“My mother had a love of music that she passed on to my sister and me,” recalled Minnesota-born-and-raised jazz and blues vocalist Annie Mack. “The record player — that was her night out. She couldn’t go out to the bar or a show with two kids at home and nobody to watch them.
“So for her, going to pick up something from the liquor store, make a nice dinner and put on her record, that was her night out.” Her mother was also a very complicated woman whose unresolved issues forced Mack to grow up fast.
Artists who Mack listened to growing up in her Minneapolis apartment included legends like Bobby Blue Bland and Etta James. She not only listened to soul, funk, and jazz, but many other genres as well.
Mack, who’s graced such festivals as the John Coltrane Jazz Festival in High Point, N.C. and the Thunder-Bay Music Festival in Ontario, Canada, not to mention the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, cites legendary Taj Mahal as an act whose music skillfully traverses genres.
“One of the foundations of his music is using our instrumentation — the banjo, the fiddle for example — to combine country roots Americana music and the country blues. Artists like him are the ones that kind of stepped outside the box and remind us as Black people of all that we encompass. We have a place in all of it.”
Commenting on abilities to move across musical styles, she said, “People don’t realize what a trailblazer Etta James was. She cut a country album; she was so versatile. Ray Charles also sang country.”
Mack said she was personally drawn to the blues because “It represents freedom and it’s honest and raw. It brings up emotions. It talks about life’s celebrations and life’s heartaches. It was just meant to be my foundation.”
Asked to describe her own musical style, the mom of three carefully explained: “I consider myself a truth-teller. I try to be honest and if I don’t feel anything from what I write, if I don’t feel strong emotion, it’s not for me. I want to create what’s real and relatable and I always want to leave people with an element of hope. I receive healing in the music, but I’m in a place to offer it as well.”
Her first album, “Baptized in the Blues,” was an attempt, she said, “to get healing.” It was also perhaps a way to get some understanding and resolution of the complex history and relationship she had with her mother, who has now passed away. “It was a very cathartic experience. It was me trying to get some healing and share my story, my mother’s story, and to honor her.”
Mack’s mother, plagued by emotional issues all her life, at one point shot Mack’s older sister. Ten years old at the time, Mack, “terrified and afraid to move or breathe,” was whisked off in the middle of the night to foster care, where she ended up staying for two years.
“Not knowing,” she painfully recalled, “where my mom’s going. I don’t know where my sister is. My whole life was completely turned upside down.” She later learned her sister had survived the shooting.
In the short term, the experience, she stated, taught her before she was even in middle school “what is truly important. Understanding that what I wear, what I have, don’t define who I am because it was all taken away. Everything I had was taken away when I went to St. Joseph’s Home for Children. Even my underwear.”
It’s important to Mack that readers understand that “My mother was not a monster; she’s not a horrible person. She just didn’t have the tools and was a survivor herself of generational family dysfunction.”
The other children at St. Joseph’s, some of whom she explained had been in the system their whole lives, made it bearable. “They were so sweet,” she remembered. “The kindness from other children, who were in a really hostile situation, was really quite beautiful.”
Mack has been trying to locate one in particular. “Her name was Robin, and she was just beautiful. She was a teen mom. She was in foster care with her little boy, Robert, and she would send me to the corner store to get cookie dough and always tell me everything was gonna be okay.”
Mack confided to the MSR that she’s still in the midst of grieving for her sister, who passed away two months before our interview. “It’s a very reflective time for me. Relationships are hard, and there was a lot of hurt and sadness.”
She hesitated, then shared, “When I go onstage now, it’s like a prayer for my mother, my sister. It’s to honor them and other Black women like them who might be afraid to dare to dream, and who might think their circumstances define them. For me, my singing is a very spiritual thing.”
To learn more about Annie Mack and her most recent project, the EP “Tell It Like It Is,” visit www.anniemackmusic.com.