Mac Arnold sounds completely at home on his sweat-raising 2011 recording, "Blues Revival." Captured on-stage at the Grey Eagle club in Greenville, S.C. — about 15 miles from the rural hamlet of Pelzer, where he grew up and currently resides — the flame-throwing bluesman expertly evinces South Side Chicago blues flavored with deep Southern soul. A former sideman with icons of both styles — Muddy Waters and Otis Redding, among them — Arnold learned his craft from the masters.
Now 70, Arnold has been enjoying late-career accolades. For three years running, he's been recognized by the Blues Music Awards, including a 2012 nomination for best Traditional Blues Male Artist. In 2010, as the only surviving participant, he accepted a Best Historical Album BMA on behalf of the Muddy Waters Band for the 1966 recording "Muddy Waters — Authorized Bootleg: Live at the Fillmore Auditorium." And last year, a documentary about Arnold, "Nothing To Prove," was nominated for best DVD.
Arnold had put aside the blues when he returned to Pelzer about 20 years ago. Having enjoyed a career that includes classic sessions with blues greats Otis Spann and John Lee Hooker, and a hitch as associate producer of "Soul Train," the guitarist, bassist and vocalist was ready to slow down. He looked forward to simply riding around town with his brothers — he's No. 10 of 13 siblings — and catching up with family and friends.
"Well, that got old quick," Arnold says with a laugh, speaking by phone from the organic farm he operates on his father's land. While he didn't return to the stage right away, Arnold hit the highway as a truck driver. On that job, he met Max Hightower, a mechanic who played harmonica and guitar. "Max found out that I used to play with Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker," Arnold recalls. "And he said, 'Man, you ain't got no business driving no truck! You need to be playin' blues, man!' "
Eventually, Arnold was persuaded. But he and Hightower would have to locate competent, committed bandmates before Arnold would consider stepping back into the spotlight. "'I'm too old to be fooling around with guys that aren't serious," he says.
The right musicians were found, and Plate Full o' Blues was born. The group has released four albums, including "Blues Revival." For that one, Arnold is accompanied by Plate Full on half the tracks, and by a multigenerational Muddy Waters Reunion Band on the remainder. The latter group features guitarist Bob Margolin, harmonica wizard Kim Wilson and drummer Willie "Big Eyes" Smith.
Arnold had set out for Chicago in 1965. He brazened his way onto a gig with saxophonist A.C. Reed before being hired away by Muddy. But Chicago winters took their toll, and he fled to Los Angeles, where he worked on Don Cornelius' fledgling "Soul Train." In 1990, Arnold returned to Pelzer, where as a boy, he used to sneak away with older brother Leroy's homemade gas-can guitars.
To this day, Arnold still plays the "can." Finding just the right cans to craft his instruments is challenging, though. After sending out confederates in three states, he finally spied the perfect container in a buddy's garage. "I told him, 'I am not asking for this can. I am taking this can,' " Arnold says. "He had gas in it, too. He said, 'Man, I use that for my lawn mower!' I said, 'I will buy you two cans for your lawnmower. I have to have this can!' So he gave me the can. And this can has been all over Europe and the United States."
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15
Where: Arts Garage, 180 N.E. First St., Delray Beach
Contact: 561-450-6357 or Artsgarage.org