Bill Mack, Radio Host and Grammy-Winning Writer of LeAnn Rimes' 'Blue,' Dies at 91

Bill Mack
Courtesy of Mack's family

Bill Mack

Best known for hosting a series of country music radio shows, Mack's four decades-old song became a Top 40 hit for Rimes in 1996.

Bill Mack, the songwriter and longtime radio host who penned the Grammy-winning LeAnn Rimes hit “Blue,” died on July 31 from COVID-19 and underlying health issues, his son Billy Mack has confirmed to Billboard. He was 91.

“2020 has claimed another one of the greats,” Rimes wrote on Twitter following Mack’s death. “Very sad to hear the news that Bill Mack has left us. I am forever grateful for him and the music he created. Sending all my love to his family. We’ll be ‘Blue’ without you Bill.”

Perhaps best known for hosting the overnight radio series Country Roads Show -- subsequently renamed U.S. 1 Trucking Show and the Midnight Cowboy Trucking Show -- on AM station WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, Mack would reach a career pinnacle when Rimes’ version of “Blue” netted him best country song at the 1997 Grammys, where he was also nominated for song of the year. He also took home song of the year at that year’s Academy of Country Music Awards.

It took nearly 40 years for “Blue” to pay dividends for Mack, who wrote and recorded the song in 1958 for now-defunct country label Starday Records. In a 2010 article for Truckers Connection, Mack wrote that he penned the song in 15 minutes and recorded it later that same day.

“Within two hours, I had set a session at Nesman Recording Studios in Wichita Falls,” Mack wrote. “The song was recorded in two ‘takes.’” At the time of its release, Billboard described Mack’s version as "a slow-tempo, relaxed item, with Mack's vocal backed by instrumentation featuring a honky tonk type piano. A flavorsome side."

Several years later, country singer Roy Drusky suggested to Mack that "Blue" might work well for Patsy Cline. That conversation stuck with Mack, who later presented the song to Cline at a San Antonio concert. "I sang it to her back in the dressing room, and she said, 'Send that thing to me. I like it," Mack told the Grammy Foundation in a 2016 interview. He created a demo and sent it to Cline's producer Owen Bradley, but Cline never had a chance to record it before dying in a plane crash in March 1963. In an eerie turn of events, Rimes' version of the song garnered the then-13-year-old singer comparisons to Cline more than 30 years later.

In addition to “Blue” -- which was recorded by numerous other artists before Rimes turned it into a hit -- Mack scored another success with the song “Drinking Champagne,” which spawned popular renditions by Cal Smith in 1968 and George Strait in 1990.

Born Bill Mack Smith on June 4, 1929, in Shamrock, Texas, to Irene and Ernest Smith, Mack developed an interest in music early on; as a teenager, he formed a band that played dances at Shamrock High School. After attending West State Texas College, he launched a career as a singer-songwriter, signing with Imperial Records in 1951 and going on to record for a series of other labels, including Starday, United Artists, MGM, Hickory and Phillips. But his work as an artist would ultimately be overshadowed by his songwriting accomplishments.

Mack began working in radio at West Texas State College and later held posts at stations in San Antonio and Wichita Falls. After signing on to host Country Roads Show at Fort Worth’s WBAP in 1969, the late-night series became popular with long-haul truckers in Texas and beyond; WBAP’s clear channel signal meant Mack’s show could be heard throughout much of the continental U.S. and even parts of Mexico and Canada, allowing him to cultivate a national profile.

The success of Country Roads Show led to a long career in radio for Mack, who later co-hosted the syndicated series Country Crossroads for FamilyNet Radio (which spawned a cable TV series of the same name) and The Bill Mack Show on SiriusXM, which ran from 2001 to 2011. He was inducted into the Country Radio Hall of Fame in 1982 and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999 in the disc jockey category.

Mack's son Billy, who followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a radio host himself -- he currently serves as program director and on-air personality at country station KSTV outside Fort Worth -- says his father lived by a simple credo.

"One thing he always told me was, 'Whatever happens, never be an asshole,'" says Billy Mack, who remained close with his father throughout his life.

"Not a lot of people are fortunate enough to say that their dad was their best friend," he adds. "And I can honestly say that."

In addition to his son, Mack is survived by his wife, Cynthia Ann Bryson; daughters Sunday Taft and Misty Ramirez; and brother Clois Smith.