The John and Wendy Mackin Band keep bluegrass music alive in Mt. Lebanon
When you go to see the John and Wendy Mackin Band at the Uptown Market’s Second Saturday event, you’ll see a quaint little tent propped up by the WesBanco sign on Washington Road. With the sun shining on an early Saturday morning, the acoustic tunes feel happy and light. The band looks close with one another, and the music feels charming and warm. The sounds blend together to create a perfect cacophony of bluegrass twang that draws shoppers to pause their browsing and listen to a few songs.
While bluegrass isn’t all that popular in western Pennsylvania, you can still find it at small venues all across Mt. Lebanon thanks to a favorite local band.
The John and Wendy Mackin Band have been playing music in the region since the 90s. The genre runs in John Mackin’s family—his father played big band and folk music, which led John towards bluegrass.
It was also through bluegrass that he met his wife, Wendy, in a band called the Willow Creek Ramblers. From there, the couple, of Beverly Road, created their own family band, featuring John on vocals and guitar, Wendy on backing vocals and banjo, their son, Jack Mackin, of Old Hickory Road, on the fiddle, and two non-family members, Jeff Goetz, of Longridge Drive, on mandolin and Richard Gordon on bass. Of course, they perform bluegrass.
“We’ve done it for so long that we’re actually pretty darn good at it, and it’s nice to be good at something,” Wendy Mackin said.
The Mackin Band plays gigs in the region, waiting for organizers to reach out to them to get them to play rather than advertising themselves to venues to get gigs. They play both originals and traditional bluegrass tunes, and they try to mix up their setlist with every performance to keep it interesting.
“I like songs that have good vocal harmonies, and then have instrument breaks to break up the tension,” John Mackin said. “It kind of mixes it up, it makes it interesting. And if a song has a good set of lyrics and tells a story.”
According to Wendy Mackin, bluegrass usually features a guitar, a banjo, mandolin, fiddle, a bass, and sometimes a dobro. The acoustic instruments create a unique, balanced sound. And, according to the band, makes it easier to set up at gigs because it requires less equipment.
“That [sound] I think you don’t get anywhere else,” Wendy Mackin said. “It’s sort of a distinct blend of different tones.”
Wendy Mackin said that their voices mesh well together, whether it be because of genetics or the amount of time they’ve spent playing together.
Telling stories is common in bluegrass music, and according to the band, murder ballads are extremely popular. Most bluegrass songs talk about the life of an Appalachian farmer since musicians often wrote about what they knew.
“The music itself is pretty soulful, even though it’s fairly simple a lot of times,” Wendy Mackin said. “The instrumentation is really not simple at all, so it’s sort of an interesting combination.”
Goetz said that a lot of people don’t really start out in bluegrass, but land on the genre after playing in other types of groups. Though John and Jack Mackin both grew up surrounded by bluegrass, the other members of the band had to find their way into it.
“It’s having a liking for folk music in some way, and when you try to find venues for that, you kind of just stumble upon it, and something hits you,” Goetz said. “For me, I started out playing the banjo because I liked the sound of it, and then I graduated to mandolin.”
The band enjoys playing music in Mt. Lebanon because it’s nice to see people they know in the crowd. They said that the public seems to be into their music, too.
“When the weather’s good, there’s a good crowd, and people come back,” Wendy Mackin said. “A lot you’ll see every time you play.
“There are some people that will stay and listen for a long time and then other people will stop and listen to a song and get on their way, or shop and then come back,” Jack Mackin said.
Their audience tends to be older, so as the years go on, audience members tend to die off. But bluegrass is still popular with some young people—at their gigs, kids are the ones dancing around and having fun to the music. DelFest, a bluegrass festival that takes place in Cumberland, MD and one of the closest bluegrass festivals to Pittsburgh, features many young musicians according to Jack Mackin. Specifically, North Carolina is a hub for young, talented bluegrass musicians.
“We were down in North Carolina, and it’s kids running around with instruments,” Goetz said.
“And they were good,” Wendy Mackin added. “So, it’s not dead yet.”
You can find The Mackin Band throughout the summer in the Pittsburgh area:
Uptown Mt. Lebanon Farmer’s Market, WesBanco side yard; August 12, September 9 and October 14 from 9 a.m. to noon
Black Diamond show on WRCT Radio 88.3 FM; July 26 from 1 to 2 p.m.
Uptown Unveiled; August 5 from noon to 2 p.m. (featuring the John and Wendy Mackin duo)
Mt. Lebanon Library’s courtyard concerts; August 24 from 7 to 8:30 p.m.
Art in the Park’s bluegrass jam session; Sept. 12 at noon.
Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art – Ligonier’s Garden Party; September 9; 5 p.m. (reservations required)