Mark Wills Honors Military in Song: An Exclusive Interview
Over the course of the last fifteen years, Mark Wills has had one of those careers proven to be a slow steady success. He has quietly built a catalog that included seven studio albums, 19 charted singles, one live album and a handful of greatest hits compilations. His singles “19 Something” and “Wish You Were Here” both were number one smashes and other top ten hits include such tracks as “Don’t Laugh At Me,” “Back At Me,” and “Jacob’s Ladder.”
And while chart success has had its ups and downs, one thing that has remained constant with Wills has been his dedication to this nation’s troops. He has made ten trips overseas to entertain the troops in some of the world’s most dangerous locations and speaks about those trips with a sense of conviction and importance. It isn’t just lip service, it’s a major passion.
On his latest June release, Looking for America, Wills has brought a little bit of those overseas trips into the making of his album. His current single “Crazy Being Home” follows a serviceman back home and reveals the challenges of adjusting back into society. Using this track, he has joined forces with USA Cares, a non-profit national military assistance charity designed to assist those affected after the 9/11 tragedy, to launch the ‘Crazy Being Home’ campaign, bringing awareness to those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
Mark was kind enough to spend a little time with Engine 145 and discuss his new album and his involvement honoring our military with song.
Ken Morton, Jr.: After listening to your new project, your first album in three years has a decidedly more serious tone to it than your previous ones. Do you agree with that assessment?
Mark Wills: I don’t know if it was set up to be more serious or not. It just set up that way. I think what this album has that some of the other albums didn’t have is a little more direction towards serious things. There’s some fun light-hearted stuff on there. The first song on the record, in my opinion, is just a very fun light-hearted song. “Crazy Being Home” is definitely a serious song. “Where Did I Lose You” is a sad, serious song. But I think that it was just the material. When we sat down and started going through it, I just felt like those were the best songs. I don’t know if there was any ever thought process of making this album any more serious. I think it just sort of ended up that way.
KMJ: When you’re sitting down to put together a collection of songs for an album, are you looking for a theme or are you just looking for songs that move you the most?
MW: I just look for great songs. Very rarely do you ever go into an album-making process and have a thought process that you’re going to make this whole giddy album where there’s nothing serious on it. For me, like all the other records that we’ve done, I just look for all the best songs. I think sometimes you find yourself attracted to more of a certain type of song. And I guess we did have a serious concept on this album. It wasn’t in the front of my mind when we put this record together, however.
KMJ: You mentioned the track “Crazy Being Home.” It is doing some good things and good deeds with the music, isn’t it?
MW: We have. That song was a song I loved the very first time I heard it. To be able to help our men and women in the military out is a huge honor. We’ve taken a show over to them overseas many times and I feel honored to be able to help them at home as well.
KMJ: Did the Warren Brothers bring that song to you or did you search it out yourself?
MW: Actually, Chris Lindsey, who is one of the co-writers on that song, brought it to me. And I think that song came about a little because Chris and I have worked together for years. We have talked about different trips overseas many times. And I don’t want to say that I’m responsible for that song, but one of the conversations we’ve had probably entered into that song. I’ve made the better part of ten trips over to Iraq, Afghanistan, and different places to entertain our troops. I don’t want to say I’m an expert on it, but I do think I’ve got a pretty good insight into what these men and women go through. The reacclimation that these men and women go through when they get home and go from soldiers 24/7 to being a dad or mom 24/7 is tough.
KMJ: What kind of reaction are you getting from the service people when you are playing it?
MW:We’ve been playing it and getting an incredible reaction. Nothing has been negative. Everything has been, “Thank you for getting this out. Thank you for drawing attention to this.” Nothing has been a problem. If we can say, “Thank you,” and help somebody out in the process, I think we’ve done our job.
KMJ: For a Mark Wills fan, how would you compare this album with previous ones?
MW: I don’t compare the albums. They’re always two different bodies of work. I don’t look at an album and say this one’s better than that one because of this. When we get done with one album and put it out, we move on. It’s not a competition between this album and the Wish You Were Here album. Or this album and the Familiar Stranger album. I think they’re all individual bodies of work. And I’m very proud of this one. I do think this one’s probably stronger than maybe some of the ones in the past. I mean with the material and stuff like that.
KMJ: There is one track that stood out that was a bit different from the rest of the album that’s decidedly more classic country in production called “Phantom of the Opry.” Give me a little background on that nostalgic track.
MW: That’s a track that a buddy of mine wrote named Billy Lawson. I heard it probably twenty years ago. And I loved the song. I absolutely thought it was a great song. I had a little different intention when we started recording it. And then we got ourselves backed into a little bit of a corner with that production. It was going to be a feature song that had several different artists on it and because of the challenges of me living in Atlanta and not living in Nashville, it didn’t happen. We were going to have three or four different guest stars sing on it. To be perfectly honest, I sang on the track, sang the background vocals on it, and then thought, “You know, it doesn’t have to have that. It doesn’t have to be done that way.” So I just decided to keep it by myself and put it on the record that way. I loved that song for the better part of twenty years. I’ve always thought it was a great tune.
KMJ:This particular album was done on a smaller independent Gracie Productions label. How different is it doing it independently now than when you were doing it on a larger label?
MW: No different. No difference whatsoever. There’s less waste. That’s about the extent of it. We didn’t waste a bunch of time and we didn’t waste a bunch of money. We went to the exact same studio that we recorded “19 Something” in. It was the exact same studio that we recorded “When You Think of Me” in. It was the same studio we recorded the And the Crowd Goes Wild album in when we were on Mercury. It was all recorded at the same place. It isn’t that we had to scale it back. It’s just a world that has changed. Instead of us spending a whole bunch of money to recording the same exact music, now we are able to record the music with more reality.
KMJ: Any upcoming USO tours in your future?
MW: I hope so. We have been very involved for awhile. Like I said, we’ve made nine or ten trips around the world. We’ve been to Korea, Japan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. And we do a lot of stuff stateside as well. We don’t count that as a USO trip because we’re right here in the States. Hopefully, we try to at least one a year. Sometimes, we’ve done two. We didn’t get to do one last year because I got sick in November and December. Hopefully, this year, we’ll get to take another trip.
KMJ: At the end of the day, what do you hope your musical legacy to be in country music?
MW: I don’t know, man. At the end of the day, I hope to be remembered as a singer. I don’t want to be remembered as the fanny wagon entertainer. And that’s because I think there’s a big difference between being an entertainer and a singer. I love that people are able to come to my show and hear the songs sung with the same intensity and the same passion with the same pitch live as it was on my record. That’s honestly what I strive for. I love to have fun. We have a great time in our show. And I think that’s important. But I think that’s part of what we’ve lost that makes, what I think, country music the greatest music out there. And that’s the fact that when you go see a Ronnie Milsap show, an Alabama show, one of those great artists perform live, they sound exactly like they did on the record as they did live. And that’s without auto-tune. And that’s without all the bells and whistles and tricks. That’s what I’ve always aspired to do. I’ve always aspired to be able to pull it off live and represent myself well live. And to me that brings it right down to the reality of it all, the musical talent. You have to be able to do what you do and represent yourself well live.
KMJ: You’ve sort of answered this already, but I’ll throw this question out there anyways in case you have more to add to it. What is country music to Mark Wills?
MW: Country music to me is real music. A lot of the other formats of music take snippets of songs and make new songs out of it. Country music is its own deal. Whether you like it or not is just a personal preference. But country music has always been real music that kind of speaks to the listener. It allows the listener to hear the music and make it theirs. That’s why I’ve always chosen songs that touched and were able to be interpreted by a lot of different people. That’s what I believe country music to be.
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