‘Blues For Lou’ record release
7 p.m. Saturday, Earnestine & Hazel’s,
531 S. Main.
Admission: Free. For more information, call 901-523-9754.
Earlier this week, Mark Edgar Stuart dutifully occupied the roles people have come to expect of him.
In the mornings, he was taking his bass guitar down to Sam Phillips Recording where he was cutting a new album with John Paul Keith & the 145s with legendary Sun Records musician and producer Roland Janes behind the board. After the sessions, he would drive out east to his job as a manager of Buster’s Liquors & Wines, working until close, and then head home to the Midtown bungalow he shares with his wife, Emily.
But on Saturday, at a show in the back room of South Main dive bar Earnestine & Hazel’s, Stuart will celebrate a new role, that of solo singer-songwriter. It’s one that has developed slowly over the past two years, culminating in the release this week of his debut collection of songs, the intensely personal Blues For Lou, on Madjack Records.
“This is all so new to me. I’m like, I just want to play bass,” says Stuart, still adjusting to the transition from trusted sideman to solo artist over drinks at the Lamplighter Lounge. “It’s been weird, but I like it. Not having to split the money four ways is cool. Being in charge of what I do is cool. Playing bass, you’ve always got some guy telling what you can and can’t play. Don’t miss that. That part of it is kind of neat, just knowing you’re in control of it. If things go well, it’s because of you; if they go south, it’s because of you.”
One of the most in-demand bass players on the local scene for more than a decade now, Stuart’s pivot toward writing and performing his own music has caught many off guard, not least of all his fellow musicians, many of whom never suspected that the guy holding down the low end was a fully rounded musician with a gift for composition.
“I’ve worked with Mark before and been buddies with him for years,” says Jeff Powell, who asked to produce Blues For Lou after hearing some of Stuart’s early songwriting demos. “I didn’t realize what a cool, unique-sounding singing voice he had and what a good guitar player he is.”
Stuart first started playing music in his hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark. His father, Galen Louie Stuart, was a music lover with a particular affinity for the sounds of Memphis’ Sun Records and would have been thrilled to learn his son was recording with Janes, who played on most of Jerry Lee Lewis’ records. The elder Stuart pushed the young Mark away from sports and toward music as a way of going to college.“My brother was a big jock, and my dad was a big jock, and all they had was broken bones to show for it,” Stuart says. “My brother’s 15 years older than me, so when I came around, they said, ‘You can play music. You can thank me later.’”
Inspired by Michael J. Fox in “Back To the Future,” Stuart took up guitar lessons and also played double bass in the school orchestra. His proficiency earned him a scholarship to the University of Memphis, and at age 22 he joined the Pawtuckets, a local Americana band, on bass. Over the years, he built an impressive résumé, backing up such high-profile local artists as Alvin Youngblood Hart, Cory Branan, Jed Zimmerman and Kelley Mickwee, and John Paul Keith.
But Stuart’s promising music career came into jeopardy in 2010 when he was diagnosed with cancer. During treatment, Stuart, who had never written a song before, began composing, as much to pass the time as to help process everything that was happening. “I was bored and really started just playing acoustic guitar,” Stuart recalls. “And that led to trying to come up with some ideas and write a song. And then I’d try to record it and see what I sound like. A lot of terrible tunes came out of it all. And I knew they were terrible, but you got to do it. You’ve got to make an awful table before you build a good one.”
A few months later, when Stuart’s father died, he threw himself completely into his new craft, determined to write and record a tribute to his dad, the “Lou” of Blues For Lou. Though he still had no intention of becoming a solo performer, Stuart did send tracks to some of his music buddies for feedback. To his surprise, they ended up pushing him toward his new musical sideline. Mickwee played some songs for fellow Texas transplant Jimmy Davis, who dragooned Stuart to play his first-ever solo gig opening for Davis in fall 2011 at Otherlands Coffee Bar.
Then Powell, floored by what he heard, pulled Stuart into the studio to re-record some of the songs.“There were a couple of songs we tried where it just wasn’t better than the demo,” says Powell, explaining how the album comprises both professional and homemade recordings. “There was one song where it’d come to him, and he went in this one room in his house to record it quickly before he forgot it late at night, and he was singing and playing quietly so as not to wake up his wife in the next room. It had this urgency and hushed tone to it that was really cool, so we just had to keep it.”
Once the record was complete, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place with Stuart’s old Pawtuckets’ bandmate Mark McKinney scooping up the record for release on his Madjack label.
Now Stuart finds himself balancing his sideman gigs with his ascendant career as a singer-songwriter. Besides playing gigs with bands like the 145s and Remus Bodeemus, he’s dug out his old upright bass for shows with Deering & Down and his label mate and gigging partner Kait Lawson, with whom he is slated to open some shows for Star & Micey later this year.
“It’s kind of like reinventing something new,” Stuart, who is also working on some opening slots for Branan, says of the upright. “Here I am on one hand singing and writing tunes, and on the other hand I’m doing this upright thing. It’s like two new things happening I’m really digging.”