Coop de Grace: Donnie Mac plays the blues

For inaugural issue of Georgia Music Magazine, several years ago. Sadly, Donnie Mac is no longer with us on this plane, but I hear his drumming every time it thunders.
 
A palm reader could spend years puzzling over Donnie McCormick’s hands.

Ropey, crosshatched and callused, they stay sheathed in black leather biker gloves when he plays the drums, which is most of the time. Even through this thick hide, though, they seem to sense a heartbeat in every surface they touch. When McCormick commandeers the stage, he also is taking a pulse.

In addition to the usual snares and bongos, he finds the rhythm in pots and pans, in washboards and dustpans, in barstools, beer bottles and the odd river rock. Sometimes, using his sticks as divining rods for sound, he has been known to sit and play the floor, or turn the prison-like burglar bars on tavern windows into a xylophone. On some occasions, McCormick also removes his dentures for a handy target.

Neurologists might term his behavior Compulsive Drumming Disorder; his fans, who include roots music purists as well as frat boys who think he’s a character, call it genius. Everything within his reach vibrates with the possibility of percussion, including a chicken coop.

In fact, McCormick, 60, known to friends as “Donnie Mac,” is arguably the world’s foremost player of the chicken coop.

“This thing is really rough on the hands,” he says, referring to the desk-sized wooden crate that once incarcerated hens in north Georgia. He is gearing up to play it as a makeshift drum, as he does every Tuesday night, at the Northside Tavern in Atlanta. “It’s hard on the whole body, really. Bad for my hip.”

The chicken coop may be a punishing instrument, but in the sweaty blues set that follows, Donnie Mac gives as good as he gets. He slaps, thumps and pummels it to create sonic waves of syncopated fury. At the same time, he sings and scats with his trademark “harmonimouth” about hard-luck subjects that include a three-legged dog and irresistibly troubled women. (In this regard, he adheres to the adage of “write what you know”: an old girlfriend once contracted a hit on his life, he contends.) His gaunt, Christ-like face contorts with enough rapture to generate a corona in the haze of cigarette smoke. The chicken coop is either taking a preacherly laying-on of hands — or an ass-whupping.

Now this is Southern rock.

It is what can happen when you spend a few days swapping licks with the Grateful Dead at Piedmont Park, move the party down to “The Farm,” the Allman Brothers’ legendary commune, and then run out of things to bang on during a jam session.

“It was in the very early ’70s,” he says. “We were all sitting outside and playing, and somebody handed me a chicken coop to play. When I left The Farm, one of the roadies said, ‘Take that with you.’ ”

Donnie Mac brushes back some dark hair hanging in strands that suggest pillow-head. His chicken coop is decorated with a set of ram’s horns, a washboard, old bones and other talismans that seem to blend Voodoo iconography with Santa Fe chic. He won’t comment on their symbolism except to say that they’re “gifts from friends.” But they probably won’t stay affixed for long; he typically goes through about four chicken coops a year, sometimes demolishing them, mid-performance, with the force of his drumming.

“Actually, I wish I’d never picked it up,” he says, explaining that he has grown to associate the chicken coop with a different bird entirely: “It’s become a real albatross.”

Donnie Mac was born in Kingsville, Texas, just south of Corpus Christi. He recalls his debut as an entertainer at the family dinner table when he was eight-years-old and felt moved to sing “Que Sera Sera”: “Some laughed; some cried. That’s when I knew I’d found my groove.”

Donnie Mac taught himself to play drums by listening to Dave Brubeck and soaking up the scene in Kingsville’s “Little Harlem,” where his best friend, Little Lester Reese, lived. At 15, he and Little Lester formed a blues band called The Comets. Donnie Mac says he has worked professionally as a musician ever since, earning his first songwriting credit when The Kings recorded his song, “Liquor Control Board,” which became a No. 1 hit in Texas and introduced the leitmotif of alcohol in his work.

He joined the Naval Reserves in 1966 and played for military crowds with songwriter and guitarist Tommy Carlisle. When their two-year stint ended, they purposefully wrote down their next goal: Get a deal with Atlantic Records. For their headquarters, the duo opened a Corpus Christi nightclub named the Muddy Turtle, where hipsters lounged on oversized pillows and silent movies flickered on the walls. There, the Navy buddies fatefully teamed with Joe Rogers on keyboards and David Cantonwine on bass to form the band “Eric Quincy Tate,” or EQT, a moniker that, curiously, was not derived from any of the players’ names.

“Eric Quincy Tate was just a name I made up,” Donnie Mac explains in an interview published in Excite. “It was the British Invasion that was happening then and The Beatles were coming out so I decided to change the name to something that sounded a little more British, and it stuck. ‘Eric’ came from Eric Burdon of The Animals, ‘Quincy’ came from Quincy, Massachusetts, where we were stationed, and ‘Tate’ was a shipmate of ours. I just threw that together.”

So the name reflected Donnie Mac’s random-isotope sensibility, and the sound was similarly eclectic, described variously as Southern rock, roadhouse R&B, country blues, fatback rock, swamp boogie, and blue-eyed soul. With a gospel scale here, a blues chord there and a funk vibe in between, it was the kind of music that emerged when white kids with soul-envy jumped the South’s segregation fence in search of the real party.

The band’s first 45 featured “Stonehead Blues,” which later would be anthologized as a minor classic in the popular “Country Got Soul” series. “I don’t really remember what inspired the song,” Donnie Mac explains in the liner notes, so it remains a mystery.

In the ’60s, Kingsville hatched a flock of influential musicians, including Tony Joe White, who wrote “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Polk Salad Annie.” White introduced EQT to music impresario Phil Walden, still reeling from the untimely death of his star act, Otis Redding. The band joined Walden’s stable and moved to Memphis.

“The story starts in Texas, which is the kind of place that can do things to your head — maybe it’s the sun, I don’t know. Then the story moves to Memphis,” Donnie Mac says, nodding and letting his voice trail off enigmatically, as if no elaboration is necessary.

The players didn’t stay there long. They recorded their first LP, “Eric Quincy Tate,” which marked the fulfillment of their early mission statement because Jerry Wexler, a founder of Atlantic Records, and the venerable Tom Dowd helped produce it.

Walden recalls that project: “Duane Allman walked into that studio, turned to Tony Joe and said, ‘Do you mind if I put some guitar down?’ So he dazzled them with this eloquent playing that left everybody gasping. Then he started to leave, and they were trying to get him to keep playing. He just chuckled and walked out.”

It was Walden’s formation of Capricorn Records in 1972 that positioned EQT in Southern Gothic myth. That’s when the story, as Donnie Mac might say, moved to Macon.

Capricorn, in the navel of Georgia, was where the Summer of Love ripened in the heat and humidity. A musical Camelot of funk and twang; long-haired idealism in a downhome corporate culture; new interracial harmonies in a haze of sweet-smelling smoke; mellow folks making combustible music rewarded with the peachiest groupies — it was more than just a recording studio. It was a peculiarly Southern zeitgeist-within-a-zeitgeist that, today, sends aging flower children reeling with nostalgia, and Donnie Mac was in the middle of it all, keeping time on his drums.

“He was a star just waiting to happen in the ’70s,” says Paul Hornsby, who was a Capricorn producer and studio musician at the time. “Eric Quincy Tate was the greatest bar band I ever heard. Donnie blew me away every time, as a drummer and as a singer.”

Hornsby, who now operates Muscadine Studios, helped produce EQT’s best-loved album, “Drinking Man’s Friend.” The band members so identified themselves with the crushed can of Pabst Blue Ribbon on the album cover that they filmed a commercial (as yet unaired) for the beer.

“The fact that the drummer was also the lead singer and front man caused some technical problems in the studio, with the drums getting into the microphones, which was an unusual situation,” he says. “The album wasn’t what you’d call a major hit, but it got some well-deserved critical acclaim because it had an edge to it. Several of those songs still really hold up today, especially ‘Whiskey Woman Blues’ and ‘Taste of Brown Sugar.’ ”

“Drinking Man’s Friend” sold more than 500,000 copies, and Eric Quincy Tate went on tour with the Allman Brothers Band. For other shows, Lynyrd Skynyrd would open for EQT and occasionally challenge Donnie Mac to fist-fights, just for some adrenalized recreation.

“EQT, baby, yes ma’am!” drawls Mack Gordon, a Macon businessman who played in the jazz group Quintessence. He is looking wistfully at the yellowed newspaper photograph of EQT that still hangs on the “wall of fame” at Grant’s Lounge in downtown Macon. “I can still sing all of their songs today, and I taught myself how to play bass by listening to ‘Taste of Brown Sugar.’ They were one of a handful of Capricorn’s second-tier bands that you could hear around town in the early ’70s. We locals didn’t realize at the time how tight those bands were — and how lucky we were.”

EQT was expected to follow up “Drinking Man’s Friend” with another batch of originals the next year, but the album did not materialize.

“They put so much into ‘Drinking Man’s Friend’ that they just didn’t seem to have the reserves for another album after that,” Hornsby says. “And their guitar player left. You can’t have a blues band without a guitar player. As far as I know, all they recorded afterward was live stuff.”

When Donnie Mac was 25, the band relocated to Atlanta, where he became a fixture on the “strip,” along 10th and Peachtree streets, which he describes as “wall-to-wall hippies. Literally sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.”

Lead guitarist Wayne “Bear” Sauls joined the band, and it was around this time that the chicken coop found its way on stage. The guys left Capricorn for Lowery Music Group, and a three-day party in Augusta (along with some financial backing from Atlanta’s notorious porn king, Mike Thevis) yielded the double album “EQT Live” in 1977.

Eric Quincy Tate disbanded in 1981.

“After the Allman Brothers hit, a lot of record labels started signing Southern rock bands,” says Scott Freeman, author of “Midnight Riders: The Story of the Allman Brothers Band.” “A few, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, stuck. Most didn’t. Part of it was many of them were Allman Brothers clones, or were pushed in that direction by unimaginative and impatient record labels. Southern rock thrived on Capricorn because Walden didn’t try to mold his bands into something they weren’t. He clung to old school musical values because he didn’t demand hit records; he demanded great music.”

Walden echoes this point: “EQT was a great live group. I always loved Donnie’s voice, and we had a good run with them. They never sold that many records, but that’s not always the most important thing.”

Donnie Mac continued to play with respected Atlanta groups such as Reddog and King Johnson, and in 2002, he joined Slim Fatz and Barefoot Dave in the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where the trio took second place. The following year, “Creative Loafing” named him “Best Local Chicken Coop Thumper” and “Best Local Vocalist.”

His voice, sometimes overshadowed by the novelty of his signature instrument, startles audiences with its raspy, evocative range.

“It has so many highs and lows,” says John Sellars, a friend who scouts north Georgia for old-fashioned wooden chicken coops for Donnie Mac. “He can go from sounding like a little girl one minute to sounding like an old black man the next. I’ve never heard anything quite like it.”

He is, everyone says, a shy man who still suffers stage fright but nevertheless performs with self-immolating intensity. When Donnie Mac sings, the length of his lanky, scarecrow body convulses in a way that blurs the line between torment and ecstasy.

“Maybe people connect with Donnie’s music because through it he has the ability to bare his soul, and we all enjoy feeling that kind of courage,” Robbie Huck, an Atlanta writer and Northside regular says. “He calls songs his ‘babies.’ As a performer, it seems as if he is not so much attracted to being in the spotlight as he is energized by giving to the audience.”

When he has had enough of the spotlight, Donnie Mac retreats around the corner from the Northside Tavern to his home, a surreal enclave that reveals another dimension of his creativity. Since childhood, Donnie Mac has drawn, painted and sculpted, and in recent years he has experimented with “found art.” His home resembles an urban, psychedelic version of Howard Finster’s Paradise Gardens.

“I go through Dumpsters and find things,” he says matter-of-factly. “I hate to see something that someone could enjoy, or could be used as art, go to waste.”

A guerrilla aesthete of sorts, he arranges shards of glass into mosaics and turns broken mirrors into sunglasses for the creatures that populate his collages. He has made a dinosaur from scrap metal and fashioned lawnmower blades and farm tools into objets d’art.

“We went to a thrift store and bought some bowls one time,” recalls Sellars. “Five minutes after we got home, he’d turned them into lamps. The first time he tried his hand at woodcarving, he created a bear’s head from a pine log. He’s able to look at anything, visualize something amazing and within a short amount of time slap together a creation that totally surpasses what you see in art and architecture magazines.”

Donnie Mac’s artwork earned an exhibition at the prestigious King Plow Center, but he often gives it away to friends.

“He took this old wooden window frame with six panes in it,” says Glynda Ray, a bar-tender at Northside, “and he painted a skyline with stars, the moon and a comet and the phrase ‘Evening Angels Gather Here.’ It was just an old window-frame, but now it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t take $500 for it.”

Like his music, his artwork has a shape-shifting, ephemeral air, so even frequent visitors never know what to expect in his colorful lair.

“He’ll paint a design on his floor or ceiling or a mural on his wall for a couple of weeks, and then he gets bored with it and paints over it,” Sellars says. “Sometimes he’ll leave something out in the rain, or somebody’ll sit on it, and it falls apart. I wish he’d bolt some of this stuff together so it’d be permanent.”

So surfaces clearly obsess Donnie Mac. If he is not striking them for a beat, he is transforming them into eye-catching wonders, always tapping into whatever spirits are swirling beneath the exterior.

“I’ve never heard him sing a song the same way twice, and in the same sense he’s always changing his environment,” says Bill Sheffield. “He’s a creation-oriented guy, a literal work in progress. To him, everything is either a musical instrument or a paintbrush.”

Others describe these tendencies — redecorating like a psilocybin-addled Martha Stewart — as a symptom of Donnie Mac’s homemaking instincts.

“He’s always nesting, more inclined to nesting than most women, I think,” Huck says.

Donnie Mac has a reputation, at least by musician standards, for monogamy, albeit the serial kind. He has been married three times and has three children, including Josh, 25, who is establishing himself as a hip-hop artist performing under the name “Blonju” (because he is, he explains, a “blond Jew.”)

“My childhood was amazing,” says Josh, who grew up in Marietta with Donnie Mac and his then-wife, Sheryl, a real estate attorney. “When I was as young as three years old, I was going to his gigs, and he’d let me play my toy guitar on stage. I probably didn’t appreciate my dad’s soul at the time as much as I should have, but looking back, I do.”

Now father and song are collaborating on a rap/hip-hop album, tentatively titled “Bloodline.”

“It’s not my kind of music, but his lyrics are just wonderful, and I’m having the time of my life doing this,” Donnie Mac says proudly. “If there were every any fine parts of me, they found their way into him.”

Donnie Mac’s face is even more magnetic than his hands. Its angular planes convey a Cubist quality, an appealing asymmetry. Every late night on the road shows in its creases, and each tic announces: I’ve been there, baby. Most people can not pull off “cragginess” as a category of beauty, but Donnie Mac’s chiseled features could be etched into a certain kind of Mt. Rushmore, next to the fun-ravaged mugs of Willie Nelson and Keith Richards.

“Man, Donnie looked psychotic on that last one,” says Sheffield when the band pauses for a break. A blues guitarist, he has accompanied Donnie Mac at the Northside Tavern for about three years.

Donnie Mac has just finished a primal scream of a song about his “walking shoes,” and, for a few minutes anyway, he is ready to fly the coop.

“Man, he’s a lightning rod, a force of nature,” gushes an onlooker at the bar. Donnie Mac walks stiffly to a stool where he slumps, drained and ashen. Another musician, who calls himself Magic Fred, hovers protectively over him to administer a healing Reiki treatment.

Since 2001, Donnie Mac has suffered from congestive heart failure, pneumonia and other serious health problems.

“Rock ’n’ roll takes its toll,” Hornsby says.

Adds Sheffield, “We didn’t think he’d live through the night when this first started, and then the doctor gave him six months. But he’s resilient, all gristle.”
And his illness has only amped up his performances.

“It’s strange, but since he’s gotten sick, he reaches even further inside himself and throws 100 percent of it out there when he plays,” Sheffield says. “I’ve never seen anybody sing and play harder. He doesn’t even care if the microphone is picking it up or not. It’s a sad but beautiful thing to watch.”

People often turn ruminative when they talk about Donnie Mac. He is perceived as one of those comets whose flaring arc, for whatever reason, has not craned the necks of quite as many stargazers as it should have. Maybe dumb luck or timing was not on his side, or maybe his ethereal sensibility balked at the compromises of show business?

“He’s one of the most gifted, unique people I know, but he’s sort of been his own worst enemy,” Sellars says. “He’s had opportunities to tour in Europe and Japan, but something’ll come up, and they won’t go. I don’t know if it’s a fear of succeeding or what. I guess a lot of artists are like that.”

Gordon offers a different view.

“I know EQT got eclipsed in fame by the Allmans and some of the other bands,” he says, “But who says they didn’t ‘make it’? Life had to be good to be 24 years old in the ’70s, a Capricorn rocker in an energetic, kick-ass band, with your face on an album cover. I’d call that making it.”

At the Northside, Donnie Mac pats his instrument with a mixture of affection and frustration and says, “This was a novelty thing that stuck. I don’t want to be known as just the guy who plays a chicken coop.”