Native Pine Bluffian Mark Edgar Stuart has become one of the mainstays of the Memphis music scene, playing live or recording with dozens upon dozens of folks. You would be hard pressed to find a working Memphis musician who has not played with Stuart at one time or another. You’d be even harder pressed to find one with an ill word for Stuart or his talents. Over on this side of the river he is best known for his work playing bass with The Pawtuckets and then as one of the One Four Fives, backing Tennessee Telecaster wizard John Paul Keith. He has, at one time or another, graced the stages of the majority of the music venues in Little Rock. In 2003 he appeared with Cory Branan on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Until now, the entirety of his impressive resume has been backing others with his bass… and why not? Stuart is, after all, a classically trained upright bass player, starting in the orchestra program in the Pine Bluff school system earning a music scholarship at what is now the University of Memphis. In early to mid-2010, during a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the resulting chemotherapy, Stuart started writing songs. He recently told me that he “never wanted to be a songwriter, but I was bored and need something to do. It was something I could do while I was stuck at the house.” Stuart eventually pulled through the illness, but then lost his father to a heart attack.
Fast forward to this week and Stuart’s first solo album, "Blues for Lou," just dropped on Madjack Records, a label that is no stranger to Memphians with Arkansas connections, having released early recordings from Lucero and Branan, who lived in Fayetteville for a spell.
More after the jump.
Well, it turns out that the bearded bass player from Pine Bluff is also a damn fine songwriter. The songs appear to be extremely personal, but to be fair to Stuart, I should mention that most of the songs on “Blues for Lou” were never intended to be for public consumption. In fact, the early intentions were to record it for fun and give copies to family and friends as gifts. After some encouragement from Memphis songwriter Jimmy Davis and Jeff Powell (who ended up producing “Blues for Lou”), recording work began.
The dozen songs on the album, for the most part, are of a very personal nature. They can at times be very heavy. The second track, “Things Ain’t Fine,” is clearly about talking with loved ones after receiving news of the cancer diagnosis. The album contains several songs about Stuart’s relationship with his father and then losing him, including the title track, “Tears in Bubba’s Eyes,” “On My Birthday” and opener “Remote Control.”
Writing songs that are this personal can often become the songwriter’s folly, sending the song over a cliff of sappy and sentimental drivel. Stuart approaches this personal subject matter with a strong sense of melody, beautiful use of metaphor and a huge amount of honesty and bravery. This approach keeps the songs a safe distance from the edge of that cliff, yet still provide an intimate view of the depths of the valley below. “Remote Control” may be the best example of this. The lyrics describe a loving relationship of a father and a young boy growing up too fast, only to find the father’s chair empty. The song is filled with imagery of rabbit ear antennas, tin foil and fuzzy cathode ray tubes, images that anyone older than 35 who grew up in Arkansas should be able to visualize easily. This song hits hard and will most likely moisten the eyes of anyone who has lost a parent.
Stuart does provide the listener with several respites from the very weighty subject matter along the way. “Almost Mine” is a sweet love about strong connections that were never fully acted upon. Right on the heels of that track is “Quarterin’ Time” which seems to be from the perspective of a man who is very happy to be with the one that did not get away. Then “Third D.U.I.” is an upbeat romp about out how a serial drunk driver is coming to grips with his predicament. It should probably be pointed out that despite being upbeat, it in no way endorses drunk driving. In fact, it points out many of the legal consequences. There may be a little nostalgia or homesickness for the Natural State coming through in “Arkansas is Nice.”
Stuart handles most of the instrumentation himself, providing vocals, guitars, bass, upright bass, synth, ukulele and kazoo. John Argroves adds drums and percussion throughout. Al Gamble plays keys on a couple of tracks and Kait Lawson adds some sweet backing vocals. The overall production quality of the album is solid. No surprise there, given Stuart’s extensive studio work. There are a couple of instances in which sound quality is sacrificed for feeling. But that’s the kind of compromise I can get behind. All in all, this is a very solid songwriter record from someone who never fancied himself a songwriter. I have a feeling the next one will be even better.
There’s a CD release show scheduled Saturday at Earnestine & Hazel’s in Memphis, with Lawson and Jed Zimmerman. There are also rumblings of a possible White Water Tavern show later in March.