"I can't tell you how many times people came to my show and said, 'Good God, you're not nearly as depressing in concert as you are on your records!'" laughs Mark. "I'm like, 'Gee thanks...I think you meant that in a nice way, but I'm not really sure.'"
He could be sure of one thing - slow songs or not, Mark Wills had a track record any artist would envy. He first gained attention in 1996 when his self-titled debut album produced the hits "Jacob's Ladder" and "Places I've Never Been." He followed up with '90s radio staples like "Wish You Were Here," "She's In Love" and "I Do (Cherish You)," and "Don't Laugh At Me." In 1999, Mark won the ACM award for Top New Male Vocalist. Fans loved to hear Mark's warm baritone wrap around a touching ballad. In fact, they loved most of them straight to the top of the charts. The only problem? It's kind of hard to rock an audience with hit after hit at slow dance speed.
"I've had this perception by fans and radio stations as being this sad guy, because I've had all these sad songs," says Mark. "But with this album, I decided to take the bull by the horns and say, 'You know what? We're not going to do that anymore. We're not going to keep putting out all these ballads that make me look like this guy who doesn't have anything to smile about.' Because that's not me."
It's certainly not. With his new album, And The Crowd Goes Wild, Mark is ready to show his fans why he's nothing but smiles. The album's first single, the Jeffrey Steele/Craig Wiseman-penned title cut, is a self-affirming anthem, whose catchy chorus of "You're shining like a superstar baby" made it an instant smash. The song was leaked to eight stations across the country, and within three days it had 103 spins.
"That means they took it straight off an mp3 file," says Mark excitedly. "They didn't even wait for the CD to come to the radio station. They just heard it and started playing it. That's crazy - I've never had a song like that. It's a cool feeling."
It's a feeling he's been dreaming of since the age of 15, when a young, underage Mark entered the world of honky tonks, singing in talent shows at a Georgia bar called Lonesome Dove. A couple of months later, Mark went to another club, Stonewalls, and then to the Atlanta bar West Texas. The teenage entertainer was winning contests almost as often as his musical heroes Alabama were topping the charts.
Just before he turned 18, Mark earned the coveted lead singer spot in the house band at the popular Marietta, Ga. club, the Buckboard, where Travis Tritt was discovered.
"I started singing Tuesday through Saturday, three or four sets a night," recalls Mark. "It was a weird way to grow up, because I was in a bar where everybody else was at least 21 and I was just 18. But I didn't feel out of place at the time. I was right in the middle of everything. I made a lot of friends and had a lot of fun. I was getting to do what I wanted to do, plain and simple. And I absolutely loved it!"
Mark's tenure as lead singer of the Buckboard Bandits was during the heyday of Garth Brooks and the career explosion of artists like Brook & Dunn and Tim McGraw.
"We were strictly a cover band," says Mark. "It was a dance club, so people weren't coming in there to hear the band do original songs. They were coming in there to do the 'Boot Scootin' Boogie.' Line dancing was big. We were basically a live jukebox.
"We'd start off our set with the Kentucky Headhunters' 'Dumas Walker,' he remembers. "Then we'd do Brooks & Dunn's 'Neon Moon,' Garth Brooks' 'Friends In Low Places' and Alan Jackson's 'Chattahoochee.'
When he wasn't paying his dues at the Buckboard, Mark made trips to Nashville to sing demos for publishing companies. Those demos caught the ears of Mercury Nashville execs Keith Stegall and Carson Chamberlain. They trekked to Georgia to see the young man with the smooth, wise-beyond-his-years voice.
"We did a show that Saturday night and they said, 'We'll call you back next week.' I hung out with them most of Saturday night and they left. Monday morning about 11 o'clock, the phone rang. They said they wanted me to come to Nashville and meet the label's president, Luke Lewis, and talk to everybody about a record deal."
During his meeting, Lewis asked Mark what he wanted to do. Mark's reply? "I said, 'Man, I want to sing.' I didn't want to be Garth Brooks or Billy Ray Cyrus. I wanted to sing - and that's all I ever wanted to do - make records and sing for people. Entertain them. And they said 'Okay.'"
Nearly five years after his first night at the Buckboard, Mark signed with Mercury in 1996. Together, Mark and producer Carson Chamberlain released four albums. When it was time to record some new songs for Mark's 2002 Greatest Hits record, Mark decided to make a change, working with noted songwriter/producer Chris Lindsey, who's penned smashes including "Amazed" and also produced the artists Chris Cagle and Jimmy Wayne. For And The Crowd Goes Wild, Mark also sat in the producer's chair.
"I've never produced before," admits Mark, "but because I had some experience under my belt, I had a feeling of what I wanted the record to sound like. How I wanted it to feel. But co-producing your own album is a weird thing because now you've just lost one more avenue to blame it on if it doesn't work," he adds, laughing. "You can't go, 'Well that new producer didn't get the performance I wanted on the record.'
"There's a little more pressure, but at the same time there was a lot more freedom. When Chris and I worked together on the greatest hits package, it was brand new. With this album, we've gotten to know each other a lot better. We definitely relate to each other on other levels. We're both dads, we're both musicians. He knows what he wants to hear, and I know what I want to hear. When you get two guys that see a song differently but they're looking at it in the same direction, it can be a great combination. When we meet in the middle, it comes off really cool That's what I wanted. I didn't want this record to sound like every other record in Nashville. When you hear this record, you're gonna hear 'different.'"
True to his word, the album is a different Mark Wills record. In addition to the rocker "And The Crowd Goes Wild," then there's "Suntan," a sexy love song about a woman not afraid to show off her tan lines, and nothing more.
"We took a couple of chances with the songs we record," allows Mark. "I mean, the song 'Suntan' - I've never recorded anything like that before. The country music fans who've been fans of mine and have any records from my past are not going to go, 'Oh, it's another love ballad-filled record from Mark Wills' because it's not. It's very different for me."
That's not to say there aren't any ballads on the album. One of them, "That's A Woman," is a favorite track of Mark's. "That's a great song," he says. "I'm 30 years old. I look in the mirror and then I look at pictures of me when I took my first photo shoot for the record company. They didn't have to airbrush around my eyes back then. Now it's a different story. And what woman doesn't like to be told, 'Hey, you've got a few gray hairs - big deal.' 'That's A Woman' talks about stuff like that."
Another highlight of And The Crowd Goes Wild is a duet with one of Mark's heroes, Ronnie Milsap. The two sing Ronnie's 1984 Top 10, "Prisoner Of The Highway."
"That was probably the coolest thing I've ever gotten to do," he says, beaming. "My dad is a truck driver, and that song was always one of his favorites."
Mark's even performed a Milsap medley in his shows for the last two years and has nothing but effusive praise for his idol. But when it came time to share the mic with his hero, Mark was at a loss for words.
"We were sitting in the studio and Ronnie sang his part," he recalls. "Then he says, 'Was that okay? Does that sound good to you?' I was like, 'Dude, you're Ronnie Milsap - of course it sounds good!'" he laughs.