Gary James' Interview With
John Denver Tribute Artist
and member of
The Limeliters and The Hard Travelers
Randy Sparks of The New Christy Minstrels calls him "One of the better voices in the music business." Tom Paxton says his "Voice reminds me of no one more than my friend, the late John Denver. I love to hear this man sing." As a former member of The Limeliters, a member of The Hard Travelers and now a John Denver tribute artist, Mack Bailey has made quite a name for himself in Folk music circles. Glenn Yarbrough said he was "The next great singer in Folk music."
Mack Bailey spoke with us about his musical career with an emphasis on his John Denver Tribute Show.
Q - Mack, you're different from other John Denver tribute acts because you actually got to sing "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" with John Denver on stage. What did that feel like? What did that mean to you and where did that happen?
A - So, I was working with a band in Baltimore, Maryland called The Hard Travelers and we were kind of a Folk / Bluegrass group. It had some phenomenal musicians in there. It was always a lot of fun. We used to raise a lot of money for Cystic Fibrosis Research. We met a young girl who eventually passed away from Cystic Fibrosis and we just made that our commitment. Over the course of nineteen years, I'm drawing a blank over how much money we raised. Millions of dollars for research. We usually had Country artists like Randy Travis, Kenny Rogers, Alabama, Brooks And Dunn. For our tenth anniversary we kind of all agreed we wanted John Denver there, and so he agreed to come in. It was the only time we did a show in Baltimore at the Baltimore Arena where there was also a home Baltimore Orioles baseball game. In the 7th inning stretch of every Baltimore Orioles baseball game, they played "Thank God I'm A Country Boy". So we asked John if he would come to the ball game with us. That's where I first met him, at the ball game. He went and stood at the Orioles dugout and lip-synched at the 7th inning stretch and the place went berserk. So, when we were headed back to the arena to do the sound check he said, "Well, you guys have a fiddle player. Why don't we close out the show with that tonight?" Of course we were like, "Well, only if that's what you want, John." So, we get back and he does his sound check and he brings us out there to run through "Thank God I'm A Country Boy". He looks at one of our band members, Ken Roberts, and says, "Ken, you sing the verses during sound check and I'll do 'em during the show." Ken says, "I don't know the verses, but Mack does.' So, John says, "Mack, you sing 'em during sound check and I'll do 'em during the show." And at that point I'm like, "This is about as full-circle as it gets." I taught myself guitar by learning his songs. So, I sang the best I could. When I finished he came over said said, "Why don't we trade verses? I'll do this and then you do that and then I'll do this and you do that." I'm like, "Absolutely." And so, we get to the show time and it was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. He was incredibly nice and genuine and after it was over we actually talked about doing some more things. Unfortunately, three weeks later was when he died.
Q - So, that would have been 1997 then?
A - Yup. October of 1997.
Q - You did meet him and sing with him. You managed to do that.
A - It is one of those things where you think I got a chance to sing with him and all these other opportunities may come up and they're not going to happen now. Bottom line is, I did get to sing with him and it's something I'll treasure for the rest of my life.
Q - Well now, you were in The Limeliters and that was a well known group. Why did you settle on doing a John Denver tribute act? Is it because you did meet and sing with him?
A - It was pretty much the fact that since he passed away; well, The Hard Travelers got to work with him and Ken Roberts is the businessman behind all of this. So, as soon as John passed away, at John's funeral in Aspen, John's band members were all sitting around, his family members and Bill Danoff, who had co-written "Take Me Home Country Roads" with John and had written so many of John's earlier songs, as they're sitting around the campfire, and I wasn't around for this, they were singing his songs around the campfire and everybody was like, "This sounds good! Those are great songs. We should take this on the road and have a tribute to John." I guess my voice is very similar to John's in the high tenor quality and so I kind of became one of the lead singers and just loved singing with his band members. He only worked with the best. He played with James Burton, Hal Blaine. It was just amazing the musicians he had in his band. When you get a chance to play with these musicians in the later years, Pete Huttlinger and Chris Nole and Herb Peterson, it was just amazing, Jim Horn. It was a thrill for me to be able to stand up there and sing with those guys and to know what's coming back to me in the monitors is exactly what John would've heard.
Q - It sounds like you would've been one of the first if not the first to do a tribute to John. Would that be right?
A - Well, it wouldn't have been me particularly. I was part of a show that was done for John. I admired John so much. He was more of a mentor to me than an idol to me. I never, ever wanted to be John. The way I always described it is it's this big, huge tree and John's music is this tree and I'm a branch off of it. I love to write my own material and so I'm inspired by not only singing his songs, but I'm also inspired to write my own songs and develop my own art because of him. So, I've never really wanted to act like I'm John Denver. I just wanted to sing his songs as authentically and genuine as possible. I do feel at times it's difficult to have a good tribute act that doesn't go too far at times. Some acts pull it off. 1964 is a great tribute act to The Beatles. They play the parts. But when you have a solo person like the Elvis tributes, I never felt like that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to pay tribute to him the best way I could from me.
Q - I was going to ask you how satisfying it is for you creatively to sing someone else's material, but since it inspires you to write your own material then I can see why you'd want to do it.
A - Absolutely.
Q - How much work is there for a John Denver tribute act and what type of venues do you perform in?
A - We do a lot of shows in Aspen, especially around the anniversary of his death in October. We've done shows at Royce Hall at UCLA. We've done a lot of shows back East in Maryland. We came to Vero Beach and did a show down there. We do like theatres and nicer venues.
Q - When you get off stage, what kind of comments are you getting from the audience? I assume you have a meet and greet at some of those places.
A - It's funny. I've seen other tribute acts where one of the first comments people make is, "You just sounded so much like him," or "You look just like him." And I've never gotten that. I think they really just appreciate the fact that they know it's really not about me. They know it's me paying tribute, so I'm not trying to imitate John as far as as his voice or his look or his sayings with the "Far out." I've never tried to imitate that. I just like to put on a show and hopefully they can re-live all the memories and sing along with all the songs, but it also kind of keeps 'em in the present kind of thing. To me, that keeps the music alive and keeps the music moving forward if I am an honest and authentic performer.
Q - Are The Hard Travelers still together?
A - We just played in March (2016). We don't play nearly as much as we used to because everybody's kind of doing their own thing. But every time we get together it's like the very first time we ever played. The music is always magical.
Q - Is your bread and butter then your John Denver tribute show?
A - Well, and also just my solo show of doing the story telling. John was definitely one of the major influences. Another major one of mine was Harry Chapin. My goal as far as a show is always just to take you on a journey that when you get to the end of it you're just kind of like, "I went so many places. I really had a great time."
Q - Are The Limelites still around?
A - They are. I retired from the group. They still have a new configuration. I know they just filmed another PBS Special for
The Kingston Trio and they made an appearance on it. When the economy kind of fell out, it really hit our demographic big. It got to the point for me where I loved the music and I loved The Limeliters and I loved being in the band so much that when it started becoming too much work it started making me lose some of the love for it and I didn't want to lose anymore. (laughs)
Q - You're based out of where?
A - I actually live in Aspen, Colorado, which helps with that John Denver aspect. (laughs) It's nice. Even when I played here and do a John Denver show, people come and re-live the memories, but they're not expecting me to be John at all. They're just loving the memories and singing along and loving the music. In October, when we do our big John Denver week in Aspen, artists come in and they've got the round glasses and the hat from the early '70s and the hair. They really do try to look like him. Some people, you'll just be talking to them, just general conversation, and in the middle it'll be, "Far out man," and it's like, "Please, don't do that." John's band members don't want to be a part of that. It really is about being authentic. You want to pay tribute to the man, not to the persona I guess. That's the way I've always felt.
Q - He probably never used "Far out" in his conversations with people.
A - Right. He was very smart. He knew exactly what he wanted. That's why he was king of the world in '75 and '76. He also knew how to maximize what he had. His authenticity is what made it all work for him. I mean, he did the movies with George Burns and all of the TV specials. He really kind of laid a lot groundwork for a lot of other artists. For John it was always kind of sad that he didn't get the recognition from the industry. He really made so much possible for so many people. I think he was the first person to use the screens up on stage. Now, that's part of every act. He had that song, "Eagle And The Hawk". First time I saw him I remember as he's playing the song there was three screens behind him and on the left screen you see this hawk flying, this video of the hawk fighting and then when he sings about the eagle, the eagle appears on the right screen. Then toward the end, they both ended up on the same middle screen. It was just phenomenal and so powerful.
Q - You cannot replace a John Denver. No one has ever stepped up and took his place and carried on with his ideas and causes.
A - Even his label dropped him toward the end, even though he was still selling records. He won his first Grammy for the last record he did, "All Aboard". It says a lot about the industry, of what people are willing to get behind. I'm one of those believers that the industry still has no clue of what they want. They're just trying to put music out there to make money.