At The Crossroads with
Mark Allan Atwood
Mark Allan Atwood
|Mark Allan Atwood|
By Sean Claes
Mark Allan Atwood is a guy I met a few years ago when I booked a festival in my hometown of Kyle, Texas. He came out to support one of the bands, and ended up sitting in for a few songs. I kept in contact with him over the years, had a few intelligent back-and-forth conversations via Facebook, but I didn't really look him up.
Had I done my homework when I met him, I'd have found out that he was lead vocalist of a metal band by the name of Wasteland in the 1980s and 1990s that opened for the likes of Dokken, Slaughter and Tesla. I'd have found out that he took a hiatus from performing for almost a decade only to make his return as a country singer, back to his roots before the metal world.
I feel like I came late to the party on Mark Allan Atwood, but eventually I got here.
When he released Mark Allan Atwood & Brimstone's 2012 album Burned At The Crossroads, I found myself incredibly impressed with it lyrically and musically, so when I found out he was playing in the area three times in the next couple weeks (Wimberley, New Braunfels, and Pflugerville), I knew it was time to get to know him a little better.
Sean Claes: You used to be a rock star in the 80s and 90s… fronting the Dallas-based Wild Child and Wasteland. How’d you end up in that scene?
Mark Allan Atwood: “Star” might be a stretch, but yes, those two bands were full of talent, amazing talent, and we did pretty well. I blame it all on my brother Jason Atwood. He had a chance to be one of the best drummers you ever heard, though he took another direction in life years ago, well before Wild Child ever got popular. He was playing with these kids that like him, were all about 5-7 years younger than me.
I was bored with the country and classic rock bands I was working with at the time and looking to do something more fun. It was also a chance for me to stretch my songwriting chops a bit. I had been writing and performing my originals for many years already at that time, which were all along the southern rock and acoustic folk vein, with a little bit of country sensibility thrown in.
It was an AMAZING scene and a time in my life I’ll never forget or regret. Oh, one of those “kids” was Brad Dunn, of Brad Dunn and Ellis Co. who had some Texas Music Chart success this year with “That Song About Beer.”
Claes: With Wasteland, you opened for acts like Slaughter, Tesla, Zakk Wylde, and Great White in their prime. What was that like?
Atwood: Let’s not forget Vince Neil of Motley Crue, the full original lineup of Dokken and King’s X on their amazing Dogman Tour! Sorry, had to throw those in.
What was it like? One word - Surreal. If you didn’t experience that time and that scene of melodic metal (I guess you could call it hair metal, but it was about the damn music, and included singers who could actually sing, not bark), then it’s hard to accurately relate it. I hung out with and played with and partied with (a wonder I’m alive, really) bona fide rock stars. They were gods, and we were all treated like something special.
One of these days I’m gonna write a book, but I respect your space limitations enough not to do it here.
Claes: How’d the turn onto the dirt road of Outlaw Country happen?
Atwood: It was less of a turn and more of a slight bend in the road that was comfortable and familiar. The very first album I ever bought with my own money was Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, when I was 12. I was listening to B.W. Stevenson’s first record for RCA even before that. I can sing every song on both and play most of them, when pressed to.
My early album collection, pre-Wild Child included, besides the Zepplin, Who, Beatles, Janis, Jimi, etc., a bunch of the Flying Burrito Bros., Manassas, The Band, Poco, and all the usual suspects from the CA and TX country rock/alternative country scene.
I came up as a live performer under folks like Robert Ackerman (still touring the states and Europe) on Lower Greenville Ave. in Dallas at places like The Saloon and the Winedale Tavern. I’m full of mixed up influences, but this direction is more what I started with and always wanted to do. It was the metal years, glorious though they were, that were the hard turn onto a different road.
Claes: Your debut album, How Country was your first full-length, recorded and released after an 8 year hiatus from performing live. Why the break?
Atwood: I had a baby daughter and a marriage that was crumbling, rock music was changing drastically and I had absolutely no interest in where it was going. Plus, and this was a major factor, I was 100% burned out. Totally. All four of us were. Wasteland was just this unbelievable group of four guys who really ate, slept, breathed and lived their craft 24/7, every day for five years. We put everything we had, heart and soul, into that band. I have the rejection letters from every major label to prove it! We were there, I mean right there, but our timing sucked. Had we hit our stride and sounded like we did a few years earlier, this interview would be radically different.
When we knew it was over, we all just turned our backs on music and tried to make new lives for ourselves. My efforts to do so, just didn’t stick. Our drummer Chris Bradley is playing again after a few years of a break, and our guitarist Dan McCarthy is the owner of Dallas Guitar Repair, though he no longer performs. His client list is a legitimate all-star roster! Our bassist Greg Wofford has resisted the pull to this day and is a happy working man with a wonderful life. I still talk to all of them. A Wasteland reunion almost happened this year in Dallas and probably will for one show only (Basement Reunion) next year.
I came back to performing in two different projects with my dear friends Johnny Kelsey (a true brother I’d played music with since I was a teen) and Dennis Phillips, in 2005. I began writing the songs for How Country (Johnny played drums on the whole album and Dennis produced it) in 2007 and finished it with the help of one of my oldest friends Jennifer York backing it, in 2009. I won the Texas Music Awards Rising Star Award in 2010, on the strength of that album. Rising Star, a mere 30 years after I started. Not too shabby I guess. After HC’s release, I’ve released two more albums over the next 27 months.
Claes: Mark Allan Atwood & Brimstone recently released a really good album in Burned At The Crossroads, it’s everything a country fan could want, well-crafted songs, a few about loving, a few about leaving, a shot of religion and politics, and a dedication to your dog. How’d you go about choosing the songs to include?
Atwood: I’m so glad you like it, Sean. Everyone involved with it is proud of it. I will say this, we did it right. Got the right producer, Adam Odor (who most people know and if they don’t, they should) and the right studio, Yellow Dog Studios in Austin. Adam was given free reign on the song choices, to answer your question. I disagreed with a couple of the tunes that got left off and I tease him about it, because he’s gonna have to include them on the next one any damn way! We started out with about 20 and Adam narrowed it down to the 12 you hear on the record. They don’t just hand Grammy’s out to anyone, so I wasn’t gonna argue with a guy who has five of them. Overall, I can say I’m damned proud that each of those songs got recorded and truly happy with Adam’s treatment of them.
Claes: Who are the current members of Brimstone?
Atwood: I have a killer band and I’m grateful every day that they believe in my work strongly enough to be committed to it as a career. Just to be clear, this isn’t Mark Allan Atwood and whoever’s available. This is a band. I just get to be the lead songwriter and singer.
Rich “Professor” Tulp on drums, is the backbone of one of the finest rhythm sections going today. Matt “Matt Daddy” Nunn is a bassist of such a high caliber that other bassists come to our shows just to watch what he does. Seriously, he’s that good. Those two guys are the absolute foundation of Brimstone and I couldn’t do what I do without them. They were recently dubbed by a Dallas music writer as the “Devil’s Deuce” and compared to Tommy Shannon and Chris Layton (they even have their own Devil‘s Deuce merchandise). I never again wanna be in a band they don’t play in. Period.
Uncle Mitch Connell (also the executive producer of ’Burned’) is our keys player.
His work on the album is one of my favorite things about the record. My gifted
friend Emmett Roch plays pedal steel, dobro and mandolin. Mitch and Emmett are not
full time, but they play with us when they can.
We’re still searching for that full time “family member” on lead guitar. Our long time lead player Wayne O’Neill (formerly with Brandon Rhyder and Ryan Bingham), who played on the album, suffered the kind of burnout I referenced above and no longer plays. If you know someone that wants to get in on something really special, send ‘em my way.
Claes: Why did you choose to name the album Burned At The Crossroads?Atwood: That’s a great question and I’m not sure I wanna answer it. Let’s just say that Robert Johnson and I have more in common than a love of the blues. And I feel like I’ve been burned by the arrangement.
Claes: The album kicks off with a fun jam called “Good Old Days” that, when you get down to lyrics, is a pretty serious fist shake at today’s society and politics. Is that a “Here’s Mark Allan Atwood in 3:50. If you can take it, you may proceed” track?
Atwood: Glad you got it. And yes. Listening to that song as a fun jam is fine and I hope people crank it up and roll down their windows and jam the hell out of it. It’s our first single, after all. But yes, there’s a lot more to it than the cool baritone guitar signature lick, my harp solo and the fun as hell harmonies. In fact, that first verse is a very interesting and completely true story.
Claes: Is the fantastically tragic lost love track “Dead Man” autobiographical?Atwood: Yes, but not autobiographical about me. That song and Anyone Listening, were co-writes with my Atwood-Childs duet partner, Heath Childs. In the case of Dead Man, he came to me with most of the song and the concept. I got to help finish and attach my name to what I think is one of the best painful lost love songs I’ve ever heard. He’s brilliant. Our Atwood-Childs Trading Pains album (my second album, released after How Country) is something I’ll be proud of doing the rest of my life.
Claes: You write a fantastic tribute song to Townes Van Zandt in “Ghost.” What inspired that?
Atwood: Actually, that’s more of a tribute to my brothers and sisters out here doing this singer/songwriter thing for a living, than it is Townes. I’m a fan of Townes’ work, but that really isn’t what the song is about. It’s about his presence always hovering over everything that we do, especially in the Texas Songwriter arena.
Everywhere you go, there’s people who knew Townes, who play his songs, who revere his work (and some who revere his ability to drink) and it’s overwhelming at times. He really is a Ghost, haunting those of us on this scene trying to do our own thing. I don’t mean that as mean spirited (pun intended) as it sounds, but them’s the facts.
Claes: Tell me about the storytelling album closer, “California.”
Atwood: My friend Emmett, whom I mentioned, has always told me that there are songs floating around out there that need to be written and they just land on whoever is open to them and ready to write them. I have no idea where California came from. Not to be all dorky, but it kinda was an out of body writer experience for me. I am proud to have been the vessel for that story and I hope like hell I did it justice in the telling. Although the main character and the fact that it’s a third person narrative doesn’t reveal itself until the very end, I knew when I started writing it where it was going.
In fact, I had about 12 verses that told a much more full story about the characters. I know who John Able was, who his wife and son were, all about Mr. Bodie and all about the great-great grandson. Maybe it’ll be a good movie script someday. I edited it down to be able to include it on the album and to let the listeners define how the story talked to them. It’s a one of a kind in my catalog. Thanks for asking about it. As the last track, it’s been largely ignored..
Claes: Lloyd Maines, one of my personal favorite area musicians, performed on
“Ghost” as well as “And Whiskey.” How did that come about?
Atwood: Okay, here’s the deal. It’s real simple. I knew what I wanted instrumentation wise on those songs (although Lloyd playing mandolin on Ghost, in addition to dobro, was Adam’s stroke of genius). It was between asking Kim Deschamps or Lloyd. Kim is a virtuoso and a great guy. On any given day, you could probably flip a coin and pick who was “better” by someone’s definition. I wanted Lloyd ultimately because of the projects he plays on and his passion for those tunes. I’m amazed by what Kim can do. He’s brilliant. I’m a “fan” of Lloyd’s work. How cool is it that someone I’m a fan of played on my album? His work on Ghost gives me chill bumps and his playful pedal steel on And Whiskey plays off the piano and the fun vibe of the song, as my teenage daughter would say, like a boss!
Claes: You penned, or co-wrote, all 12 tracks on the album. Where does your inspiration come from?
Atwood: I’ve been on this planet for half a century. During that time I’ve had more experiences than many people have in a lifetime, or two. I’ve been many different people, worn a handful of different hats, seen and done things that you only read about or see in movies and had a thread of the music business running through that entire time. If that’s not enough to draw inspiration from, then I should quit.
Claes: You seem to play a lot around the outskirts of Austin (Wimberley, New Braunfels, and Pflugerville) but not much inside the city limits. Is that by design?
Atwood: Sadly, yes, it is by design. I have no other income aside from playing music. Since I’ve been mostly under the radar (except for a small core of wonderful fans) for many years, with no radio hits or big names recording my work, I have to scrap and fight for every performance dollar I make to keep the lights on and keep gas in what has proven to be a handful of crappy vehicles. I have the same phone, utility, internet, veterinarian, car maintenance, school supply, property tax, mortgage, maintenance bills that everyone else has. Not to mention the upkeep on the tools of my trade.
With a million bands in Austin, all willing to play for pizza slices and draft beer, unless they are a known name and can command a set price, I’m actually forced to play more in west Texas, Dallas, Houston, south Texas, Oklahoma and as you mention, the outskirts in the hill country, than I do right where I live. It sucks.
I think that’s all I’m gonna say about that, aside from the fact that I love the markets where we play and continue to have a strong and growing fan base of people who support us and dig the work. I don’t “need” Austin, but I look forward to the day when I can work closer to home now and then. I love being on the road and traveling to all the places we go. If you traveled with Rich and Matt, you’d love it too.
Claes: Comparing the 80s-90s experience in music and today, what has changed? Is it for the better or worse?
Atwood: Yes. Haha. It’s both. There’s a couple schools of thought on that. Here’s mine. American Idol, The Voice and the like, and karaoke, have made everyone who’s got a little vocal talent think they can be a star.
The fact that the scene is currently being populated more every day by people who haven’t paid due one and have no idea the work and commitment it takes to do what we do on this level, coupled with the fact that with the right connections and for the right price you can pay your way on to the radio scene in Texas Music have made it difficult for those of us who don’t have those advantages, regardless of our talent. That’s not really different than it’s always been, but it’s more localized now rather than just being that way on a national level.
On the flipside, there are so many legitimately good artists out there now, more than ever (especially on the female side) that there’s no room for bullshit.
Be good or be overlooked. Hone your craft or be ignored until you get it to that level. With everyone thinking they can do this, there’s a higher number than ever that actually can and are very good. So yes, it’s both better and worse.
I have no idea if that makes any sense. But you asked. As for me, I’ll just keep doing what I do for the people who dig it, like I’ve always done, and hope someday I can pay my light bill on time.
Claes: Nice. Where are some of the places you like to play in the area?
Atwood: I had the good fortune of hosting one of the longest running open mics in Texas for a couple of years at Poodie’s Hilltop southwest of Austin and I love that place like a personal second home. Truly, it’s home.
I like playing the Saxon Pub, here in Austin, and hope to keep that on the schedule a couple times a year.
Cypress Creek Café in Wimberley, where I do an off the charts cool showcase on the first Thursday each month with very special guests, is a special place for me and for music period.
Giddy Ups at the end of Manchaca in deepest South Austin is one of Texas’ last true cool roadhouse, live music beer bars. They care about music and their patrons are awesome. I’m there every first Monday of the month.
Honestly, I have a ton more, like Rolling Thunder Bar in Snyder, TX, out west, and all over the state, where we do really well and have a great time, a long way from home.
Claes: Who are some of the bands/musicians in the Austin area people should be sure to check out?
Atwood: Great question, but tough to narrow down to this space. I have so many talented
friends and acquaintances that any attempt to list a few would inevitably make me
But screw it, I’ll try. Mike Ethan Messick, Austin Mayse, Fond Kiser, Javi Garcia, Joel Melton, Heath Childs, Carrie Ann Buchanan, Forest Wayne Allen, Joshua Dodds (pretty responsible for the switch that flipped to write Ghost), Mark Sebby, Michael Wren, Bob Cheevers, Andrea Marie Campise, Pake Rossi, and a ton more.
Some not listed here are on the “duh…” list and some are merely victims of it’s late and I’m tired and I missed them in the rapid fire, pre-night night list. Of the ones listed, each are not as well known as they should be, with the total package, brilliant writers, great singers, engaging performers.
Claes: You’ve got three gigs coming up in the next few weeks. Each seems to be a different vibe. Maybe a little about each:Thursday August 2 - Cypress Creek Café (Wimberley TX) - The night I look forward to each month more than any is First Thursdays at CCC. This month our guest is award winning songwriter from Houston, Ken Gaines. Our list of past and future performers is one that would make a venue in Austin-proper, envious.
Thursday, August 9 – Billy’s Ice House (New Braunfels, TX) - If you don’t like hanging out and/or performing at Billy’s Ice in New Braunfels, I think you’re missing the point entirely of why we do what we do. ‘Nuff said.
Friday, August 10 - Edge of Town Saloon (Pflugerville, TX) - Cool, old school smoky dive bar in Pflugerville where I do some cool duet shows with my friend and excellent songstress, Victoria Pennock. Always look forward to these.
Claes: Would you like to add anything else?
Atwood: Yes. Ken Zoric has recently purchased my entire catalog and stands behind me in everything I do. He served as executive producer on Trading Pains and helps me get our singles out there to radio, increase our brand visibility and supports my work as a friend and fan. Without Ken, and people like him, who support what I do, you would never have asked me for an interview because you wouldn’t have any reason to know who I was. So thanks to Ken Zoric, Jennifer York, Mitch Connell and Pat Brown for allowing me to pursue the only thing I’ve ever been worth a crap at, and believing those efforts were worth their support.
For more information on Mark Allan Atwood, visit his Website at http://markallanatwood.com/
For more information on Mark Allan Atwood, visit his Website at http://markallanatwood.com/