MacKenzie — one word, capital M and K, no last name — is special.

His unique way with Prince songs stood out at the New Power Generation show at the Dakota during the Super Bowl. I was not the only one who thought so. After that performance, he was asked to become NPG’s newest member and lead vocalist.

This configuration of NPG, guided by musical director and keyboard player Morris Hayes, holds the Paisley Park license for use of the name. The group will be in Bayfield, Wis., July 7 and plans to start writing new material this summer to accompany the Prince repertoire.

“I’m excited to get into the studio and work on some tunes with these guys. These guys are musical geniuses. It’s already an overload to play shows with them. Unfortunately, Prince [who would’ve been 60 next week] is no longer with us, but it’s almost as if he is,” said MacKenzie, “Just in the fact that these guys soaked up so much of him.”

It’s a long way from the cows. MacKenzie grew up on a Virginia farm. “We weren’t farming, we grew a lot of the vegetables we ate. My mother and father rented out our back lot to a cousin who was a cattle herder. I grew up outside, outdoors, me and my younger brother would practice our songs in front of the cows. They will gather around and we would arrange and orchestrate these entire shows, pretending to have church.”

Secular music was mostly a no-no for the boys. The spectacle of Prince in those yellow buttless breeches at the 1991 MTV Awards was too much. When Prince turned around, MacKenzie’s mom turned off the TV and sent him to bed.

Q: Where were you when you got word you were the new NPG singer?

A: I was walking my dog, and I remember opening the message and there was a note from Jill [Willis, NPG’s manager, formerly Prince’s publicist and later manager] wanting to talk about me coming out here and doing some shows with the guys. I didn’t respond to her for a while because I thought it was fake. Next thing you know I’m in cold Minneapolis in February outside at Super Bowl Live freezing. Then we got to do the Dakota shows. I think it was the last night of the Dakota shows the guys came around and gave me the thumbs up and pat on the back. Shortly thereafter I had a conversation with Jill and she said they want you to be a part of the band. I’ve just been enjoying the dream ever since then.

 

Q: Is there any place you are happier than on stage?

A: [Long pause] My wife’s arms. [His wife is singer Apollo Jane.] That’s probably the only place. All my life, pretty much, I’ve been on stage. I started performing [solos] in church when I was 2. I’m naturally very introverted, but on stage I’m free. According to my mother, I came out of the womb singing. I’ve always had a knack for being able to retain lyrics. My father was a musician. My mother also sang in the choir. I remember the first time they put a mike in my hands and said, “Go.” I haven’t looked back.

 

Q: Who are your five favorite singers?

A: I like to call them my masters because I consider myself a student, an eternal student. There [are] five people I go back to, continue to learn from the depths of the musicality they all possess. Marvin Gaye, James Brown, Freddie Mercury, of course, Prince and Michael Jackson.

 

Q: When do you remember first hearing a Prince song?

A: I had to be under 10, maybe 6 or 7. There was no secular music allowed in my house at that time. My parents were very strict Southern Baptist. I grew up on Mississippi Mass Choir, Chicago Mass Choir. Anything gospel was OK. Now they let some Motown stuff slide, get some Temptations, Stevie Wonder in there once in a while. My mom was a fan of young Michael, so we got to listen to that stuff. The first song I heard of Prince’s was “Purple Rain.” I remember the feeling I had the first time I heard him. We were in public and it reminded me of what I felt in church. It has a spirituality to it, and I hadn’t really encountered that with other music that wasn’t gospel music. That began my secret studies, as I called them. My parents had a 45 collection, and Prince was in there, even though WE weren’t allowed to listen. So I would take my parents’ 45 collection into my closet for hours.

 

C.J. can be reached at cj@startribune.com and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.