My phone rang at 11:01 a.m. I answered it.
“Hey, Brad. It’s Mark Wills. I apologize for being late to our call. I was busy with my grand baby. He decided to start crying the moment I picked up the phone to call you. I thought it was better to get him settled and be a minute late.”
He was light-hearted but sincere. Plus, in my mind he wasn’t late to begin with. But he respected my time enough to comment on it. I liked Mark Wills already.
Kansas City will welcome country music performers Mark Wills and Lorrie Morgan to Ameristar Casino on Saturday, Jan. 21. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.com.
“Kansas City was the very first place I went to on a radio tour back in 1996 at the beginning of my career, so the area has always held a special place in my heart. I’ve played with George Strait there and even had the opportunity to become friends with George Brett and his family. My band and crew all love Kansas City, so anytime we have the chance to go back there we jump at it.”
I asked Wills what he’d be doing right now if his music career hadn’t panned out.
“I’d probably be getting ready to retire from the police force or the military or something like that. I’ve always loved that type of work. I’ve done a lot stuff throughout my career with the military, police, and first responders, so I would’ve probably been doing something like that.
“Now having said that, I can’t imagine not doing what I’ve been doing. As a child you say ‘I wanna be this or that when I grow up’, but honestly and truly from the time I was four years old I loved music. I had my Fisher Price record player and my mom’s 45s from when she was a teenager. And I just loved music. I never really could see myself not being in the music business. I was still in junior high when I started doing open mic nights and trying to get my foot in the door some place. I’ve always really believed that music was going to be a big part of my life and God blessed me with a great career. I’ve been doing this well over half my life now.”
Our conversation soon moved to the radio business and how things were back in the 90’s when Wills’ career took off, which was coincidentally the same time my radio career began. He seemed genuinely intrigued by this.
“Then you know exactly what I’m talking about,” Wills said. “When I got started it was before broadcasting got taken over by conglomerates. Back in the mid-90’s a local programmer had the ability to do what they wanted and now, no matter where you are, you may have one guy living in Atlanta making the decision about what’s being played in Seattle or wherever. I understand the business reasons behind narrowing things down, but I think it’s made life tougher for artists.”
When I interjected that the entire model and strategy to “get there” and “make it” had changed it seemed to strike a chord with Wills.
“The whole model of everything has changed if you think about it. I’m gonna throw five words out at you that had no meaning to anybody in 1996.”
Wills slipped into a voice that resembled a horror movie trailer as he listed them off.
“Internet…Spotify…Facebook…YouTube…TikTok. Back in the day the only way to make it in the music world was to sign a major record deal and record your album and have major terrestrial radio airplay get behind your music. That’s how people found out who Mark Wills was, or Clay Walker, or Garth Brooks. That was how it was done. And so here we are in 2023 and so many people in our world today are becoming famous on Instagram or TikTok and from there they are being picked up by labels and that’s the avenue to success. If you’d have told me 20 years ago that music was going to be consumed and distributed by a social media platform I’d have been like ‘man you’ve lost your mind,’ but sure enough, it has.”
I agreed with Wills regarding how much things had changed over the years and added SiriusXM to his list.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “It didn’t even cross my mind because to be perfectly honest with you SiriusXM is all I listen to. That’s how I get all of my music in today’s world. Driving back and forth from Atlanta to Nashville like I do all the time, it’s a three and a half hour drive, sometimes four…(sighs) sometimes five, depending on traffic – and I can turn on SiriusXM at the beginning of my trip and never lose the stations like I would with terrestrial radio back in the day.”
His description sparked a memory of my own and I went on to tell him how I would enjoy road traveling when I was in the radio business to listen to all of the different FM stations, not because of the music but to hear how bad the DJ’s sounded. I would compliment myself and say “I sound better than that guy.”
We both chuckled. “You know,” Wills said, “it’s funny you say that because it reminds me of why my wife and I take a Roku everywhere we go. We’ll go out of town and turn on the local news and find ourselves saying, ‘Oh my, the news broadcast here is horrible. So with our Roku we can just pull up our local newscast anywhere we go. We feel comfortable with those personalities.”
For nearly an hour, Mark Wills and I chewed the fat on several subjects. Being the music nerd I am, though, I needed to hear the story about his biggest hit, the one that ended up being the number two country song of the 2000’s according to Billboard Magazine.
I asked him if he knew he had a “special one” with “19 Somethin’” early on.
“I did,” Wills said. “Usually, I’m not a ‘first listen’ guy. What I mean by that is when songs are first pitched to you, I’ve always been the guy that wants to live with the song and soak it in and absorb it and find those little morsels that are something I feel directly relates to my life.
“Well, I was sitting on the bus and (producer) Chris Lindsey, who was working on some new songs for the greatest hits package, came in and started playing the demo of ’19 Somethin’.’ We were looking for some up tempo songs and when I first heard it I was like ‘yeah, I kinda like this. I like the tempo.’ And when it got to about the first chorus I was like ‘I need to start this song over’ and we did and I paid even closer attention to it.
“And the weird thing about it was we found that song on the weekend and went into the studio the first of the following week and recorded it. It was a brand new song. David Lee and Chris DuBois had written it and just finished the demo and – boom! It was probably the fastest song I had ever found and gone directly in and recorded. We knew as soon as we got it on tape it was going to be a huge song. It was right there in my age bracket. But to be perfectly honest with you there are some lyrics that are kind of a misnomer for me.
“Like, I remember when Elvis died but I had just turned 4. I don’t necessarily remember the exact moment. Now the 80s, of course, are a whole lot clearer for me. But I knew it was a song that so many people were going to gravitate toward, whether it mentioned their specific memories or not, it was gonna light a spark.”
I asked if I was correct in assuming one of the big keys to having a hit song is that people need to be able to relate to what you’re singing about, whether it be finding love, a heartbreak, or nostalgia.
“Rarely does a heartbreak song ever nail exactly your situation, you know? But it’s relatable, and I think that’s the great thing about music. You can have a song that’s generic enough that allows it to be relatable to many, many, many situations. That’s the thing I’ve always tried to do when finding songs. If you start talking about something so specific that the majority of people can’t relate to it, my job is to do one of two things. I can either switch a few lyrics around and make it more relatable or I can find a different song – because I’m not afraid to do that.
“I’ve passed on great songs before that I heard on the radio later and I was like ‘yep. I should’ve recorded that one.’ It happens. So for me I’ve always tried to be real honest and sincere about the music I’m putting out because I feel like from the fan perspective they want to feel like they’re getting to know you from those songs.”
Mark Wills began his career in 1998 by winning an ACM Award for Top New Male Vocalist. Fast-forward 20 years and his friend Vince Gill surprised him with an invite to become the 218th member of the Grand Ole Opry. He was inducted in January of 2019.
“I’ve held the Grand Ole Opry in extremely high regard my entire life,” he told me. “I can remember watching TNN and those shows with my poppa and my family when I was a kid. So I always dreamed of singing on the Grand Ole Opry and I guess somewhere in the back of my mind I always hoped they would make me a member.
“But I’m not a good politician and I don’t always play the game the right way, so I didn’t know if the Grand Ole Opry would ever come to fruition. I view it as one of the biggest honors you can have in your career, period. To me it is sort of a precursor to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. When Vince Gill asked me to be the newest member it was truly the greatest Christmas present I’d ever received in my life.”
I told him how impressed I was that he had just mentioned politics in the music business because politics are so prevalent everywhere, even in day jobs.
Wills emphatically agreed.
“Listen, man,” he said, “I say that because it’s true. I see so many people who play such a great political game and it reaps them the rewards or the accolades. For me that was never what this was about. This was about trying to make great music, sing great songs, and have musical integrity.
“And what I mean by that is if you listen to songs like ‘Wish You Were Here’ or ’19 Somethin’,’ when you come to our show we do our very best to replicate that recording in a live setting. I think that’s important. I don’t think anybody ever goes to a concert and says ‘you know, I really like the way they did that salsa version of my favorite ballad’. People have an affinity for something that they love and when they go to a show they wanna hear it as close to that recording as they can.”
“Now I’m not saying we don’t change anything. We make a record with 48 tracks and at the end of the day there’s only 6 of us on stage . But we don’t add stuff or use pre-recorded tracks in our show. We don’t have extra background vocals on hard drives or anything like that. What you are hearing is literally live coming off the stage. Nothing added and nothing taken away. And I think that’s very cool because to me that’s the way live music is supposed to be – it’s supposed to be live.”
The conversation was going so swimmingly that I decided to take a stab at what it was like being Mark Wills. I told Wills how I imagined that as an artist when someone approaches him and says how much a song has meant to them or how it changed their lives, it must be one of the more rewarding aspects of the career.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve said this before in an interview but I think it rings true with what we’re talking about right now. In a roundabout way we, as musicians, are the soundtrack to people’s lives. We record the music, we put it out there, and occasionally those songs stick in your mind. You remember exactly where you were.
“When ‘These Dreams’ by Heart comes on the radio I’m suddenly standing at my friend’s funeral when I was 12 years old. Those songs have a way of immediately transporting you back to a positive or a negative or whatever it might be. Therefore I truly believe music is the soundtrack to our lives.
“When somebody comes up and says ‘You don’t know this but ‘Don’t Laugh At Me’ saved my life.’ That sends a powerful statement. I’ve heard many, many, many times how that song was played in a second or third grade classroom and how it meant so much to the young students who felt like they were outcasts.
“And it’s not an exaggeration. I’ve literally heard many times ‘this song saved my life’. And when it happens I get to look that person in the face and hug their neck and say ‘I didn’t write that song but I believed in it and loved it so much that when the record company didn’t want to put it out I was like ‘Ya’ll are idiots. This is huge’.”
Hearing about this conflict between label and artist intrigued me, so I asked Wills to tell me more about it.
“I think that sometimes the marketing department and the budget department get together and decide ‘we want this guy to be our heart throb’ or ‘we want this guy to be our bad boy’ and I don’t think Mercury was very excited about that being a single because they wanted me to be their ‘love song guy’. And that’s okay. I look back on that issue with fondness because to me that was a battle won. I mean, it wasn’t an uptempo song that allowed me to energize my show. But what it did do was give a voice to people that felt like they didn’t have one.”
In late 2022 Wills released a new recording of “Don’t Laugh At Me,” featuring the a cappella group, Home Free.
“The cool thing about the new version is when people come up to me and say ‘Oh my God! You sing as good now as you did then’ or ‘You sing better now than you did then’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, I was a 22 year old kid. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just singing songs.”
I asked Wills if there were any questions that he doesn’t get asked in interviews that he wishes would get asked.
“Not really. I go into interviews like this knowing there’s a direct correlation as to why we’re doing it, so I pretty much know what I want to talk about. If this were about my life and my history I’d say let’s talk about my kids and my family life, you know? But for this I think it’s important that we talk about Lorrie who’s doing the show with us. Lorrie Morgan was married to Keith Whitley who died in 1989. He has been one of the biggest influences in my entire career. It’s an honor and a privilege to get to go out on the road with someone like Lorrie whose music I’ve loved from the time I was a teenager.”
I began to wrap things up, telling him we were looking forward to the show and thanking him for his time as well as for being so down-to-earth and easy to talk to. He had made my job easy.
But Wills claims he’s not always a great interviewee.
“I like people that do their homework,” he explained. “My favorite interview is when they start with ‘Sooooo, have you had any songs on the radio?’ And I’m like ‘CLICK’. “I don’t want to waste your time – don’t waste mine,” Wills said.
I tried to control my laughter as I responded.
“It shocks me but there’s just some people that…aren’t good at their jobs…I guess…right?”
I struggled to find the right words and Wills could tell I was holding myself back. Now it was his turn to laugh heartily.
“Right, right. Exactly!”
And then Mark Wills assured me that I was not one of those clueless bad interviewers who didn’t do his homework.
Because I asked him. I needed to be sure.