omg: Can you tell us the backstory of your hit “That’s What I Love About Sunday?”
Mark: My co-writer, Adam Dorsey, told me he’d been saving this title for me, basically because he knew I grew up in church. I practically lived in the church—we lived across the street. I knew about eating butter beans out of Tupperware bowls, black-eyed peas, meatloaf—he knew I knew all the goings on of a southern Sunday. I was really glad we wrote that about 2004. It all started at a Chinese restaurant in Franklin. I drove up from Muscle Shoals area. For about thirty years, I’ve been driving back and forth twice a week. He was coming from Spring Hill, so we met in Franklin, started the song, finished it that afternoon in Nashville. I’ve written so many songs about God, Mama, church, football Friday nights- that’s all sort of been my thing, so to me, it was a good song, but it was just another one for the batch. I didn’t know if it would stand out, but boy, was I wrong. Adam was friends with Craig Morgan and went out on the bus with him one weekend and played it for him. He loved it. There you go. Connectivity, being in the proximity of an artist sometimes, is what it takes. It matters.
omg: You mentioned commuting, so you’ve never lived in Nashville. Have there been any struggles? What have you done to stay in the game in Nashville without technically living here?
Mark: That’s a very good question. You always hear Nashvillians in the music business saying, “You must move to Nashville.” That’s a true rule, but somehow I must’ve slipped through the cracks. I have a little Alabama rebel in me. Muscle Shoals, I had a lot of music in my backyard being from there. I was on the tail end of all the recording done there in the ‘60s and ‘70s. When I wanted to be a songwriter, I knew I had to be in Nashville. Some of the other people who were role models for me, Walt Aldridge, some of the other writers down there that were having hits—they were driving up and back in a day, like three times a week songwriting.
omg: How long is that drive?
Mark: For me, it’s right at two hours from Music Row to my doorstep. I could go back down to a small town of like 1,000 people. Muscle Shoals is a little bigger. It’s about 30 minutes away from me. But I could go back to my wife and kids, away from the competitiveness and the business model of Nashville. Then, I could be jazzed up and ready to go, because Nashville is a big city. But you talked about the obstacles. There have been obstacles, because the days that I was not here, who knows? There might have been an opportunity. There was a price to pay for staying home. I mean, we have no clue, but I’m thinking that there would have been other opportunities if I’d moved. But on keeping appearances up, it’s funny, a lot of folks thought I lived here because they would see me so much. Many people never even knew that I wasn’t here. It’s been a lot of back and forth, but I enjoy the drive. It’s been really crucial for my songwriting, coming up with ideas on the road, praying, processing- it’s all a big part of my creative process.
omg: We see a lot of writers get up and play rounds with their guitars, but you do a lot of writing on the keyboard. How do you think piano influences your songwriting?
Mark: You know, on the piano, you can do so many more harmonic things than you can on the guitar. Don’t get me wrong, I love guitar, but piano is my main instrument. It makes me approach songs in a different way, sometimes with more depth. You’ll drive emotions because you’ll hit these somber chords or these jazzy chords. It makes the music more interesting to me. Not knocking the guitar, because I do write that way, too. It’s funny, when I started thirty years ago, my publisher said I sounded too much like Lee Greenwood playing piano, songs like “Ring on Your Finger”, “Time On Your Hands”- that’s what he thought I sounded like. So, he said, “Son, you’ve got to get a guitar and learn how to finger pick,” and I did. I got decent at playing. I’ve tried to write on just about any instrument I can get my hands on. I’ve written on bass, I haven’t written on steel guitar, but that would be an interesting thing to try. I’ve written on drums. When you’ve been writing for thirty years, you need to try different things to mix it up.
omg: You’ve written a lot with and for Josh Turner. Can you tell us what it’s like working with him?
Mark: When we first met—going back to the butter beans and all that—he’s from a town in South Carolina that’s as small as my town, so we hit it off as buddies, almost like church buddies you’d have in Sunday school. We’re both strong Christians, we’re similar on that level. We both started writing, we both had baritone and crazy humor. About 2001, right before 9/11, I think is when we met. He came out of Belmont and his first single was one of mine called “She’ll go on ya.” It was before “Long Train.” He just recorded the 14th song I’ve co-written with him last month. He’s a lot of fun, just mischief. When we get together, it’s like a couple of 14-year-old boys. *laughs*
omg: It’s really easy to get caught up in the industry, especially when you’re traveling a lot. What keeps you grounded?
Mark: Definitely my wife of 26 years, Sandy. She really has given me a lot of free range to come to Nashville and do my writing. She never gave me one ounce of hassle. She’s my real rock, and she’s very strong in her faith. That faith has been crucial. We all have down times and depression. We’re human beings. We’re going to get hit with severe problems at times, but instead of being crippled, I believe that God is perfect love. Perfect love drives out fear. If you don’t have any fear, if God is all the way in you, you’re going to be alright when those times come. You can face those things better. Me? I’ll take no fear.
omg: Is there any advice you’d like to offer our audience?
Mark: Be eclectic. Just have a wide range of tools in your toolbox. I came up with pop music in the ‘70s, with bands like Kiss and Boston, and then really fell in love with country in the ‘80s, so I really have an eclectic blend of influences. Try songwriting with as many different instruments as you can. I’d just say fill up that toolbox.
*omg! songwriters uncapped is an interview series affiliated with the writers round, omg! i'm a songwriter. The weekly show is hosted by Mary Kutter on Thursday nights at Tin Roof on Demonbreun, beginning at 7pm. omg! i'm a songwriter partnered with Kelli Wharton of Four:9-10 Creative Management in conducting this interview series.*