Aaron McKenzie slowly inhales a drag off his cigarette on the front patio area at Toxic Brew Company on a chilly September evening and exhales. Wearing a simple black t-shirt and blue jeans, he quietly looks onward. He watches the people walking around the Oregon Express, heading to and from several of the establishments in the small area. When he finishes his cigarette, we walk back into the bar and take a seat. It’s a quiet night in the brewery, but begins to pick up. Sitting next to the stool is McKenzie’s guitar inside a black, leather case.
Music has been present throughout McKenzie’s life. On most Saturday nights, some of McKenzie’s family would all congregate over to his grandparents’ home. While sitting at the large table in the kitchen, a group of friends and his grandparents would play music till the late hours of the night.
“They would bounce songs off one another as they sat there playing,” McKenzie says. “There will be somebody playing fiddle. There will be somebody would be bass. Like five or six guitars.”
At the age of twelve, McKenzie himself picked up the guitar after exploring classic rock-mainly Clapton. “I got this resource with my grandparents, so I grabbed my grandfather’s guitar and they showed me a few chords,” he explained. On those Saturday evenings with everyone being over, McKenzie would sit in and try to play with them.
Xenia, Ohio is where McKenzie first called home. After his father passed at the age of eight, he lived with his mother till he reached his teens. After some time residing with his grandparents, McKenzie moved in with some older guys when he was seventeen. Living with the roommates that according to McKenzie were all about “hell raising and beer drinking”, he got pass high school barely. It wasn’t due to his grades, he passed his courses with flying colors. His job which was third shift, along with attention span to actually go and spend the whole day there, almost got him.
“I was actually told by a guidance counselor that I was cheating the system, and that it wasn’t fair for other students,” McKenzie says. “I said ‘It’s not my problem that I can show up two days a week and get enough grades to pass.’” When high school was coming to a close, McKenzie needed to figure out what was going to be next. McKenzie decided to follow a list of family members that included his grandfather (whom fought in the Korean War) and great-grandfather (World War I) and joined the United States Army.
From 2006-2010, McKenzie’s time in the Army included being stationed in Fort Campbell, working in the intelligence department and doing a tour in Afghanistan. During his stint in Afghanistan, McKenzie explained about how depending on your situation and position, the adjustment to life was hard to grasp. A simple thing like falling asleep at night, for example, loomed with uncertainty due to what was transpiring.
“We were on this base, and out of the blue you hear these sirens going off. A mortar was coming in, and hit somebody’s wooden shacks. In the beginning, you are deeply disturbed. After a while, you get used to it,” McKenzie says.
Luckily for McKenzie, he was able to get out of his military duties four months early. When he left the Army, he took a position that landed him in Qatar for a year. McKenzie would take another position in Washington, D.C. that allowed him to travel. He enjoyed experiencing seeing the sights and sounds of his voyages, including the opportunity of witnessing the international cricket tournament Asia Cup. The fatigue of never being home eventually got to him, and he needed a change.
“The job I had down there (in Washington, D.C.), I was in a hotel over 120 days a year,” McKenzie says. “I knew I wanted to end up back here.” Before McKenzie, he bought a Martin guitar and started slowly writing songs.
“I told myself, ‘Alright-if I buy this thing, I got to start writing more. I least got to it a shot.’” McKenzie says. He wrote some music when he was in bands in his younger days. McKenzie explained that now being older, he could appreciate music better, craft better material. He began playing his music to friends at parties, and even started recording some. When he moved back to the Dayton area-he continued to hone his songs. Finally, when eating at Dublin Pub one night, he asked if they had an open mic night at the establishment.
“I came back the next night, and it was probably the worst performance of my life,” McKenzie jokingly said. “But I kept at it, and kept at it. It was really a confidence building thing. It’s a different vulnerability in getting up there and singing your songs.”
Going under the moniker Mack McKenzie, the recording of his debut album, is now complete. Drawing inspiration from his favorite country singer, Sturgill Simpson and musicians from the days of old, McKenzie went in the studio with a goal in mind. He wanted to record an album that went back to the roots of when country music was heavily influenced with bluegrass and folk. Expect the blend of soft ballads, acoustic guitar, steel guitar, drums, and keyboards to be present in the album. McKenzie hopes to change people views on how his music is totally opposite from the mainstream country music that is made today.
“When it comes down to it, Garth Brooks was the turn of country music changing,” explains McKenzie. “Before him, you had guys like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. They wrote some of the best songs-so simply written, but they convey so much. Garth Brooks comes, and takes it from a regular concert from to an extravagant show. It was an experience. So, after that, it became more about the look and more about the show than it did about the music.”
Nights like tonight, telling stories like the one with his attempt to play along with his family over a few beers, are a rarity these days for McKenzie. Being in the middle of the hustle and bustle that city life offers isn’t too appealing to him like it once was. McKenzie’s budding musical career does allow him to come to town. As he refers to himself as a “homebody”, McKenzie doesn’t come out much. He just prefers quiet evenings staying in his home, which is located in the country a little north from the outskirts of Dayton.
“Volume has turned way down,” he says.
As McKenzie slowly finishes drinking one of the brews that are glistening inside the clear glasses at Toxic, there is a calm, even-tempered look casted upon his face. He has plans on walking over to Ned Peppers as soon as we are done, and performing at the open mic night. He knows that it’s a long road ahead. At least he will have plenty of material to write about.