From the September, 2019 issue
The Terraplanes played their first gig at the 1993 Art Fair, so they've just completed their twenty-fifth year. They'll kick off their twenty-sixth with a show at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club on September 21 and another at Live on October 25.
Few other bands, blues or otherwise, have lasted as long, and it's worth asking what the sextet's longevity reveals about our town, which--Shakey Jake notwithstanding--was never a place for blues roots.
The band was the creation of Saginaw-born singer, songwriter, and guitarist Jerry Mack. He says he "knew rock was based" on the blues, "but it never really hit me until I started playing it on my guitar. So I realized if I was going to call myself a musician, I had to be able to play or sing the blues."
The Terraplanes landed a regular gig as host band of a Sunday blues jam at the Blind Pig. That came to an end in 1997 as the club chased the swing craze, but the Terraplanes motored on to the Tap Room and then other local nightspots--the Cavern Club and Arbor Brewing, but also half-forgotten ones like Enzo's, Goodnight Gracie, the South Lyon Hotel, and Club 23. Mack says he doesn't know how many gigs the band has played, but it's probably at least 1,000. They're part of Ann Arbor's musical fabric.
They used to play a dozen shows a month. In recent years it's been down to one or two, but it's fluctuated in the past and may again. "Now I've got the best band," Mack says. "Now I have a band where everybody likes each other. I've been with these guys for five to seven years, and we're really tight."
The Terraplanes' recently concluded long-term gig at Guy Hollerin's provided abundant testimony to that, with varied sets that might include Elvis or Dr. John in addition to straight blues. The band routinely gets even septuagenarians out on the dance floor.
It takes motivation to
keep it fresh, and that motivation is Mack's creative personality. Supporting himself variously as a postal worker and a house painter over the years--"I have to work for myself, I can't have a boss," he says--Mack remains enthusiastic about the blues, and he knows the music back to its origins. (Check out his "Nothin' But the Blues" and acoustic "Yazoo City Calling" shows on WCBN). He's continuing to write new music, including an "Oil and Water Don't Mix" blues song about the Line Five pipeline up north.
"My advice to younger blues players is to put more space between the notes, and let the space fill up with your soul," he says. In a time when agents and consultants often rule even the music known as folk, Mack is as honest as musicians come.
That's where the Terraplanes fit into the culture of Ann Arbor. This is a town where you can live out a musical identity for a quarter of a century.
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