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The 'gritty Diva'

By Steve Lange

Credit: Photos by: Ken Klotzbach and Chuck RyanAnnie Mack has found forgiveness and success in the Blues

When you ask Annie Mack about the Blues—or at least when you keep asking her about the Blues—she’s going to make sure you understand she’s a mother first, and a singer second. But, she’ll also tell you it’s been easier learning how to be a Blues singer than a mom. She’s had better mentors for the Blues. 

When she talks about her own mom, Annie wants to tell you about the good stuff—how her single mother took on odd jobs to raise two daughters in what Annie calls a “tough, interesting, old-school” neighborhood of North Minneapolis. How her mom played records from her giant album collection on one of those old console record players. How her mom taught her to be a 
survivor, to be tough, to be humble. How her mom once told her, straight up, “No one’s ever better than you.” 

But, if you ask Annie enough questions, she’ll also tell you about the poverty. She’ll tell you about how, even as a dorky 
little girl, she couldn’t wait to run away. She’ll tell you about the abuse. 

“I grew up in a  very God-less home, and my mom was very abusive,” Annie says. And she says it like someone who may have forgiven, but hasn’t forgotten. “My sister, Lanette, was eight years older, and she took the brunt of the abuse. My mom would just beat on her. My sister didn’t want me to have to go through that. I remember, if I did something wrong, she took the blame a lot. Or she would take me out of the house a lot. Lanette looked out for me like that. My sister and I never fought. We watched out for each other. I worshipped her.” 

Lanette, according to Annie, was “very athletic. She was smart 
and gorgeous and a promising young woman. She kept us 
together.” 

When Annie talks about those handful of moments in life that 
have defined her, most are positive—finding the Lord; holding 
her newborn baby girl; receiving the strength to forgive the 
woman who tore her heart out. 

But then there’s this. There’s the night in 1988, when Annie was 10. Lanette, 18, had been staying out more and more. Coming home later and later to avoid the abuse. 

Finally, when Lanette came home at three or four one morning, 
her mom was waiting for her. “Where’ve you been?” her mom 
asked. 

Lanette said something, talked back. 

And that was the night Annie’s mom pulled out a gun and shot 
her own daughter. 

Annie Mack, 10 years old, sat on her bed. She wasn’t even 
worried that her mom might shoot her. She wasn’t even worried about the Minneapolis police, who stormed the house with guns drawn. All she could think about, even as the screams and then cops filled the house, was, “Now who’s going to protect me if my sister’s gone?”
 
Lanette survived the shooting, but none of their lives would ever be the same. Annie was sent to a home for children, spent time in foster care. Her mom was sent to prison. 

“I remember going back into my house,” says Annie, “and it’s 
just like the movie where you go in, and you’ve got 15 minutes to grab your most precious items, and you're out. It was a really big introduction to the world out there.” 

Holidays meant visiting her mom in prison. 

“I have really depressing pictures, from Christmas, where it’s me and my mom and there’s the security guard dressed up as Santa Claus,” she says. “When I think about it now it’s probably one of the funniest pictures ever. I’m like, that is life.” 

And it was life, then, for the next few years. Annie joined a 
church and spent time at the Boys and Girls Club. She spent 
time at the Hospitality House in Minneapolis, which, she says, 
“is the place that really shaped me as a person. I was inspired by these people and received freedom from abuse and the 
things that come along with it.” At age 13, she says, she “came into the Lord. When that happened, all of the sudden 
it was like, ‘I’m all right. I’m going to be okay.’” 

As a teen, she was sleeping on friends’ couches and eating Ramen noodles, making her way through Minneapolis 
North High School.
 
“I was a pretty weird kid,” she says. “I just chilled a lot. I was in AP [advanced placement] classes but, living in the Cities, there are so many different outlets. You can be an academic, an artist, a performing artist. I was smart enough but I hung out with the artsy kids.” 

After graduating from high school in 1996, Annie moved to Rochester for the Minnesota Bible College (now Crossroads 
College), where she studied theology. 

“In Minneapolis, I worked in my church and went to a Boys and Girls Club and eventually started working with kids and 
adults with special needs. I realized I had a passion for it.” She took mission trips to Ecuador and Mexico and Trinidad. 

“I was going to move to Trinidad at one time,” she says. “It was cool and the nuns there are street. They’re hard-core street. 
They’re tough ladies. But I’m more of a heathen, so I ended up not graduating from college, but I met a lot of cool people who really have a heart for the Lord and the ministry. I’m a Christian 
that has lived a life that’s not all gravy. I’m certainly no angel, but I always find a way to still see Christ or to still see God.” 

She met Jason Spaulding, and they had a daughter, Anna Grace, in 2001.

 “Jason’s a wonderful father, but we aren’t together anymore,” Annie says. “And I’ve tried to learn to be a good mom. I think 
I’m a good mom. Anna’s never been afraid to show she’s upset, she’s never been afraid to talk to me, she’s never been afraid to call me out. And when I was growing up, we didn’t do any of that. I hope she thinks I’m a fair mom and I admit when 
I’m wrong. I’m not perfect, but I try to be really fair and I try to love her in everything I do.” 

In 2005, when her own mother got sick— daily dialysis sick, then deathbed sick— Annie found forgiveness for her mom. 

“That was when I knew the spirituality was for real,” Annie says, “when I felt compelled to forgive my mother, whether 
she accepted or not. I knew I had to forgive her for my sake, to try to stop the cycle of abuse. Holding on to that stuff tears you up, and I knew I had to move on with my life.” 

Annie’s mom died in 2006. That same year, Annie went with a friend to a garage jam session with some local musicians. 

They asked her to get up and sing and Annie Mack—who had never sung in front of people in her life, who had never been in choir, who “didn’t know about keys or structure of anything”—felt, right away, like she belonged on stage. 

“I probably sounded horrible, but it just felt so good,” she says. “And, suddenly I felt that connection to my own mom. It took me back to listening to music together and at the same time, it was the Blues, so I could let out some of that emotion as well.”
 
She kept showing up at jam sessions, hoping to get a song or two. Studied chords and keys and progressions. Started 
getting gigs at places like Kathy’s Pub and The Starlite Lounge in LaCrosse and Chester’s (where she waitresses). 

She found those music mentors, like guitarists Tom Kochie and Charlie Lacy and many others, who realized right away 
that Annie had a natural knack for telling her stories through the Blues. 

“It just comes natural for her,” says Kochie, who’s been playing guitar since he was nine. “Sure, her voice is very strong, 
but Blues singing is a lot about emotions, and she’s not shy about singing what she feels.”
 
“There are those people who mimic the music,” says Lacy, “and there are other people who are naturally able to express 
themselves. Annie is the stone-cold real deal. She’s probably as good as anybody I’ve ever played with, and she’s just getting better.” 

Last year, after finishing second in the “Road to Memphis” competition in Minneapolis, Annie traveled to the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. 

“That was like I was baptized in the Blues,” she says. “It was the coolest thing ever, and the response I got made me 
think, ‘I can do this.’” 

She started getting regular gigs for bigger shows, including an invite to the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth. 

In August, Annie will be opening up for the Down by the Riverside headliner, George Thorogood, in one of the free 
summer concerts that could draw up to 20,000 people. 

“Oh, that’s all great,” she says. “But here’s what it’s really all about. I’ve got an awesome boyfriend (Paul O’Sullivan, a musician who plays with Cartoon Rodeo and NashVegas), and my real focus is on raising my daughter and being an example to her. I don’t talk to my sister as much as I’d like, but everything has its place and things really do come when they’re supposed to. Had George Thorogood picked me four years ago, I would have been a hot mess. So I really believe that everyone has a different path and my journey is my journey and it’s meant to be that way. All I can try to do is the best I 
can do today.” 

Today, the Annie Mack Band is the opening act for the 10th annual Hambone Blues Jam, a two-day, dozen act fest held 
on the grounds of the Olmsted County History Center. It’s a muggy Saturday afternoon and Annie, true to form, if I’m reading the ‘Don’t worry, she’ll swoop in here five minutes before the show starts’ looks on the faces of her band members, swoops in, daughter in tow, at 1:25 p.m. for the 1:30 show. 

The hot and lazy crowd—maybe 60 strong and trickling in—is sprawled on lawn chairs and sitting at the dozen or so picnic tables under a big white tent. Many are still mulling around, visiting the food booths and booths selling things like tie- 
dye clothing and homemade jewelry with signs out front that say things like “No shoes, no shirt, no worries.” 

Then the announcer steps up to the mic, and, after a glowing description of Annie, calls her the “self-proclaimed Gritty 
Diva.” 

She struts on stage like she owns it, wearing her multicolored high heels and dangling, pink feather earrings. 

Then she starts singing. As soon as they hear her voice, the fans on the fringes make their way to the tent to hear. Annie 
sees it, too—sees the crowd coming closer. They want to hear her tell her story, and she wants to tell it.
 
For them and her.

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