Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Musicmaker

Story Jason Browne | Photograph Luisa Porter

Mack Banks, of country prodigy fame, of truck stop comedy fame, who played shows at Purina stores and toured with Johnny Cash, has some stories to tell. But, at 78, his voice tends to fade in and out as he speaks, so if you’re only halfway paying attention you might catch some pretty random tidbits.

“That chicken wire was misrepresented.” “He didn’t even have no blue suede shoes.” “I done Jerry Lee Lewis the biggest favor he ever had and haven’t seen him since.” “Peter swore he wouldn’t abandon Jesus, but before the cock crowed he had. I don’t want to swear I won’t do nothing … I probably won’t.”

Banks, originally of Artesia, now of West Point, has seen the music business from every angle except that of an international superstar. He packed car dealership parking lots playing guitar in a country band at the age of 13. By 16, his band had its own radio show in Columbus. He fell one day short of stardom at Sun records. He had the No. 1 hit on Houston, Miss., radio for 26 straight weeks. He ran his own nightclub, sold dirty songs at truck stops and nearly got run out of the industry by bootleggers. But he’s not done yet.

“I might put out a single before the year’s out,” says Banks, sitting at a desk at MEB Distributing, the small, overwhelmingly cluttered, West Point storefront that grew out of Mack Elmore Banks Records. This is where Banks keeps his stock of CDs bought in bulk and where he spends his time when he’s not making deliveries. He’s well aware CDs are reaching the end of their time as the standard format for recorded music, but he’ll adapt. He always has.

ALMOST FAMOUS
Upon graduating from Artesia High School, Banks missed his first chance at stardom of any sort when he chose to focus on music rather than accept a football scholarship to play for Coach Bob “Bull” Sullivan’s East Mississippi Junior College Lions.

Instead of personally witnessing Sullivan’s ascension to a cult figure as a tailback for the Lions, Banks wound up working at a service station. He toured the local circuit with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins thanks to his band’s relationship with Houston, Miss., radio station WCPC, but missed his best chance at stardom when he had to pass on an appointment with Sam Phillips, founder of Memphis-based Sun Records, to be on time for work at the service station. Banks’ appointment with Phillips was instead given to a lad from Ferriday, La., Jerry Lee Lewis.

Banks never dwelled on the missed opportunity, even after Lewis’ career skyrocketed. He kept on playing “boogie woogie” and his record “You’re So Dumb” took on a life of its own at WCPC. It was, after all, born out of Banks’ attempt at mass appeal.

“At the time, a lot of grammar school and high school children listened to the radio. Some kid would call in to the radio station and say ‘Play “You’re So Dumb” for the seventh grade at Houlka High’ as a joke,” says Banks.

SUPPER TIME
Banks would continue to record, but his focus shifted in the ’60s when he purchased a club in Crawford, where, by virtue of a charter, he could sell beer despite being in a dry county.

Mack’s Western Supper Club was a magnet for college students, who would drop in by the hundreds on random weekday evenings, catching Banks severely understaffed. They caught him alone in the club one such Monday and demanded he get on stage to play and sing.

“They were bringing girls up to sit in my lap. It got out of hand. They were breaking my equipment and my mic cords. I made up my mind that evening that, come Wednesday, I was going to get me a carpenter in there and stop this junk,” he says.

The result was a chickenwire cage around the stage that, despite speculation, wasn’t designed to catch flying objects.

“I didn’t have two cans of beer thrown at me my whole life. I did have a few pieces of ice thrown at me, which is bad enough. You can’t track where it’s coming from,” says Banks.

FOR TRUCKS’ SAKE
In the ’80s, two events led Banks to begin recording comedy songs. First, he had a bunch of his teeth pulled and sang differently with dentures. Second, a friend told him about the growing popularity of “songs you can’t play on the radio” within the trucking community.

Soon Banks was closing his club at 3 a.m. only to load up cases of his albums, which contained songs like “The DOT (Department of Transportation) Sucks,” and driving as far as Arkansas to sell them by the thousands at truck stops.

Eventually, Banks became a distributor and sold other people’s music in truck stops as well. He figured out decades ago that white people love black music and began including artists like Howlin’ Wolf on his truck stop racks.

“You go to the Howlin’ Wolf Festival (in West Point), and it’s 80 percent white people. Maybe 90,” he said.

His business slowed in the late ’90s when CD burners became standard equipment on computers. Now anyone can produce CDs and sell them cheaper than Banks’ copies. This was different from shoplifting, says Banks. Moving his rack behind the cashier counter wasn’t going to stop it. And music piracy got even worse when MP3s hit.

MACK’S OUTRO
Banks produced his most recent single, a blues record called “Sad Times in New Orleans,” shortly after Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Gulf Coast. Before that, his comedy had softened, with songs like “The Baptism” about a skinny preacher baptizing a 400-pound woman. He still plays guitar and sings here and there, and some of his old songs, like “Be-Boppin’ Daddy” and “You’re So Dumb,” are on YouTube. And he’s hoping to capture his old magic one last time — going back to work on a song he “started writing 30 or 40 years ago.”