Mac Davis Has Made It Back to Lubbock (RIP)

It was bad enough that on the evening of Tuesday, September 29th, 2020, the United States and the rest of the world got to witness the two men vying to control the cradle of Democracy devolve into the most heinous version of “debate” we’ve ever seen in a way that will be marked down in the annals of history as a national embarrassment, and at the most inopportune time when a pandemic has crippled the economy, racial and political turmoil has turned into violence, and many are searching for leadership in any form or fashion in the sheer void of it.

Then as if we didn’t have enough to hang our heads about, the social media feeds of music fans filled up with the news of the passing of songwriter and performer Mac Davis, and Australia’s Helen Reddy.

– – – – – – – – –

Mac Davis is being remembered by many as a “country star,” but that tells only part of the story. In truth, the Lubbock, TX native’s musical trek spent just as much time, if not more weaving its way through the pop and rock realm, and it’s in that capacity where he may have reached his highest peaks. Not everyone will recognize the name “Mac Davis” and immediately bring to mind a country crooner whose small handful of Top 10 hits only spanned the early 80’s. But cite the songs he wrote for Elvis such as “In The Ghetto,” “Memories,” and “A Little Less Conversation,” and you will immediately get a reaction.

After leaving Lubbock at a young age and trying his hand in a couple of rock and roll bands in Atlanta, it was as a songwriter where Mac Davis found his avenue into music. While trying to make it as a performer, he became a regional manager for a couple of record companies, and that’s when he spied lucrative a opportunity in writing. Soon he began working for Nancy Sinatra’s Boots Enterprises, which became Mac’s publishing company, and where he wrote all of those big hits for Elvis and many others.

When Mac Davis songs started to get picked up by country crossover performers like Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, and B.J. Thomas, this is when Davis pointed his nose towards the country realm, signing to Columbia Records in 1970. But it was still as an outsider to country, and a crossover artist. Many of his songs started in pop, and then migrated over to country. Mac’s first major hit “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” in 1972 went #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. But it only managed #26 on the country charts. “Stop and Smell the Roses” became a big Top 10 hit in 1974, but didn’t crack the Top 40 on country radio.

Mac Davis wasn’t exactly enamored with his hillbilly roots at the time. Growing up in Lubbock where Buddy Holly loomed larger than any country star, Davis regularly ended up in fist fights for one reason or another. And with a 5′ 9″ frame and weighing 125 pounds soaking wet, it rarely went well for him. His father was very strict and very religious, and Lubbock became more of a prison for Mac Davis than a home. That’s why shortly after he graduated high school, he left to reconnect with his mother who had moved to Atlanta, and then on to bigger successes.

But after charting another Top 40 pop hit with “Rock ‘N’ Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)” in early 1975—the luster began to wear off Mac Davis in the pop and rock worlds. He got swept up in the realm of acting and variety shows for a while, including his own Mac Davis Show, which aired on NBC. He appeared in the football film North Dallas Forty. The music success Mac had in the late 70’s was on the adult contemporary chart since pop had left him behind. All of a sudden, Mac Davis was more famous for being famous than for being a music star, or a country star specifically, which can happen in the machine of show business. Eventually, Columbia Records dropped him.

It was only then that Mac Davis found himself reaching back to his Lubbock roots, and found his way through country music. He signed to Casablanca Records—a disco label of all things known as the home of Donna Summer. On a whim he wrote and recorded the joke song “It’s Hard to Be Humble,” which out of nowhere, became Davis’s first Top 10 country hit in 1980, and crossed over to pop, instead of vice versa as had been the case with his songs before. (Incidentally, Willie Nelson just released his own version of the song.) Mac followed that success with another Top 10 off the Hard to Be Humble album called “Let’s Keep It That Way.” The country record released on a disco label became Davis’s highest-charted album of his career in the country genre, reaching #3 on the charts.

All of a sudden, that country career Mac Davis had dreamed of a decade before when he initially signed to Columbia Records was becoming a reality, now that reality and pursuing stardom wasn’t getting in his way. This led to arguably Mac Davis’s greatest contribution to country music, his late 1980 album and a forgotten country classic, Texas in My Rearview Mirror. The title track, (sometimes referred to as “Happiness is Lubbock Texas in My Rear View Mirror”) recounts Mac’s real life story of being a kid from Lubbock who gets dazzled by the idea of bigger things beyond the Texas border, getting swept up in the starstruck world of Hollywood, and eventually returning when he realizes who he really is, and where he belongs.

“Texas in My Rearview Mirror” became another Top 10 country hit for Mac. And though it’s commonly and mistakenly sung and cited as an anti-Texas song by many who loathe the Lone Star State (call it the “Born in the U.S.A.” syndrome), those back in Lubbock listen through to the last verse. Due to the song and the rest of the Mac Davis legacy, Mac Davis is now a demigod in Lubbock, similar to Buddy Holly. Mac has his own street named after him, and his legacy looms large in the venues and songwriter halls of the West Texas college town. Now as an epicenter and proving ground for many of the songwriters and performers who hold some of the top flight headliner positions in Texas music, the songs, stories, and lessons of Mac Davis read like scripture in Lubbock, reminding the artists to never forget where they’re from.

Like so many aging country artists, the success of Mac Davis in mainstream country was short lived. But it was lasting, similar to his contributions to pop and rock as a songwriter and performer. One of his signature songs was one of the very first he wrote and performed himself on Columbia Records—a song called “I Believe in Music.” Released in 1970, it was a dud at the time for Davis. But it went on to be recorded by B.J. Thomas, Perry Como, the soft rock band Gallery who had one their biggest hits with it, and Australian singer Helen Reddy, who Mac Davis now shares a death date with.

When Mac Davis was asked to appear on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970, he didn’t sing his versions of “In The Ghetto” or “Memories,” which were still hot songs at the time. “I Believe in Music” is what he sang.

Music is the universal language, and love is the key
To peace hope and understanding, and living in harmony
So take your brother by the hand and come along with me
Lift your voices to the sky, tell me what you see

The song came at a time that was also very divisive in American life, with the Vietnam War raging, and racial strife roiling the streets. But for many, music wasn’t seen as a vehicle for emphasizing or enraging differences, it was a way to bridge them. So much so that a boy from Lubbock, TX brought up in a strictly religious household could sing the same song as an Australian-born activist and performer, and it could still ring true.

Mac Davis lived many lives in his 78 years, passing away in Nashville, Tennessee. But he will always be remembered in country music as the boy from Lubbock who was happy to leave, but even happier to return.

And now, Mac Davis is home for good.

I guessed happiness was Lubbock Texas in my rearview mirror
But now happiness was Lubbock Texas growing nearer and dearer
And the vision was getting clearer in my dream
And I think I finally know just what it means

And when I die you can bury me in Lubbock Texas in my jeans

© 2024 Saving Country Music