Stan Woodward Remembers Mac Arnold and "Nothing to Prove"
In 2005, I began shooting the story of a South Carolina share-cropper farmer's son who went to Chicago in 1966 and ended up as a sideman playing base with the Muddy Waters Chicago blues band. Mac Arnold had grown up around gospel, country and western, and rhythm and blues music in the Piedmont region of Upstate South Carolina, but as far back as he could remember he had been drawn to the blues. He would sneak and listen to the blues because his father didn't approve of such music in his household. Mac started out playing on a homemade gas can guitar his brother, Leroy, made out of a gas can, wire from the screen of a window and with nails for pegs on a neck made from a 2x4. He moved up to a real instrument by high school where he formed a band. Mac had grown up around a rich combination of Gospel, country, and rhythm and blues music, and he would come to play left-handed bass guitar in the band he joined after high school. Mac adopted the bass-beat of the Piedmont blues into his music as rhythm and blues began transforming into rock and roll.
In 1966 Mac left Greenville and took his unique style and Piedmont blues bass beat and headed to Chicago - the urban center for the blues. It was here that Mac played with musicians like John Lee Hooker and other blues greats. But his career took off when he was invited to play bass for the Muddy Waters Chicago blues band. The blues was in need of new blood at a time when rock and roll was sweeping the country, and for Muddy, Mac Arnold was that new blood.
I began following Mac when, after a twenty year hiatus upon his return to Greenville in 1985 to run the family farm, he was talked into forming a band in 2002 by a young harmonica player, Max Hightower. That move inspired Mac to form Mac Arnold and Plate Full O' Blues , and begin his return to the blues. In 2005, I started shooting the story of Mac's climb back into the mainstream blues bringing with him the retro sound of the Chicago blues with homage being paid to Muddy Waters. That was the year of the release of Mac and the band's first CD, "Nothing to Prove", under his own label, Plantation 1 Music, LLC. I first met Mac when I conducted a brief backstage interview with him at the concert where he introduced music from his first CD, and I realized that here was a Southern Americana blues story that had to be told.
As Mac and the band began playing the SC blues circuit festivals and clubs I began my last big venture shooting documentaries with a three year trek of traveling with Mac and the band, shooting the day-by-day climb back into the blues world as Mac revived old acquaintances and brought a return to performing the "old timey blues" in a day when the blues had been warped into a quasi-rock and roll/pop music style. We see Mac bring to the blues a musical throw-back to the days when he played with now-famous side-musicians like Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker, and the legendary bluesmen who were playing the clubs in Chicago. The documentary moves with the band from local concerts and festivals to Helena, Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta, then to the world-famous International Blues Competition in Memphis. Here Mac moves back into the midst of the blues world as, after playing in the IBC festival, he is greeted warmly by now-legendary blues musicians who recognized him from his days playing in Chicago with Muddy. This occurs as Mac walks Beale Street on the way to jam with old Muddy Waters guitarist, Bob Margolin at Rum Boogey Cafe. The first portion of the story takes place in Part 1: "The Legacy" (1 hour 26 minutes), the second part in the 2-part DVD, "Nothing to Prove: Mac Arnold Returns to the Blues"
In Part 2: "Mac is Back", we continue documenting Mac's return to the now-very-different blues mainstream, as he and his band receive increased regional bookings that require investing in their own bus, which they gut and reconfigure so that the Arnold brothers, Vonda, Mac's wife, the band, and invited fans can travel to distant performances. Mac recalls the old playing days with Muddy during "Mac is Back!" as we follow him to repeat visits to the Mississippi Delta, with performances on Beale Street in Memphis and at a famous juke joint called "Red's" in Clarksburg, Mississippi, which stirs memories of traveling with Muddy Waters down the Blues Highway to perform in the jukes along the way. Mac meets up with IBC award winner, Super Chicken, who, like Mac, fashions guitars from found materials. We see a profound change in Mac when he and the band begin performing in the South Carolina "Blues in the School" program. He becomes focused on encouraging young people to discover and develop their talents in music. Finally we see Mac realize his dream of bringing together old Muddy Waters blues band side-men to play in his own hometown concert - The First Annual Mac Arnold Cornbread and Collards Blues Festival in Greenville, SC. The Festival begins the first night with a "Guitar Player Shoot-out" where young guitar players from around the state and region are invited to come play the blues with professional musicians. The three-day festival inconcludes a concert at The Handlebar Blues Club on Friday night, where Mac is joined by blues greats, featuring Hubert Sumlin. On Saturday, a five camera shoot of the concluding concert captures Mac playing with Bob Margolin, Willie Big Eyes Smith and a premiere performance where a chorus of young people drawn from three Jr. and Sr. High School choruses join young musicians and blues greats on-stage as Mac introduces his new theme song - "I Can Do Anything". This realization of Mac's dream provides a dramatic conclusion to the film.
Mac and the band sail to grand heights in the following year as they begin tours across the U.S. and Europe.