Q&A with Sweden based Homesick Mac (aka Dragan Ružić Macan) - Blues and Folk with Balkans colors

"My hopes are that the blues will be played by more musicians in the future, especially acoustic stuff. My fears are none, there will always be a place for blues."

Homesick Mac: Global Blues Roots

Homesick Mac was born Dragan Ružić Macan in 1960 in Subotica, former Yugoslavia, now Serbia. He has been playing the guitar since the age of 15. His love for blues and other forms of so called “roots music” began when he heard the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, as well as Doc Watson. Later, he discovered many other blues, folk and country greats. Mac’s performing career began in 1978 when he started playing guitar and bass in various bands. Together with harp player Pera Joe and a mandolin & tamburica player Zoran Katrinka "Kuki", he formed the “BLUES TRIO”, an acoustic group that released three cassettes, one LP and three CDs between 1983 - 2006. They were the first blues & folk oriented band in Eastern Europe. Kuki left the band in 1987 and Pera Joe and Mac went on as The Blues Trio. With the band or alone, Homesick Mac played and toured in Europe. He moved to Sweden, in 1992 and started playing in clubs around Sweden and Denmark. Soon after this released his first solo CD “STEADY STOMPING”. In 1995 Mac met the British slide master Sam Mitchell at the Mojo Club in Denmark. The two hit it off immediately, and were soon sitting in at one another’s gigs, each finding a special chemistry that they rarely experienced with others. When Mafioso Records suggested they document their collaboration, Sam was more than willing and the CD “TWO LONG FROM HOME” was released in 1996.             (Homesick Mac - Photo by Göran Persson)

This was one of Mac's most treasured collaborations since Sam has been one of his favorite slide players from the times when he just started playing the blues. Mac has played with other well-known blues artists, including Louisiana Red, John Hammond, Johnnie Mars, Micky Waller. Nowdays he mostly performs in Scandinavia; solo, with great piano player Mats Bengtsson or with his own band. Homesick Mac has been conducting acoustic guitar workshops since 1995. At the 2002 Guitar Art Festival in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, he joined musical forces with Michael Hill (Michael Hill’s Blues Mob) in a combined acoustic/electric guitar workshop. Since August 2003, Homesick Mac has very often held the slide classes during the European Blues Association’s Blues Week in England; and he has been invited to return for 7 years so far. The annual Nordic Acoustic Guitar Festival is another project owned together with master luthier Michael Sandén. For the last 15 years, he kept the music going by playing both solo and with Pera Joe - their latest 2012 CD called "Blues Trio - Y'all" - as well as participating in various other constellations. One of the newest acts is a duo (The Delmore Sessions) with Swedish singer/songwriter Maria Stille where we explore the heritage of old hillbilly and blues. He has also established an annual Guitar Retreat on the island of Ven in southern Sweden. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Homesick Mac sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I dare to describe my sound as groove, and my songbook is completely based on that. A certain pulse is needed in order for me to start playing a song. I was never much into soloing and I enjoy treating my guitar as a little orchestra. I pick the rhythm, melodies and keep the groove going at the same time. Maybe that’s why I never ended up playing in bands with drums and bass and another guitar player - I'm thinking the electric stuff here and mostly from the time when I was just starting playing, in the mid 70’s. It was quite a sharp line between playing acoustic or electric then. Today it’s much more blended and you’ve got artists who front the band with an acoustic guitar and a full electric setup behind - and still the acoustic is the main instrument most of the time. I liked that development.

What were the reasons that you – a Balkan musician - started the Blues/Folk researches and experiments?

I’ve tried to define that many times and I still don’t have a real answer. Not sure if it was just a rebellious thing to play something that not so many people did in former Yugoslavia at that time. There were blues and rock oriented bands on the electric side but no acoustic acts really. At the same time, the very first time I’ve heard the acoustic blues it was as if my soul opened itself and the feelings that the music awoke were so deep that I just had to explore more. I wanted to know exactly how it was done on the guitar, and this is when it all started with learning the techniques, tunings, slide and so on. Of course that I’ve always appreciated the folk music from all over Balkans, but the blues, folk, ragtime, country… got a grip on me in those early days. There is quite a lot of my origins in my slide playing if one listens closely, and I’m sure the time will come when I’ll go deeper into it. 

"The music contributed to a great deal to the black people´s continued liberation and prosperity. With this not being said it´s great nowadays, but better than before." (Photo by Stepan Kiyanov)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice has given you?

When it comes to blues there were two people without whom I guess I would´ve never really played it. Robert Tily, a friend and a harmonica player and singer from my hometown of Subotica, was an exchange student who spent a year in the USA. He brought back some blues records and that was the first inspiration. We played together for a while forming the “After Midnight” blues duo. We were actually the very first acoustic act within blues in old Yugoslavia, I believe. Later on I met Pera Joe, another harmonica player who became my life long musical collaborator. We’ve formed The Blues Trio band in 1983 and….we’re still playing together. The band has become “the smallest trio in the world” when our mandolin player left in 1987, but we kept the name anyway. We’re looking forward to celebrating the 35 anniversary in 2018! Pera Joe is the driving force in our band, he’s inspiring and very pushy, always full of ideas for songs and licks, an amazing person and musician. 

When it comes to meeting with musicians from abroad, the very first meeting that had a big impact on me was the one with Louisiana Red in 1988. He used to say “take your time, take your time” which was a great advice when you’re young and eager to play and prove yourself when jamming with musicians coming directly from the American heritage. I loved Red's playing and how you could hear the direct connection to early stuff and the slide of Muddy Waters for example. I saw him live on many occasions and even played with him in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Later on it was John Hammond Junior whom I met at about the same time in the late 80´s, and just seeing and hearing him live was a great inspiration and school of grooves. John is amazing at that. The same goes for Sam Mitchell, a British slide master who was one of my heroes when I was just starting playing the slide. 15 years later I meet him in Denmark and we have played together for 5 consecutive years. I believe that these 5 years with Sam Mitchell were the very most important thing that happened to me musically. Also in his playing, it was the obvious direct contact to the old masters, as he has been playing alongside Howling Wolf, Fred Mc Dowell and many others. Sam used to play with all major acts on the British blues and folk scene in the 70´s and 80´s, topping the period with playing the guitar and mandolin on the Rod Stewart´s LP “Every Picture Tells A Story”.

Later on he played with Long John Baldry and Dana Gillespie among others. Sam Mitchell and myself recorded a CD “Two Long From Home” which is still available on Amazon I believe. It was released on Mafioso Records from Hungary and distributed by the Austrian Wolf label. Now, you can imagine how much I could learn from playing with somebody of that experience and musical knowledge. Above all, Sam was a dear friend and colleague. Those are the moments to learn and become a better musician. Listening to records is one thing, playing with somebody who has soaked it all in the best possible way- now that´s the thing!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?                       (Homesick Mac - Photo by  Sofia Sandén)

I might first mention the gig from 1987 when my Blues Trio played as the surprise opening act for John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, now Serbia. He was booked to play the Sava Center, a large concert hall almost sold out with several thousand people in the audience. My harmonica player Pera Joe got all of a sudden this crazy idea that we should play and open for John Mayall. The facts were:

- we´ve never met him before - by that, he didn´t have a clue about who we were - we didn´t know how it could be done. - and….we´ve already bought the tickets for the concert

All this was a good reason to just forget about the whole thing, but Pera Joe was really pushing it. John Mayall was one of his heroes from the times he started to play the harmonica and I could understand him. We ran off to the hotel where we´ve heard the band would be staying at, and eventually found our way to the master himself, John Mayall just walking around the hotel lobby when we arrived. I mean, what were the chances that he´d come out exactly then, we would´ve never made it if we didn´t get crazy enough to try to realize the whole idea. We took the chance and played for John Mayall some of our recordings through a walkman (remember those...?) right there in the hotel lobby. He obviously liked the enthusiasm and that we were crazy enough to even try this, so he said that we should talk to his tour manager, and let him decide. The sound check was done, everything was set and the whole crew were just resting until it was time to start. We knocked on the door to the tour manager´s room and repeated the whole story, and he didn´t really like the idea. We were persuasive and tried our best but he wouldn´t give us a decision yet. We were instructed to go back to the lobby and wait, without any promises. He wanted to talk to the technicians, John Mayall and the musicians as well...

We went down and waited for about an hour, and then, John Mayall himself came down the stairs and walked slowly towards us. He said "OK guys, you´ve got 15 minutes" and smiled. That was amazing, great, a dream come true, but, our third member didn´t have a clue about the whole thing. He was on his way to the concert as we agreed earlier, so we needed to find him as soon as we could, it was only about an hour before the whole thing should start. We had to make sure he takes his instruments with him.

We managed to reach him, came to the backstage on time, tuned up quickly, and delivered a longest 15 minutes set ever. We played the first two songs connected and when I turned around before the third song would start, I saw John Mayall sitting behind the drum set and simply listening to us. Incredible and scary at the same time. The show went great, the audience loved the surprise and were cheering us all the time, and when we were done, we were escorted to the hall and grabbed our seats to finally watch John Mayall and the band. Later on we were invited to join them in the dressing room for a meal and chat, we got to talk to everybody, we met Walter Trout and Coco Montoya as well, an amazing experience.

"Blues is, as every other folk music, very emotional, so there´s a first line of connection. Then the universal message of hope no matter how hard it is for the moment is also something I could always relate to." (Dragan 'Homesick Mac' Ružić in 1992 moved to Sweden. Photo by Mikael Jansson)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I would have loved to have heard "the old guys” live. I´ve actually missed that ever since I started playing. Already then there were not so many left alive and touring, and sometimes I felt as if I was born too late. I´ll never stop regretting that I´ve missed Muddy Waters in Belgrade in 1976, but since I haven´t started playing the blues before 1980, I wasn´t following the style back then. Still, wish somebody just took me there...

My hopes are that the blues will be played by more musicians in the future, especially acoustic stuff. My fears are none, there will always be a place for blues.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That they bring up a law that the radio & TV have to play a certain amount of all different kinds of music. I´ve got nothing against any other kind of music, I just wished there were more blues and roots music out there.

Make an account of the case of blues in Yugoslavia. What were the lines that connected the Blues from US to Yugoslavia?

Blues is, as every other folk music, very emotional, so there´s a first line of connection. Then the universal message of hope no matter how hard it is for the moment is also something I could always relate to.

There is a fantastic groove in blues´so many different styles, but I could mostly relate to the "acoustic side" where I think the variation is simply magnificent. Starting from country blues and rags, variations from early Lonnie Johnson, Tommy Johnson, Blind Lemon, Blind Willie John Newborn, Willie McTell, Blind Boy Fuller, Muddy Waters early stuff, Henry Townsend and many many others is breathtaking.

"I wanted to know exactly how it was done on the guitar, and this is when it all started with learning the techniques, tunings, slide and so on. Of course that I’ve always appreciated the folk music from all over Balkans, but the blues, folk, ragtime, country...got a grip on me in those early days." (Photo: Homesick Mac, c. 1977 / Early days in theater at former Yugoslavia, now Serbia)

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the Swedish blues circuits?

It´s a very supportive community, musicians cooperate on different levels, and they come to each other´s gigs when they have the chance. For me, that´s emotional enough to give hope the Swedish blues scene will live long. The usual musician jokes always make me lough during our meet ups.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Of course that the popularity of the blues in the 20s-60s had lot to do with how the major population in the US would perceive the black culture. It laid a good foundation for everything that would come later on, rhythm & blues, rock n´ roll, soul, hip hop, rap.. The music contributed to a great deal to the black people´s continued liberation and prosperity. With this not being said it´s great nowadays, but better than before.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Right to the year of 1941, Muddy Waters first field recordings with Allan Lomax, wish I could sit somewhere in the back and soak it all live. These sessions are so essential that it’s scary.

Homesick Mac - Official website

Homesick Mac - Photo by Göran Persson

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