ike many in his craft, veteran bluegrass singer and bandleader Mark Newton became a working musician straight out of high school, and as he talks about his career and new album from his Nashville-area home, he quickly counts fingers and toes and expresses bemused surprise that his fast-approaching 50th birthday means that career now spans more than three decades.
"Hillbilly Hemingway" is his third release fronting the Mark Newton Band and continues his long association with Virginia-based Rebel Records through a variety of solo and band projects he's been involved with.
"Follow Me Back To The Fold," a tribute to women of bluegrass that he produced and performed on garnered him an IBMA award in 2001 as Recorded Event of the Year.
Though he figures he's been involved with roughly one project a year over his career, Newton is emphatic as he says, "I think this is the best actual record I've ever done in my life."
Though life began for Newton in Paducah, Ky., the family moved at an early age to Fredericksburg, Va., where his musical education started with family.
"My father, there was 11 children (in his family), 7 boys and 4 girls, and, of course, (they were) always part of my household growing up early on as a child."
Growing up in northern Virginia during the '60s, Newton had ample exposure to the early beginnings of the bluegrass festival scene.
"My influence, absolutely, came out of the Washington metropolitan area, and as you know...historically, one can debate that the D.C. market for bluegrass and country music is one of the hottest markets that supports this type of music in the nation. And, of course, being raised in Fredericksburg, all the music that came out of there, whether it's actually seeing the bands and going to the festivals in the mid-'60s, you know, or as a young child going to festivals like Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va., Lake Whippoorwill in Warrenton, Va., American Legion Park in Culpeper, Va...those were three really key outdoor events."
"Of course, now we know them as bluegrass festivals, but back in those days they were just sort of 'outdoor music festivals,' and you might see Bill Monroe followed by Buck Owens, for example, or Webb Pierce followed by Reno and Smiley, and the list goes on. So, you could go to these places in less than an hour's drive from where I was at, (and) seeing all this stuff at an early age really left an impression on me."
Following high school graduation, Newton passed through a number of bands including Heights Of Grass and the Knoxville Grass before coming to widespread notice in the mid-1980s as a member of the Virginia Squires with Sammy Shelor and the Simpkins brothers, Rickie and Ronnie. The collaboration resulted in four Rebel releases and opened doors for Newton into a musical society that included the likes of Tony Rice and the late John Duffey.
The Squires eventually broke up, with Shelor moving on to the Lonesome River Band and the Simpkins brothers joining up with Rice for an extended period. Newton enjoyed a period as a sort of "utility man," doing guest appearances on various projects before getting the urge to step out on his own terms.
"I got to a place where I wanted to get on my own, to try to create and be sort of my own artist, if you will, and that's when I contacted Rebel, and I released my 'Living A Dream' project in 1998. Then, I did my 'Follow Me Back To The Fold' tribute to women in bluegrass, which was released in May, 2001...But again, my goal was just to try to continue to create and be part of this music that I had been around all my life, and that brought recognition to me. Then, I started my band at that time and recorded my first (Mark Newton) 'Band' CD, 'Charlie Lawson's Still'."
"No Boundaries," a Mark Newton Band record followed.
"But it's been three years this past June since I've had a record out, which is way too long, I think. And I think that in some ways, to be quite honest with you music, like anything, like any kind of job you work, whatever you pursue, I think there's times when you have peaks and valleys, and you're just kind of keeping at it and trying to be creative and trying to always grow as an artist."
As much as he enjoyed the people and music of the Virginia scene he had been so long a part of, Newton realized that he was in one of those valleys. Or, closer to the truth, he was feeling like he was simply in a rut.
"I think somewhere in there, after my 'No Boundaries' record, I just kind of, I don't know, flattened out...I just couldn't get myself up sometimes. I felt like I was taking the same roads and doing the same creative things that I had done time and time again. I had just been thinking in my mind for a long time about moving to Nashville and, of course, I started coming to Nashville in the early '70s. I have a lot of friends here, whether it's in the bluegrass world or the country world, and I just felt like I needed something to inspire me, if you will, and get me going again."