Mac Powell’s Southern-drenched vocals have been a cornerstone of Third Day, one of contemporary Christian music’s most successful groups, for the past three decades. So it’s hardly surprising to most that Powell has found solo success as a bona fide country singer. His just-released sophomore country solo album, Southpaw, masterfully combines Powell’s warm Georgia drawl with both high-octane Southern rock and beautifully rendered ballads.
A native of Clanton, Alabama, both of Mac’s parents would sing and play guitar around the house. Their immersion in music was so complete that it led the youngster to initially believe something he would later learn wasn’t true. “I was 12 years old before I realized that my dad didn’t write [Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] ‘Gimme Three Steps,'” the amiable Southerner says with a laugh.
Singing in his tiny Baptist church by day and combing through that record collection by night, by the time Mac was a sophomore in high school, he had moved to Atlanta and formed Third Day. An international sensation, the group has earned four Grammy awards and was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 2009. While he continues to front Third Day, playing hundreds of dates a year, Mac’s passion for country music has grown, taking his unique vision to an entirely new level.
On Southpaw, Powell blends his rich, signature baritone voice with rootsy instrumentation and instantly hummable songs. From the bluegrass-bathed “90 to Nothing,” energetic rockers such as “Runaway Train” and “Hard Headed Woman,” heart-swelling ballads “Everything to Me” and “Sittin’ Here Talking With You,” and the dance-floor-ready “Red Boots” which kicks off the album, Powell approaches each with the same level of unbridled excitement and commitment he shows for his entire solo career in country music.
Writing with established country artists such as Travis Tritt, Sugarland’s Kristian Bush and Darius Rucker is certainly one of the best right ways to go about building one’s brand, although Powell remains humbled by the opportunities he’s been afforded. Writing with Rucker, in fact, gave the two a chance to compare notes on what it’s like to be a very rare breed in music today.
“He’s just a little bit older than me,” Mac explains. “Hootie & the Blowfish was kind of coming out the same time Third Day was. There were people when we first came out that thought we were trying to copy them because we have pretty similar voices. I shared with him, I said, ‘What you’ve done inspired me. Because it showed me that it can be done.’ I know that he put a lot of work into making that happen. It’s a little different in the sense that he wasn’t really doing a lot of Hootie & the Blowfish and I’m still doing 100 Third Day dates a year. But it gave me hope that I can try it as well.
Of Travis Tritt, with whom he co-wrote “90 to Nothing” and “Runaway Train,” Powell says, “Musically, I have looked up to him for so long and people told me for years that I sound like him. He lives 20 minutes away from me. I always joke and say there’s something in the water. That’s how we sound like that.”
Mutual admirers of each other’s work, Powell’s co-writing session with Kristian Bush yielded one of Southpaw’s emotional highpoints in “Everything to Me.”
“I love what he’s doing, even with his solo work,” Mac says of Bush, who came to country music prominence in the award-winning duo, Sugarland. “When you’re a musician and you see other musicians have a genuine love for music, that it’s not just a business but that they have this great desire … believe me, that’s probably a little bit more rare than you would think.
Getting back to his own musical roots was a refreshing change for the singer-songwriter, but in the time since he made his self-titled country debut in 2012, the music business, and the genre itself, have both experienced shifts that place him just a bit outside the country mainstream, in spite of the indisputable fact that Southpaw is one of the strongest, most authentic country albums you’re likely to hear all year.
“The music landscape changes so quickly,” Mac explains. “It’s freeing to not have to try to fit a mold. It’s freeing to not be on a label where there’s a dozen people telling me what I should or shouldn’t do. I can just be my own person and be real, write the songs that I like and hope for the best that the fans enjoy it as well.”