The new counterculture lives in the middle.

First, Best, or Different — Remembering Mary Sack

Mack Sack from The 17th Behind the Mule Portraits. Photograph by John Partipilo

“First, best, or different.” That was Mary Sack’s mantra whenever discussing music. “You gotta be ONE of those!”

She was all three.

She was the first non-musician I ever met who loved and lived for music as much as I did. We met in 2004, just months after I moved to Nashville. I gave her a recording I’d just finished, and she politely told me it was not what she represented specifically but that I could always call on her with any questions or names or whatever. I did that frequently and for the next twenty years.

Mary was the best — the definition of a person who acts in good faith. Not that she was in any way naïve or a pushover; she would scrap with you about a time slot, a radio placement, or anything else if it meant doing right by the people she’d promised to work hard for — her cherished artists, friends, and causes. But she did it for the communicated aims (which we’ll get to infra, discussing the third criterium). And even if she got a little testy, she never got personal, and she’d happily have a drink with you once everything worked out. And she would never say anything about anyone that she wouldn’t say right to their face.

Fierce, brave, grateful, loyal, and kind, Mary possessed an intelligence that combined wisdom and instinct with a steel-trap memory. But I will remember her most for her generosity. She was always willing to do anything she could for you, whether you needed a ride or a Rolodex, and she was willing to share everything with those she loved. She leaves behind more love than she found, the best definition of a successful life.

Different seems like such an understatement, but since she included it in her most important attributes, I hope it is understood for the intended compliment. Mary was unique in many ways, but she would want to, and should, be remembered for the way she carried herself on behalf of music. The “music business” can be a treacherous landscape where it is difficult to discern the motivations and incentives. But if you dealt with Mary, there was never any doubt about what was important to her. It’s challenging to describe how rare that is.

Sometimes, that was the music; sometimes, it was a friend; sometimes, it was feeding hungry children; and other times, it was throwing a grand party. But it was never for herself. She resisted any attention or credit, even though she would take over any aspect of any project she was involved in that she didn’t find entirely satisfactory.

I worked with her primarily for the last fifteen years while (more or less) she single-handedly put on the annual Get Behind the Mule Tribute to Tom Waits and Benefit for Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. When that almost fell apart the year after she first had her artists – David Olney and Tommy Womack, respectively – on the bill, she rallied and saved the event by relocating it. After that, she found a permanent home at The 5 Spot, making it bigger and bigger every year and starting her planning earlier and earlier. When the pandemic prohibited gathering, she moved heaven and earth to get it online because she knew the hungry people needed it more than ever. She called me just days before she passed to dictate how I should announce the date for this year’s event. And we will ensure we raise a lot of money for hungry children.

I sincerely believe that the people who come into your life — the ones who genuinely make an impact and connection — have always been near you, doing the same not just in this lifetime but across previous lifetimes and beyond this temporary form and existence. I am certain I will see her again, and I’m proud to have been her friend in this iteration.

If you know Mary, you know that the only way to celebrate her is to have a nice cocktail with people you love and GO SEE A SHOW! After that, donate to your local food bank, pet rescue, or other good deed.

If you don’t know Mary, you should get to know her, and a great way to start is by listening to some of the artists she championed:

If you do, you’ll understand why Mary lived so much for music and her friends, many of whom were her favorite artists. You’ll also understand what she meant by “first, best, or different.”

I love you, Mary. See you soon. Let the Music play on!

Related posts