to Big John’s Grill on the north side of Chicago to sit in with Muddy. When Muddy found out Arnold hailed from South Carolina, he reportedly said, “Son, if you’re from the South, you can play.”
During his stint with Muddy, Arnold gigged with some of the giants, since Muddy’s band often shared the stage with fellow blues pioneers like Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, Big Mama Thornton and Junior Wells. And Arnold joined Muddy’s band just about the same time that the white-boy-blues kids began seeking out Muddy. So, Arnold was also on hand when the likes of Eric Clapton, Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Elvin Bishop sat in.
His year-long stint with Waters was an intense one, as Muddy hauled his band all over the country, pursuing a relentless touring schedule. All seven band members would load into a ’65 Cadillac Fleetwood, and they’d drive straight through from St. Louis to San Francisco — without the driver ever taking a break.
But once Arnold returned to a frigid, mid-winter Chicago after getting a taste of California weather, he quit Muddy’s band, moved to Los Angeles, and branched out. He formed his own band, the Soul Invaders, which backed up such soul and blues acts as the Temptations and B.B. King.
In the early ’70s, Arnold got restless and decided to check out the TV industry, working in music production for ABC TV and Redd Foxx’s Laff Records before joining the Soul Train show as an associate producer. One of his more notable — or is that notorious? — gigs was playing bass on the Sanford & Son theme. He then did a stint with Bill Withers, before moving back to South Carolina in the ’80s to look after his mother, whose health had begun to fail.
But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Arnold rediscovered his mojo for the blues — or, at least, for performing and recording. When he relocated back to South Carolina, he met a guitarist, Max Hightower, who, according to Arnold, “kept after me for 10 years” to start a band and return to the blues.
He finally gave in, recruited a drummer and a second guitarist, and dubbed the ensemble Plate Full O’ Blues — an amusing reference to Arnold’s passion for farming the four acres of his property that he devotes to growing vegetables. In fact, at many gigs, the venue serves up steaming plates of veggies harvested from Arnold’s farm.
The centerpiece of Nothin’ To Prove is the title track, with lyrics that plainly but eloquently lay out his thoughts about his place in life, his philosophies and his attitude toward the land. Over sinuous guitars, a crying blues-harp and tough beats, Arnold lends his wizened, gruff vocals to these sentiments:
“You can keep your designer clothes/ And your herbal tea/ Diamond rings and gold chains/ Man, they don’t mean nothin’ to me/ I don’t need much of anything/ ‘Cause I ain’t got nothin’ to prove … I’m from the old school, I learned how to live off the land … I got everything I need, I paid all my dues/ Don’t you try and change me/ I got nothin’ to prove.”
At the end of the song, as the band keeps chugging out its Chicago-blues groove, Arnold stops singing and downshifts to a laconic spoken-word delivery, riffing with lines like “You can keep your Escalade/ Me? Ha! I’d rather drive a truck … You don’t like the way I live? That’s all right with me/ I been around a long time/ What I have works for me/ I don’t have NOTHIN’ to prove. You understand?”
Indeed we do.
Mac Arnold and Plate Full O’ Blues play Westville Pub (777 Haywood Road) on Saturday, May 20. 9:30 p.m. $6. 225-9782.