Great musicians tend to start out young. But 65-year-old Memphis bluesman Mack Orr—Daddy Mack, to his many friends and fans — did not begin playing guitar until he was 45.
"I was listening to the radio in my auto-repair shop," Orr says. "They were playing an Albert King song — 'Walkin' the Back Streets and Cryin' — and it sounded real good." The down-home groove spurred Daddy Mack to fulfill a long-deferred dream: "I went down to the pawnshop, got me a guitar and amp," he says. "And I carried that guitar everywhere I went. If I went to work, I carried it with me. If I went fishing, I carried it. I stayed on it day and night."
It seemed like a mighty challenge for a middle-aged man. But Daddy Mack knew a thing or two about hard work. He had toiled in the cotton fields of Mississippi in the 1950s and worked as a heavy-equipment operator when he moved to Memphis in 1965. Along the way he also got married, raised four children, and opened his own business, Mack’s Auto Repair.
Determined to progress musically, Orr practiced guitar licks in the cab of his construction crane between loads, wearing a hard hat in place of the soft tan fedora he sports onstage today. "And at home I had to practice in the bathroom," Orr says. "My wife didn't like that noise around the house."
"I had all these ideas stored in drawers — and my head. I never let go of the dream that someday I'd come back to it."
The long hours of practice paid off. Within three years Daddy Mack was playing gigs around Memphis. He has since become a latter-day blues legend, jamming with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones, performing at festivals across the United States and Europe, and recording four CDs — including his latest, Bluesfinger. "I never dreamed I’d go to the places I’ve been," he says.
Mack Orr is part of a groundswell of older Americans finding deep fulfillment through the arts and immersing themselves in new pursuits later in life. Some do it just for fun; others have won public acclaim.
Studies of brain plasticity — the lifelong ability of our gray matter to adapt to changing demands — are proving that our creative horizons need not narrow with age. "We never lose the potential to learn new things as we grow older," says Gay Hanna, head of the National Center for Creative Aging. "In fact, we can master new skills and be creative all our lives."
Nor are we genetically hardwired with artistic gifts — or a lack of them. Environmental factors and willpower are just as important. "Genes impact our lives," says David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, "but our lives also impact our genes — the brain changes shape according to the experiences it has."
The implications of this are profound, he believes: "Most of us don’t understand that our true inner potential is quite extraordinary. Not just at age 20 or 40 but well into our elder years. The main reason people stagnate is that they limit themselves through their mind-set or habits. Or they simply set their sights too low."
Though it’s natural to mourn what we lose as we age — be it our hearing, our hair, or our house keys — older artists offer vivid proof of what we may gain in wisdom, insight, and purpose.
Consider the odyssey of Judithe Hernández. Known for murals she created in Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s, Hernández suspended her artwork for decades to focus on marriage, motherhood, and her career as a university art instructor in Chicago, where she resettled in 1984. But her creative passion continued to simmer. "I drew when I could, but that wasn’t often," she recalls. "I had all these ideas stored away in file drawers — and in my head. And I never let go of the dream that someday I’d come back to it."
At 62, with her marriage ending and her only child poised to enter college, Hernández is returning to L.A. to resume her artistic career — this time as a maker of symbol-rich pastel drawings.