Still Truckin’
Bill Mack on XM radio,is still on the open road, way ahead of the curve
 BY GAIL BENNISON

Fort Worth Business Press
August 8, 2003


He wrote his first song -- Buford With That Curl In Your Hair-- at 10. In his lifetime, he has written more than 300 songs.  

His first broadcasting job, in 1950, was at his hometown radio station, KEVA in Shamrock, Texas, where the 17-year-old scoured the restrooms and vacuumed floors in the morning, then hosted an hour-long radio show in the afternoon. His weekly paycheck was $12.50. Five years later, he would introduce  to his audience a shy young singer named Elvis, who gratefully performed for no pay.

To truckers and millions of other listeners across America, he has become a friend, a therapist, a philosopher and the consummate entertainer. Because, for over 32 years, his was the comforting, familiar “voice in the night” as Fort Worth WBAP radio’s Midnight Cowboy.

A Grammy Award-winning songwriter, Bill Mack has received more awards than any other country music deejay in the world. And, at the age of 70, Mack says, “No breakin’—I’m still truckin’” He is, as always, way ahead of the curve, as that old-time radio voice beckons to a new generation: OK--Let’s keep this traffic going--All Clear--It’s open road ahead with Bill Mack, XM Satellite Cowboy!

***

On June 4, 1933, a son was born to Irene and Ernest Mack. Bill Mack’s birthplace, Shamrock, TX, is a sleepy town about 90 miles east of Amarillo, with a population of 3,000. The town’s claim to fame, Mack says, was the filming location of the movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. His father, Ernest, made a living as a trucker, hauling cottonseed, and Mack recalls having a shovel placed in his hands at the age of four and working alongside his dad unloading that cottonseed.

“I grew up during the depression years,” he says. “But, you know, if we were poor, I didn’t know it. We had plenty of food on the table, clothes to wear and we were happy.”

Mack grew up with one younger brother, Clois, who was called into the ministry. “My brother and I were a little bit different, but he is one of my best pals,” Mack says.

He recalls a longing to become a radio announcer, as well as the humble beginnings at KEVA in Shamrock. “I was just a kid when they started building the first station in my town. I was hanging around with the construction guys, wanting a job real bad,” Mack says. “The station manager wouldn’t even talk to me until they opened, and then just called one day to offer me a job. I had an afternoon radio show called the 1580 Club. That’s as far on the right of the dial as you can go, only 250 watts, but to me, it was a network! There was no country music on that station, just Sinatra, Como, the pop songs, and I loved it.

“But, there was a catch. I had to get there early in the morning to vacuum the studio carpet and clean the restrooms. The station was named after the owner’s mother, Eva, whose picture was hanging on the wall, looking right at me all the time I was vacuuming. It was big, and I swear that her eyes followed me. Every day, I would look at that big picture and say a prayer to God and Eva that I would keep that job.”

He didn’t. Mack was fired from the station; and has an explanation for it. 

“The program director was the nephew of the owner, and he did not like me one bit,” Mack says. “He was always bragging that he could do the news broadcasts without pre-reading the copy. He called me ‘John Boy’ because I cleaned the johns, you see.

“Well, one day, I decided to get revenge. I got some of the Teletype paper and made up a story for him, knowing that he would read it cold. I handed it to him, and went outside to sit in my car and listen to his news report on my radio. I had no intention of ever going back. What he read in his noon report was, ‘Joseph Stalin was admitted to the hospital in Russia today suffering from hemorrhoids…Our next story is: MGM stars, Mickey Rooney and Lana Turner have eloped, and two of the brightest stars in Hollywood are honeymooning in the Twenty Trees Motel in Shamrock.’ Then he knew something was wrong. He stopped the news and said, ‘Now we are going to recorded music.’ Well, my whole town was rushing over to the motel, and it just so happened that one of the town’s leading citizens was walking out of the motel with his secretary! What a day that was!”

Mack moved with his family to Amarillo soon after, and he was hired as a newsman for KLYN, which Mack said he absolutely hated.

“Jabbo Watson, the station manager, who later worked for WFAA-TV [in Dallas], hired me. I wasn’t cut out to be a news guy,” Mack says. “There was no originality to my newscasts. My heart just wasn’t in it.

“There was a Saturday, and I was on the telephone with my girlfriend making plans for that night. I was 18. I promise this is a true story,” Mack says, chuckling. “Two boys, the Raider twins broke out of the Potter County Jail in Amarillo, drove to the KLYN transmitter out in the country, held up an engineer, ripped the telephone loose and tied him up, got his wallet and stole his car. Our engineer finally got loose, took the telephone and rigged it so it would plug into our transmitter. He fixed up a makeshift microphone, got on the air, and yelled, ‘Help, the KLYN transmitter has been held up by the Raider twins!’

“The police and everybody else rushed to the transmitter. Well, while all this was going on, I’m on the phone with Darlene. Jabbo comes up and calmly says to me, ‘How ya doing?’ I told him I was fine. He said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Can you wait a minute? I’m talking to Darlene.’ Jabbo told me what happened, and I asked him how he heard about it. He said, ‘Well, I heard it on KGNC. I heard it on KANQ, but I have yet to hear it on KLYN!’ I lost the news job.”

In 1952, at the age of 19, Mack found his niche when he was hired at KWFT in Wichita Falls. “I was in country music then, and it was a bigger station. I formed my own band, and even started my own television show, the Big 6 Jamboree, on Channel 6 in 1954. Elvis came on the show right after he signed with Sun Records in 1955. Of course we didn’t pay anybody then. Elvis did the gig for nothing.

“I became friends with Elvis. In fact, when my daughter, Debbie was born, he came to the hospital with me. When I was with WBAP, Elvis listened to my show from Graceland.”

Mack left Wichita Falls in 1959 to broadcast at KDAV in Lubbock, where he worked with Waylon Jennings, and later to San Antonio at KENS.

In 1963, he moved to Fort Worth, broadcasting for KCUL and then to Grand Prairie for KPCN. Mack started a TV show called Panther Hall Ballroom Television Show.

The one and only time he left Texas was to host the Buck Owens Show in Oklahoma. Mack said he never was happy outside the Lone Star State.

In February, 1969, Mack received a phone call from Hal Chestnut at WBAP in Fort Worth, a call that changed the course of his life for the next 32 years, giving him the trademark moniker, the Midnight Cowboy.  Mack worked the midnight show until 6 a.m., and recalls the first week at WBAP.

“In 1969, WBAP was playing what they called ‘good music,’” Mack says. “What that meant was Ella Fitzgerald, Sinatra and Dean Martin kinda music. When the folks who worked there found out I was playing country at night, the whole bunch was against it.”

Roy Eaton, long-time Fort Worth Stock Show announcer and publisher of the Wise County Messenger newspaper in Decatur, clearly remembers Mack’s early days at WBAP.

“I was the anchor for the 10 o’clock news on Channel 5 in the ’70s when Bill was the ‘Midnight Cowboy’ on WBAP,” Eaton recalls. “His show was directed toward over-the-road truck drivers, who would stop by the station in the middle of the night to visit with Bill. One time, a truck that was too tall took out the overhead WBAP sign on the entrance driveway.”

Mack remembers that incident well. “When that nice trucker took out the sign, I was thinking that they already didn’t like me at the station, so there goes my job,” he says. “Obviously, everything worked out better than fine. The listeners were calling in, the station was happy and life was looking good.”

Mack recalls other embarrassing moments with his live broadcasts.

"One time, I was quoting Tom Landry. "I said, 'I heard from Landry today that the Cowboys were getting awful horny.' I said it twice before I realized the mistake and corrected myself," Mack says with a laugh. "Landry said ‘ornery,’ not horny! Now, that was uncomfortable, but it was kinda funny.”

Mack said that one of the most humiliating times was when he ran into Roy Orbison at an event. “I thought Roy was blind, because he always wore those sunglasses. Roy put his hand on my arm, so then, I was sure that he was blind. Mae Axton [Hoyt’s mom] walked up and spoke to me, and I said, ‘Roy, this is Mae Axton.’ Roy said, ‘Yes, I know.’ I asked him if he recognized her voice and he said, ‘Well, no, I recognized her face.’ That was a bad one.”

***

Mack met Cindy, his wife of 31 years in 1970.

Mack says that when he met Cindy, he was not exactly anxious to get into another marriage. “My first marriage had ended in divorce. I was just having fun doing my radio show,” he says. “But, then I met Sweet Cindy. Her mother managed the apartment house where I lived. We would sit outside and talk and tell stories. The first thing I knew, I was really taking notice.”

“Sweet” Cindy is the lady with the contagious laugh on Mack’s XM Satellite show.

“She never wanted to be a star,” he says. “But she is. The listeners love her.”

Cindy, business manager for Bill Mack Productions, says she did not want to be on the radio. “It just kind of evolved,” she says. “I would read the mail from the listeners and give out some recipes. I told our listeners one time that I would never be able to see our entire country. I asked them to send postcards from wherever they were, and, boy, did they! It is overwhelming. From Alaska to Mexico, I get to learn about our country and see it through the eyes of the truckers. There are so many wonderful people, and Bill and I feel like we are all one big family.”

The Macks have their own big family, with four grown children -- Debbie, Misty, Billy and Sunnie -- and three grandchildren -- Nicholas, Cody and Brittany.

The grandkids go on the air with “Papaw” quite often. The XM Satellite Cowboy show is recorded live from the Mack’s home in east Fort Worth, airing daily from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. and replayed from 8 p.m. – 11 p.m. In addition to the XM shows, Mack records Country Crossroads Radio (four shows) once a month and Country Crossroads TV every three months, recording 6-to-7 episodes at a time.

According to Bill, Cindy makes more money than he does. “She writes the checks, you see. She writes my paycheck and then promptly deposits it in her wallet. I have yet to actually see my check,” he says. “I don’t know how much money I make, either. I just know that she won’t give me a raise.”

Bob Tallman, world-renowned professional rodeo announcer, rancher and businessman from Weatherford, says he is very jealous of Mack. “He gets to stay home and do his schtick. I have to be on the road to do mine,” Tallman says, laughing. “Do you have any idea how many people this man has touched? Millions! He is very unique in that he can be the most opinionated man in the world, and people will just love him for it.

“When you listen to Bill, you notice that he can be for or against anything, but when he wants to make a point, he is like the only guy up to bat in the top of the ninth inning. I don’t care what kind of ball you throw to him, this guy hits home runs.

“The between- the- lines honesty of his great broadcast talent should be transcribed and put in a library. This is the kind of a man, who, if you ever had a private moment with him, would instantly make you smarter. I am a fan, a big fan.”

Delbert Bailey, retired Fort Worth Stock Show public relations director, says Mack is a true western music man and a true gentleman.  “He has had his pleasures in song writing, singing, disc jockeying and special productions... The Midnight Cowboy of the radio waves, a guy who always had time to chat with another, a fellow who never met a stranger, and a guy whom I consider a friend.”

Mack’s friendships read similar to a Who’s Who of Country Music.

“I have been fortunate to have met all the great ones,” Mack says. “Incredible talents like Bill Monroe, Bob Wills, Faron Young, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, Ray Price, Hank Williams, Jr., Roy Orbison, Ferlin Husky, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, LeAnn Rimes, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Tanya Tucker, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Jimmy Dean-- just so many that I couldn’t possibly name all of them.

“Of course, Willie Nelson is my buddy. We go back over 40 years, and he is just one of the most genuine, giving people I have ever met in the business.

“My favorite female country singer? Hands down, that would be Connie Smith. She is such a lady, a wonderful friend, and she was the first one to record my song, Clinging To A Caring Hand. Connie is the Ella Fitzgerald of country music.”

Mack puts George Jones and Marty Robbins at the top of his favorite male country performers.

“My heroes in the business? Bob Wills, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry to name a few. Again, there are so many that it’s hard to pick one or two.”

Mack says he also has been afforded the opportunity of meeting Hollywood celebrities, sports stars and legendary humanitarians.

Mack thanks Bob Hope for his memories of one exciting evening two decades ago. He emceed Bob Hope’s 80th birthday party, and says the opportunity to meet Hope was one of the thrills of his life. “It was May of 1983 when I met Bob and his wife Delores,” Mack recalls. “After the program was over, Bob and Delores went back to the hotel. I never expected to be able to spend any time with them. Bob’s road manager came up to Cindy and me and said that Mr. Hope wanted us to come to their room so he could thank me personally. What an honor that was!”

One of Mack’s best friends, and someone Mack says parallels his own life is Jimmy Dean, legendary country music writer, performer and “sausage king.” Dean and Mack met nearly 50 years ago in Lubbock. “I feel about Bill like I do about my wife,” Dean says from his home outside Richmond, Va.” She’s my wife and I love her, but more importantly, she’s just the best friend anyone could have. As far as I am concerned, Bill is one of the best old buddies I have ever had. He is also one of the most knowledgeable guys ever to be associated with country music. He is a good human being, and I simply love the man.”

Grammy Award-winning country singer and songwriter,Marty Stuart has known Mack more than 30 years. “The thing I love about Bill Mack is that he has gotten more people from midnight to sunup through divorces and all kinds of personal problems,” Stuart says. “Trends come and go, announcers come and go, but Bill has always been there. He never lets up, and he never quits. He is always moving the music forward.

“Bill was telling me about XM three years ago. I stumbled into XM for myself about three months ago. I said, ‘Ok, Bill, I get it. Show me the door.’ Bill Mack was once again ahead of the curve.”

All Mack’s honors are too numerous to mention. He says his biggest moment in music came in 1997 when his song, Blue, made LeAnn Rimes a star, and he won a Grammy for “The Country Song of the Year,” the highest honor that can be bestowed on a songwriter.

“Blue” has broken all records, remaining in the Top 10 bestseller charts for over 90 weeks. It has sold more than nine million copies, and has been listed in the Top 100 Country Songs of all time by Country Music Television.

Mack has been honored as the “Country Music D.J. Of The Year”, “Mr. D.J. USA” and “Texas’ Number One Country D.J. (for over 30 years). He is a member of the “Country Music D.J. Hall of Fame” in Nashville. He is especially proud to have a street named in his honor in Shamrock.

Mack left WBAP after what he describes as “glorious years,” and joined XM Satellite Radio on Sept. 10, 2001.

“The first night I ever walked into the WBAP studio, nearly 20 years ago, ready to do my first sports talk show, I ran into Bill Mack,” says Randy Galloway, a Star-Telegram sports columnist and radio host who recently left WBAP for sister station ESPN. “A legend introduced himself, and said, "My boy, talk like you write in that newspaper. If so, you will do well.

“And years later, that day that Bill Mack walked out of the WBAP studio for the last time, we lost something big at that station. We lost a superstar, one heckuva nice guy, and personally, a friend was gone…the place was never the same.”

Neither is XM. Chief programming officer Lee Abrams describes Mack as a living legend and an invaluable asset to XM.

“For our listeners, it’s been magic to finally be able to hear Bill in crystal clear sound,” Abrams says. “Bill is one of the few people who knows how to entertain on the radio-- 2003 style.”

Mack says he made the move because XM Satellite had a simple but important mission: ‘“Just air what the people want to hear.’ This not only applies to country music. You can go to the great songs of the ’40s or ’80s by punching in one of the 100-plus channels.

“I have always said, ‘It’s not what you play on radio that fuzzes the system. It’s what you don’t play.’ If the artist sounds good, he or she deserves to be heard. I’m very proud of XM Satellite. This is the future of radio.”

Does Bill Mack have retirement plans? “Maybe sometime within the next 40 years,” he says without hesitation.

 “And, as I have said so many times before, the good Lord and the good people have made me very, very happy. I am so thankful.”                                           

Contact Bennison at thejournalgirl@aol.com.