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VOL. 44 | NO. 2 | Friday, January 10, 2020

Life’s a blast for CMAC post attack

Former WSMV personality dodges death, hits stage for second career

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Charlie Mcalexander and Demetria Kalodimos were part of a powerhouse news lineup at WSMV that also included Dan Miller and Bill Hall, as well as Pat Sajak.

-- Photograph Provided

CMAC & The Heart Attack, a show band raising a ruckus in joints from Leiper’s Fork to Douglas Corner and beyond and between, has its roots – lifeblood really – in a near-fatal occurrence for a luminary in Nashville sports broadcasting history.

Now, 19 months after he clutched his chest and almost died, a dramatic mortal career end for sure, folks are lifting their feet and cocktail glasses and shaking their butts as they sing, sometimes stumble and hum along with the fortunate son of that cardiopulmonary wake-up call.

“I had a heart attack 19 months ago,” says Charlie Mcalexander, who at 74 retains modest semblances of his unique appearance when he was a part of Channel 4’s dream team of local news broadcasting.

“I had been having what I thought was heartburn for a couple of weeks, but you know how you ignore things,” he says, as he uses a fork to geometrically perform plate-to-mouth surgery on a cranberry muffin at a Bellevue coffee dispensary and people gallery.

“I walked downstairs, holding my chest. I told Betty (his wife of 50 years) that I didn’t feel good, and I needed her to take me to the walk-in clinic.

“She looked at me. I guess I looked really gray or something. And she said ‘Clinic nothing, we’re going to the emergency room.’

“We got to Saint Thomas West just in time,” says the effervescent fellow viewers knew as Charlie Mac, the wisecracking, but hard-driven, sportscaster who was part of the Mount Rushmore of local evening news in the fading quarter of the 20th century.

“It was a widow-maker – 100% blockage – on one side,” he says, praising the team of 30 medical pros who saved his life and inspired his new band name. “And I had a 75 or 80% blockage on the other.”

The medical angels saved his life by inserting a couple of stents, those tubular things that are placed inside a blood vessel or artery to keep it open.

Charlie Mac uses both hands to reach for his right and left ribcages. “You know you always think of them busting you open right here,” he says, separating his hands as if he was breaking his chest open at the sternum. “But it’s amazing what they do now.”

Charlie Mac then takes his left hand to point to the blood vessels near his right wrist. “They just had these two little stents, and took them in through here,” he says, broadcasting that big smile that was a part of his trademark on television.

Well, he had several trademarks, but the smile is about all that’s left. He was known for wearing bright, perhaps you’d say “gaudy,” sports coats and suits, like the madras number he was wearing when he first encountered Demetria Kalodimos on her resume-clutching, job-interviewing virgin visit to the station on Knob Hill.

“I remember him on that day that I came in for my job interview,” says Demetria, the great anchor and genuine human being who recently settled her dispute about her unfortunate departure from the TV station.

“I believe it was a famous TSU coach had died that day, and it was an important sports obit that Charlie had to do. They had to track Charlie down,” she says, remembering the action as she observed the activity in the newsroom that soon would become her longtime home.

When Charlie got there, his all-business attitude was belied by his costume, she says of that day of her Channel 4 job interview.

“He made an impression on me, because he was wearing that absolutely crazy madras suit, and it was the middle of the winter.

“I thought this guy was really funny,” she recalls. “He had no inhibitions at all.”

Demetria – who became a lifelong friend of the madras-clad guy – found out something that other journalists already knew: Clothes didn’t define the man. They just gave him a special character, were a part of his schtick, as he, with energy and precision, went about reporting and broadcasting that coach’s obituary, just as he (with the help of his team) had told with laughter or tears, when appropriate, hundreds of other stories. Thousands perhaps.

Another longtime friend, Rudy Kalis – who was the No. 2 sports anchor on the staff and who gloriously succeeded Charlie for many years after the madras suit left Knob Hill in 1986 – testifies the singer they now call CMAC was all business when he was on the job – despite outward appearances.

“Charlie will tell you now he has calmed down,” says Rudy, who returns my call from the Temple Hills Country Club course “where I’m getting ready to sink a 10-foot putt” on a freezing New Year’s Eve.

“He was pretty serious about his work when we worked together,” recalls Rudy, who recently went to see CMAC & The Heart Attack perform at Puckett’s in Leiper’s Fork.

He stops short of calling his former boss “a stern taskmaster,” but that’s really the phrase he’s avoiding when describing the colorful Channel 4 sports anchor.

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Rudy points out. “He wanted things to go right, and that rubbed off on us all. He was a great example of taking your work seriously.”

He laughs, though, when adding that when he took over for Charlie – who went on to do radio sports talk locally for six years before pursuing TV broadcasting fortunes on a national level – “I think I probably was less serious about things.”

Rudy loves Charlie and cherishes that long friendship. He also is unsurprised by CMAC’s continued pursuit of a music career/sub-career.

“When we worked together, he would have country music people who were visiting the station sign their names on the sports (department) wall. There would be Charlie Daniels, well, whoever came in, signing it. I thought it was too bad when (Charlie Mac) left and they painted over that wall.”

Rudy adds that Charlie Mac not only was serious about his work back then, he wasn’t just joking around about his music, either, singing around the office and regularly seeking opportunities to perform.

If there were stars in his eyes, well, they neither gave pause to his journalism career nor, of course, were achieved.

And now, Rudy says, it’s even more joyful to see his almost lifelong friend perform. “He is having fun. I told him the other night out at Puckett’s that he was having his second childhood.”

In addition to his cheerful fashion sense that tested the color signal on staid old Channel 4 (where Rudy followed the madras man with an endless supply of wildly colorful sweaters), viewers knew Charlie Mac for his curly hair.

That too is long gone. Not just the curls … but the hair itself.

“A lot of guys said I gave them courage when I had my hair permed,” adds Charlie Mac, removing his tan, short-brim fedora to reveal a shiny head.

“I had my hair permed so much I fried it right off.’’

And he’s not laughing. He swears the perm chemicals rather than male pattern baldness took his flowing, curly locks and left him with a shiny baldpate.

And who am I to question the lead singer of CMAC & The Heart Attack, a versatile show band that does stuff from Eric Clapton to Allman Brothers to Mississippi-Chicago blues to John Fogerty and beyond.

The main lineup for The Heart Attack: Ric McClure, bandleader and drummer, Cindy Shelton, keyboards, John Bolinger, guitar, Eddie Bedford, bass, and Howard Hudgins, harmonica. All contribute vocal harmonies to the songs offered up by the longtime sportscaster. And there are others on call if needed.

“We’re not expensive, but we don’t give it away,” Charlie Mac says, when noting he and his group are trying to line up more-frequent gigs.

“You can get us without spending a fortune,” he continues. “I can put together a five-piece band, a 10-piece band. Female background singers. I know great people who play my kind of music.”

Ric McClure was working with the late, great Jerry Reed when he first met Charlie through their mutual pal, the great picker and singer who knew “When You’re Hot You’re Hot.” (I conducted the wonderful and charming Guitar Man’s last interview before his 2008 death.)

Ric and Charlie became reacquainted in the last year or two, though, and Ric rounded up the group of serious players “after Charlie said he wanted to get back into the live thing.”

“I feel like we helped each other,” says Ric, when reached on his way to a recording session. “It’s been great to reconnect with him. He’s got stage presence. I haven’t worked with him in the studio yet, but we’re certainly hoping to get that opportunity.”

Ric says CMAC “is a very good singer” and “he seems to have a really good rapport with the audience. He does great.”

During our drawling visit to the coffee joint, the show band leader and sportscaster is cheerful as you’d expect if you watched him on Channel 4 or later during his network broadcasting of Kentucky basketball, NCAA tournaments and other events.

That attitude is displayed by the fact that rather than letting his heart attack end his music career, he named his band after it.

Even without the hair and with a Blues Brothers T-shirt beneath his comfortable sweater – no madras or crazy plaids – he’s still the Charlie Mac who was welcomed into living rooms for eight years on Channel 4 (and another six as a sports talk pioneer with Bob Bell and Bill King on WLAC) before bouncing around SEC towns.

The voice gives it away. The soft Holly Springs, Mississippi, drawl – which was evident even beneath the “Midwestern accent” that broadcasters are trained to use – adds a brightness to his conversation.

To me, a 68-year-old journalist who began my career as a sports writer at a daily newspaper, Charlie Mac’s voice was a familiar friend as broadcasts played out in the newsroom while we pounded box scores and other agate results on typewriters.

“He is having fun,” former WSMV coworker Rudy Kalis says of Mcalexander’s music career. “I told him the other night out at Puckett’s that he was having his second childhood.”

-- Photograph Provided

And that familiar, friendly perception is at least in part due to the “team” on which he played when Channel 4 had its broadcast team of Charlie on sports, Bill Hall doing the weather (when not fishing or growing vegetables), and Demetria and Dan Miller as the news anchors. To be fair, I should note that team continued to be the head of the class after Rudy took over as sports director, with a slightly less serious approach, as he proclaims. Other key players during parts of that era included Lonnie Lardner, who preceded Demetria, and a smart-ass weekend weather man named Pat Sajak who found his personal wheel of fortune with friendly letter-exposer Vanna White.

“If you were going to describe the cast of characters, then Charlie was the Class Clown,” Demetria says.

“(Dan) Miller, well, he was the cool guy on campus, the one wearing the letter sweater,” she continues.

“Bill Hall just defies description. He was the most ‘what you see is what you get’ genuine person I’ve ever worked with. Everyone knew what Bill liked and what Bill disliked,” she says of the beloved weatherman, black Nashville broadcast pioneer and longtime crony of the late and lamented Snowbird.

Demetria – who was inserted into this mix after Lardner exited for the West Coast – had to find her way to fit in with these beloved fellows and frat-boy sensibilities.

“Demetria at that point was probably a studious, goody two-shoes,” she says of her role in that “cast of characters.”

“I was eager to learn and a tad intimidated.”

There had been female Channel 4 anchors before her – Carol Marin and Lardner – but she obviously learned her lessons well. Her sidekick and mentor, Dan Miller, died in 2009, and she carried on, becoming inarguably the most beloved anchor of any gender in this market during her more than three decades on Knob Hill.

‘In the 1980s, there was some sort of broadcasting magazine that was measuring the popularity and loyalty of local audiences to their news teams,” says Demetria, talking about the Kalodimos-Miller-Hall-Mcalexander broadcast equivalent of a great baseball infield.

“The rest of the industry was freaking out because Nashville, the four of us, came out on top,” Demetria recalls.

“It was a special place with special people,” says Charlie Mac of those days. “It was just the best. It’s sad what happened. Dan, Bill, Demetria and me. We had so much freedom.”

He remembers fondly that then-news director Mike Kettenring “let us do our thing. It really was family. We fed off each other, and the main cog in that was Dan Miller.

“I miss him to this day. He was a special talent and a special guy. He made it go. He had these special abilities, and he was a great human being on top of that. He was the straw that stirred the drink.

“I look back at it, and I talk to Demetria and we say how fortunate we were to work there at that time. It was the best time of my life.”

Of course, departures and death (Miller – who left for the Coast himself and then came back a conquering and humbled hero – and Hall both are dead) and corporate decision-makers changed that chemistry.

But this column really is about Charlie Mac, the dedicated sports journalist who has traded audiences of 100,000 anonymous viewers – who saw him tell tales of Volunteers, Tiger Belles and Commodores through flickering glass – to audiences of maybe 100 folks, crammed into local joints, just feet from the beloved guy who formerly “resided” before Knob Hill cameras.

“You should have seen the crowd out at Puckett’s,” Charlie says of the recent one-nighter at the historic venue, a grocery store and restaurant where Townes Van Zandt long ago stumbled around and spouted honky-tonk poetry about ‘Pancho and Lefty’ while waitin’ around to die. (Of course, thousands have played there, I just am a Townes fan because of his eternal “optimism.”)

And most of the folks were at Puckett’s likely because they remembered the flashily dressed sports broadcaster with the permed-till-it-burned hair. And that big smile that remains.

“I sing better than the worst of them and worse than the best of them,” CMAC says.

Few people probably know-how high Charlie soared in the fickle fandom world of sports broadcasting. His television station stints included Greenwood, Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi, Memphis and, of course, Nashville, where – not surprisingly – he became a member of the Country Music Association.

Industry honors include two years as president of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, where he was a board member for a decade.

As a play-by-play man, he worked games at Ole Miss, Vandy, Kentucky and South Carolina and did men’s SEC basketball tournament title games as well as worked games throughout March Madness.

And he was great at it, according to Verne Lundquist, who I consider the best college sportscaster of all time.

“He is having fun,” former WSMV coworker Rudy Kalis says of Mcalexander’s music career. “I told him the other night out at Puckett’s that he was having his second childhood.”

-- Photograph Provided

“He was a superb broadcaster,” says Uncle Verne (as he’s known in his profession and by me now that I’ve asked his permission while being charmed by him over the phone lines from his semi-retirement in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where he tells me the snow is great, but he’s too old to ski.)

“He always ingratiated himself into the community in which he was working,” adds Uncle Verne, who crossed paths with Charlie Mac when both were doing games at Kentucky, South Carolina, Ole Miss and wherever their bosses sent them.

“Charlie Mac is a people person,” Uncle Verne continues. “He always has been. He was very quick to shake hands and pat you on the back.”

Of course, his work in front of the microphone reflected that attitude. “He was at the top of his game,” says Uncle Verne of his dealings with CMAC, the sportscaster who was “acclaimed in the university towns where he worked.”

“Charlie Mac was always beloved,” adds Uncle Verne, almost 80, who retired from the weekly sports grind in 2017 but who still does the Masters and the PGA Championship for CBS. “I’m going to do that another year or two, as long as I don’t curse on the air and get the names right.”

Charlie Mac is not just an aspiring Blues Brother, even though he’ll gladly come to ya down a dusty road if there’s a stage on the other end.

He’s in his heart still a sportscaster, and he’d like to return to that field, either on TV or as a sports talk-radio host. He notes he has been turned down in the latter area, even though he maintains a great voice and knowledge.

“I think a lot of it is age,” he says, explaining his inability so far to land a daily sports-talk microphone in the six years since he and Betty moved back to Nashville.

“I always felt like I had more insight on this stuff, especially college sports, than most folks,” he says.

“But sports talk radio now is a whole new ballgame. There’s too much of ‘me, me, me, me, look what I’ve come up with!’ and too much shouting. That’s a part of the formula, and I just don’t fit the mold anymore.

“That’s business,” he says, with a non-bitter shrug. “I’m not their cup of tea anymore. They’re gonna find somebody younger and cheaper. That’s the way it works. That’s the way the world works.”

He also adds that corporate interference has ruined local media. “Now they (the bean-counters) don’t ‘get’ Nashville. They don’t want to ‘get’ Nashville.”

Charlie Mac hasn’t given up – “I’m a big-time dreamer” – but he has found life’s bounty and balance.

“My focus is to get happy, be happy, for my family to be happy, healthy and safe.” Within six minutes of the house he and Betty share in Bellevue, he can be with his daughters Emily, 46, Carrie, 42, and his grandson and granddaughter. “I see them all the time. That’s what’s important.”

Still, as was the case when he was a “child of the ‘60s” singing, drinking beer and partying his way through three colleges – “God bless my poor mother” -- music continues to play a big role in Charlie Mac’s life.

“I grew up in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and was listening to WLAC in Nashville, with Hoss Allen and John R. (Richbourg),” who specialized in so-called “race” music, aka rhythm and blues.

That music, flavored by the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, Memphis and Nashville, found its way into the set lists of his college bands.

“We started out as the Master Beats, but we ended up having to change that one,” he says, with a slight chuckle.

“Then we were the Ole Miss Wanted. Then we were The Delta Blues Revue.”

That musical heritage stayed with him as he climbed the sportscasting ladder, so once he got to Knob Hill in 1978, he sought out singing opportunities.

By the early 1980s, he was singing part-time with Steve Jarrell’s Sons of The Beach, a popular local outfit.

When he returned to Nashville to stay for good – “even though I’m from Holly Springs, this is always home to me”– he got right back at it again, first with the Madras Men (they wore his favorite fashion), then the Charlie Mac Band and now CMAC & The Heart Attack.

Demetria remembers the 1980s, when “Charlie used to muscle his way onto the ‘Noon Show’ and things like that. Somebody didn’t show up, he said ‘Hell yes, I’ll sing.’

“I have somewhere a 45 record of his that I believe he gifted me for Christmas one year.”

Back then, Charlie would drop in to perform at the clubs. In pre-It City days, the club scene was different, and folks didn’t mind a madras-wearing guy with permed hair and a decent voice taking the microphone for a song or two.

“Charlie is an entertainer,” Demetria adds. “He loves to get the crowd on his side. He’s as gregarious and entertaining onstage as the rest of the front men in bands.”

She compares him to The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, who didn’t have the brilliance of his cousins, but “he got the crowd clapping along while he was clapping and singing” and kept the touring band alive even as Brian Wilson tried to outdo “Pet Sounds.”

“Charlie loves to be the frontman. He has enough grace and is such a good guy that he’ll share the stage with anyone, share it in a second.”

The importance of music to Charlie Mac is demonstrated by his funeral plans.

“Both my wife and I want to be crispy fried,” he says. “I asked Verlon (great singer-songwriter Verlon Thompson, who is Demetria’s husband) to sing two songs at my funeral. I want him to sing Jesse Winchester’s ‘That’s What Makes You Strong’ and ‘Mississippi You’re On My Mind.’

“And I told him I want to have a party with a really good band.” He also mandates a cash bar, “because I want to have my money spent on the band. I want people to laugh and talk and have a good time.”

He wouldn’t even mind if the well-fueled partying mourners got up – as some did at Puckett’s as the night wore on – and danced a little bit.

He figures that’d be a pretty good final act for Charlie Mac.

“I am what I am. I am who I am. And that’s the way I am.”

We agree that’s a good way to be.

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