Beyond a Song host Rich Reardin
interviews Nashville singer/songwriter, musician and guitarist Mark Robinson.
Mark Robinson’s debut album Quit Your Job — Play Guitar ignited like the first kaleidoscopic blast of a fireworks display. It was an attention-grabbing harbinger of even more exciting, incendiary things to come. DJs quickly embraced the disc and About.com Blues, Blues Underground Network and BluesVan branded it one of 2010’s best.
Now Robinson’s follow-up Have Axe — Will Groove provides an even more colorful and explosive display of the Nashville-based guitarist and songwriter’s estimable skills. And while the title of Quit Your Job —Play Guitar was autobiographical, the songs on his new release are even more personal … and dirtier and funkier and grittier. And when it comes to Robinson’s sterling guitar work, they’re also more colorful
“Have Axe — Will Groove is about finding my voice as an artist,” Robinson explains. “The songs are stronger and fit together well, and they all say something about my life — whether they’re inspired by things that happened to me or that I was reflecting on, or by the music and the experiences that have guided me along the way playing blues and country and other styles. And while I’m not the most technical player in a city full of technical players, I’ve found a style on guitar that’s all my own and lets me share something positive with people, which is truly a gift.”
The album’s genesis was the song “Drive Real Fast,” the scalding radio-ready boogie that also opens the set. With a grinding rhythm guitar foundation and Robinson’s lyrics about tossing his cell phone out the window and hitting the gas, the tune captures a distinctly American longing for freedom and escape. “ ‘ Drive Real Fast’ came to me like a bolt of lightning,” he recalls. “I went right onstage with the band after I wrote it and we performed it. The song gave me the blueprint for the album — keeping things live, raw and spontaneous, and just paying attention to the things that felt right.”
Several of Have Axe — Will Groove’s tunes showcase his depth in the blues tradition — earned in part through several years on the Chicago scene supporting Sunnyland Slim, Lonnie Brooks, Son Seals and other legends. “What’s the Matter Baby” revisits the vibe of Chess Records. It’s a swinging stomp through the perils of love with a funky groove that would evoke a toothy smile from the late Junior Wells. Plus there’s a peck of chicken pickin’ ladled in as a six-string bonus. The title of “Pull My Coat” comes from hipster slang meaning “fill me in.” Robinson nicked the term from jazz composer David Baker, whom he studied under at Indiana University. “David was responsible for a lot of my education in jazz,” Robinson says. But the song marches to its own distinctive Texas shuffle beat. Then there’s “Lifetime Prescription,” a heart-plumbing slow blues that pairs its pain-wracked lyrics with sweet, simmering, sultry guitar melodies.
He also pushes the envelope as only a confident, mature artist can. “Blue Moon Howl” is a superb example. There’s rust all over his electric resonator rhythm guitar’s sound, perfectly matching his vocal evocation of the hoodoo-haunted soul of the blues itself. And while the number’s marching beat recalls the hypnotic music of Mississippi hill country, his lead guitar moans like a hungry werewolf crossing the moors at midnight. “I like to think about David Gilmour visiting R.L. Burnside at his juke joint in Mississippi to drink some shine and have a late night jam,” Robinson says about the song. Then he adds, “The Devil made me do it.”
For Robinson, the door to the blues opened when he was a teen, after hearing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Allman Brothers, which in turn led him to the music of Muddy Waters and other foundational artists. Soon after that the Bloomington, Indiana native abandoned his attempts to play trombone — an instrument his father also played — and bought a battered Gibson guitar with money he made cutting lawns. Although he describes his trombone playing as “awful,” he was immediately able to make his guitar sing.
Robinson went to school in Bloomington, at Indiana University. He earned a degree in telecommunications while playing with bands and working at a local studio. Robinson was touring in a Top 40 band — and hating it when his wife Sue was offered a job in Chicago. And Robinson’s hard-core schooling as a working blues musician began.
“Chicago was the big leagues, but I started at the bottom,” he says, “although I got to play with some interesting people.” The list includes Tad Robinson, Sunnyland Slim, Byther Smith, Lefty Dizz plus Jimmy Johnson and Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor. The latter two provided Robinson with epiphanies during his three-year Windy City stay.
“I loved Jimmy’s playing and singing style,” Robinson recounts. “He was a Mississippi musician at his roots, but could also play some jazz licks beautifully, and his voice is angelic. I asked him for lessons, and he said, ‘Man, I can’t teach you anything, but I’ve got a gig at Rosa’s next week. You can come play with me.’ ”
Robinson played four- and five-hour gigs in Chicago’s blues haunts with Johnson for the next two months without pay. “Then one night, he came over and handed me some money,” he says. “That meant I was no longer taking lessons.”
A few years later Robinson learned a harsh lesson about the blues player’s life when, after supporting Taylor on stage at Kingston Mines all night long, he was handed his cut of the money: $35. “I’d played for five hours and it just covered my parking and beer tab,” he says, “and that was the best gig in town. I no longer saw blues as a career.
As luck had it, his wife got a job back in Bloomington, and Robinson found a position teaching in the University’s audio-visual department. He stayed in that job for 17 years, still performing, writing songs and recording other artists and even touring a bit on the side. He formed a band with drummer Rex Miller, the Kookamongas, who remain a staple of the Blooming roots music scene. And he gigged with folksinger Carrie Newcomer, John Mellencamp guitarist Larry Crane and other notables. But, to paraphrase John Lee Hooker, the blues was still deep inside him and it had to come out.
In 2004 Susan got yet another job offer, this time in Nashville. And as Robinson’s debut album proclaims, he quit his job to play guitar, relocating to Music City. Soon he found himself collaborating with some of Nashville’s best roots songwriters — such deft craftsmen as Randy Handley (Garth Brooks, John Mellencamp), Davis Raines (Pam Tillis, Kenny Rogers) and Dave Duncan (Curtis Salgado, Delbert McClinton) — and supporting a variety of artists including Tracy Nelson and Tommy Womack. He also began producing and recording other artists in his home studio, where both Quit Your Job — Play Guitar and Have Axe — Will Groove were made, establishing himself as an MVP in Nashville’s live and independent music communities.
All the while, Quit Your Job — Play Guitar had been gestating. “Finally I decided it was time to stop being a sideman and step into the limelight,” he says. “In a town like Nashville, it’s easy to be intimated by the great singers and great instrumental technicians all around, but I had discovered a voice and of my own and it was getting stronger and stronger.”
That voice is at a peak on Have Axe — Will Groove. Robinson’s strategy for making the album was simple. He chose 20 songs he wrote, co-wrote or that helped him tell his story, then drafted his favorite Nashville musicians — bassist Daniel Seymour (Tommy Womack, David Olney, Irene Kelley), drummer Paul Griffith (Todd Snider, John Prine, Steve Earle) and drummer Justin Amaral (Jim Lauderdale, Junior Brown), the latter appearing on the Doc Pomus classic “Lonely Avenue” — along with engineer Jim Burnette (the Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride). Seymour also did some engineering and served as associate producer when they hit the studio. And when the basic sessions were done, Robinson chose his 11 favorite performances for the album.
“What I’m interested in,” Robinson explains, “isn’t being flashy or making the latest hit single. It’s what the Allman Brothers call ‘hittin’ the note’… reaching that point where the band is in synch and everybody is firing on all eight cylinders, including the listeners. Because when it’s all said and done, the reason I’m making records and playing gigs is to try to make music that moves people.”