Plainspoken and poetic, Mark Edgar Stuart’s unique brand of Arkansas accent-driven, folk-country-blues evokes the best of Nashville Skyline-era Dylan and Willie Nelson. His latest single, “Don’t Blame Jesus,” brings together a new band of topnotch Memphis musicians in to guide listeners through clever turns of phrase and descriptive Southern landscapes.
“I was trying really hard to be more generalized and less personal. Maybe that’s what people like about my stuff; but it may be what some get turned off by,” he says of the latest round of songs he’s written.
Stuart has his roots in Pine Bluff, which he describes as “the Detroit of Arkansas.” He began playing upright bass for the orchestra, inspired by the original Sun Studios artists. By age 16, he came to Memphis for the first time with his first band, formed with a friend, Brian Jackson, son of Wayne Jackson of Memphis Horns fame. With Jackson’s help, they recorded their demo in, of all places, Sun Studios. Mark now knew where he wanted to be — Memphis, Tennessee, where Jerry Lee, Elvis and Johnny Cash all got their start.
Now that Stuart has recruited new musicians to accompany him, his approach to writing has adapted accordingly. “Playing with a full band has really changed the songwriting because I really had the band in mind when I was writing. I want the new album to rock a little more, to be more upbeat.” His full band will be accompanying him on an upcoming tour through Texas and an appearance in a PBS series. Then it will be time to begin recording the new album.
Stuart obtained a musical scholarship for upright bass with the University of Memphis, paving the way for his musical future in Memphis. Gradually, Stuart began to play the electric bass and joined the Pawtuckets in the ‘90s. After the dissolution of the Pawtuckets, he played bass for Alvin Youngblood Hart. Afterwards, he returned to Memphis, met his wife, and continued his role as the dependable sideman, playing bass with John Paul Keith and Cory Branan, which led to an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman.
As he reached his mid-thirties, his musical future looked bright. However, reality would soon set in. “I got cancer (lymphoma) and lost my Pop all in the same year and all of a sudden, I had something to say.” It was time for the sideman to take center stage and begin his role as a singer/songwriter in his own right. He began to develop his distinctive fingerpicking style and sang for the first time. After catching the songwriting bug, he wrote tons of songs until he had the makings of his landmark debut album, Blues for Lou, was lauded as a triumph by critics, taking Stuart completely by surprise. “I released a little record for my family and friends and it kind of sprouted legs. I had no idea it was going to be so well received. I was just going to go back to playing bass. If you’d told me five years before that I’d be singing and writing songs, I’d have told you that you were nuts,” he says. Much of the first record was inspired by the loss of Stuart’s supportive and inspirational father. “He bought me my first electric guitar and electric bass. He was happy as long as I wasn’t playing heavy metal.” After nervously playing his first acoustic, solo gig, his new direction took off. All of a sudden, he was being invited to play at folk festivals like the Folk Alliance and South by Southwest.
In 2015, Stuart released his second album, Trinity my Dear. The arrangements, singing, and performances sound more assured, confident and refined. Songs like “Joe is Enough” and “Trinity my Dear” explore the struggles of his relationship; but the issues being examined are very relatable. “Miss America” describes the frustrations of paying the high cost of health insurance in a struggle to live up to the American dream in the wake of his bout with cancer. He’s hoping to quit his day job in the next year to follow what seems obviously his true calling.
Mark Edgar Stuart’s albums, Blues for Lou, Trinity my Dear and the new single, “Don’t Blame Jesus” are available on MadJack Records on iTunes and Spotify.
A lyrical conversation with Mark Edgar Stuart
Story by Russ Thompson | Photos by Don Perry