Mark Utley & Bulletville will play at the MidPoint Music Festival this Thursday, September 25th at Mr. Pitiful’s. This will be the seventh year for Utley, but he is returning with some newer bandmates and a recommitment to singing the songs he considers his roots. Utley enjoyed a long run with Magnolia Mountain before that band wound down, and has held on to some songs and musicians as a base to build around. Bulletville is a commitment to more of an old-school Honky Tonk sound, and it is a lineup of top-notch players and singers. I recently asked Mark Utley some questions to help introduce his newest projects to Cincinnati music fans:
Tell me about the conversion from Magnolia Mountain to Bulletville. Which band members have carried over and who are your new additions?
Bulletville sprang out of some Magnolia Mountain Trio gigs that Renee Frye, Jeff Vanover and I did in which we were joined by Cameron Cochran on pedal steel. Having that sound at my disposal was very inspiring, and I realized that if we simply added a bassist and drummer to that lineup, we could do some really fun things in a full-band format. The Bulletville lineup morphed a little over the first several months. It’s always been kind of a “dream team” roster of really talented, established players, but in some cases it’s been difficult to keep all those hired guns happy, especially when they can make better money elsewhere on a consistent basis, or when they have their own projects that take priority for them. It feels like it’s solidified pretty nicely at this point, though. In addition to the core of myself, Renee, and Jeff, we have Ricky Nye on piano and organ, John Lang on pedal steel, Ken Kimbrell on bass, and we just got Magnolia Mountain drummer Todd Drake back in the fold just recently.
What elements of the Magnolia Mountain sound do you still hold on to?
I’ve had a long-standing love of older Country music. Even back in the 1980’s with my hometown band Stop the Car (which was a dark, Goth-tinged, alternative rock band), I was sneaking in Hank Sr. and Johnny Cash songs. In more recent years, that influence has always been at least a small part of all the different iterations of Magnolia Mountain as well. There’s a full-on Country weeper on the very first MM record with pedal steel by a legendary player named Chubby Howard. Some of the members of the most recent MM lineup were not Country fans at all, though, so having Bulletville as an option freed me up to dive headfirst into that sound without forcing MM to go somewhere that half that band didn’t really want to go. Then, when that most recent MM lineup splintered in late 2013 and I decided to put that band on ice for a while, Bulletville was already up and running and firing on all cylinders, so it just seemed logical to kind of “go with the flow” and put all my energies into this project.
Have your venues or audiences changed at all with the new band?
We’ve continued to play most of the same venues, festivals, etc., that we did in Magnolia Mountain. The biggest difference has been that we’re now able to branch out into venues that are more Country-music-specific. Even though we’ve been consistently able to win over audiences at venues not known for booking Country acts, it’s been nice to take it places where the folks are there because they already know and love and expect to hear the style of music we’re playing.
How has your songwriting changed to fit the new band? What are you able to do now that you could not with other bands?
I’m not sure, within the bigger picture, if I’ve changed my songwriting style to fit the band I’m in, or if I’ve changed the band I’m in to fit my songwriting style. As corny as it might sound, this music absolutely just feels like home to me. The songs have been flowing pretty effortlessly and they feel like some of the best stuff I’ve ever written. I feel like this is a style that really seems to suit my voice, it’s a style that Renee sounds great singing as well, and it’s a style that lends itself to harmony and duet singing, so it works well for both of our voices, individually and together. Plus, Jeff is just such a wonderful, tasteful guitar player who loves and excels at this style of playing. You add a world-class keyboard player like Ricky, a monster steel player like John, and a solid, swingin’ rhythm section like Kenny and Todd, and you’ve really got somethin’.
What are you looking forward to when it comes to your next album?
We’re going back into Ultrasuede Studio in November to record the new album, with a projected release in Spring 2015. I really looking forward to it for a number of reasons, primarily because I’m really proud of the newer songs and I’m really proud of the band we’ve got together. Albums, to me, exist as a document of a moment in time, a specific period in a songwriter’s career, and a particular combination of players. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I miss this or that version of Magnolia Mountain”, and I tell them, “Then buy this or that album, and you’ll have them with you for the rest of your life”. I was really happy with how the Bulletville tracks on my “Four Chords and a Lie” album turned out, but those were kind of the band in its infancy. The band we have now is so much more of a solid lineup that’s had some seasoning and time to come together. I want people to hear these songs played and sung by these people.
Do you have a release date set? Have you always had vinyl versions of your albums? Do you think your sound is captured well in that format?
Regarding vinyl releases, yes, I am a strong proponent of them. All four MM albums and “Four Chords” are all available on vinyl as well as CD, and the “Bulletville” record will be as well. I think all music, regardless of genre, sounds better (to my ears anyway) on vinyl. Not in a “retro” or “throwback” sense, I just think it’s the best way we’ve come up with to present, reproduce, listen to, and interact with music. It feels more human to me, more real, more organic. Just the act of pulling the record off the shelf, taking the disc out of the sleeve, placing it on the turntable, flipping it between sides, it all demands a little more interaction from the listener. It’s almost ritualistic in a sense. An album cover is a beautiful big canvas for artwork and lyrics and liner notes and ephemera. Plus, again, I just think it sounds better and warmer and richer, and I’m so glad that the format still exists and seems to be making somewhat of a comeback.