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Mark Erelli: Not your typical honky tonker

By John Lupton, March 2004

Mark Erelli realizes that he doesn't exactly fit the ideal of the prototypical "country" singer and songwriter raised on a hardscrabble farm in the rural South, plucking out mournful ballads on a $5 Sears guitar in the short respites between long, hard days in the fields or coal mines.

As he savors the reaction, thus far enthusiastic and approving, to his new hard-core, honky-tonk Signature Sounds release "Hillbilly Pilgrim," the self-described "folk singer" readily acknowledges that his upbringing was that of a typical suburban Boston kid.

"I grew up in Reading, about 12 miles north of Boston...my parents are both teachers, a high school teacher and a nursery school teacher, so education was always a big priority while growing up. Reading is your fairly average suburb town of Boston, not the poorest, kind of an average suburban town."

Erelli, 29, still lives and is based in the Boston area and says that, like many of his generation, his interest in music was sparked by the '80s heyday of MTV.

"I was always a music fan, ever since MTV came on the air, I was pretty much watching MTV the first six or seven years it was on, nonstop, and loved music."

He pauses and adds knowingly, "Of course, this was back when MTV was a bit more innocent and musically driven or even back when they showed videos."

During his high school years, Erelli played in a variety of bands, but never really conceived the idea of writing and performing on his own - that is until he came across master bluesman Chris Smither.

"I heard him on a radio station, did not know what the heck was going on, couldn't believe all that was coming from one man. Not the style of the guitar, but the beat, the groove and the philosophy. He was kind of a bridge between the blues stuff that I'd been listening to, like the Allman Brothers and stuff further back like T-Bone Walker...here was this guy doing these very philosophical lyrics, with the guitar, but he was also kind of rockin' and bluesy at the same time, and that just got me right from the get-go. As it turns out, he was playing a lot around Boston, and I would just follow him around. I didn't talk to him or anything, I'd just go and try to sit as close as I could and watch his hands."

Seeing a solo performer like Smither who could dominate a stage turned out to be an epiphany of sorts.

"I always thought you needed a band to even attempt stuff like that. Then, once I saw (Smither), I realized you don't need a band. It wasn't until I went to college and took a guitar with me and kind of sat down on my off time and started to really fool around with it ...it just kind of came out one night. You're in your late teens, you're dealing with a lot of new situations, and you're trying to make sense of it all. As it happened, I just started playing guitar around that time, and it became a way for me to make sense of all that, and at the same time, emulate my heroes."

His exposure to country music began with a high school tennis coach who introduced him to the genre, and to Erelli, it was just another form of music that he found himself attracted to solely on the basis of its merits.

"If someone covered a Hank Williams song, I'd want to know who Hank Williams was, and you dig enough, and all that wonderful history is right there, under the surface. It's a form of music that puts a lot of pride in tribute to the people who have come before you. I just kept digging back, wondering, if I liked Steve Earle, then I'll probably like Townes Van Zandt because Steve Earle is always mentioning Townes Van Zandt in his interviews, and if I like Townes Van Zandt, then I'll probably like Hank Williams because people keep comparing (them) in some respects. You just keep doing that with a few artists, and pretty soon you realize everyone is linked with everyone else."

Erelli is keenly aware that his career thus far has landed him in the ranks of the modern "singer-songwriter," a label that some artists and fans enthusiastically embrace, while others disdain and dismiss as "navel gazers."

"I don't put a lot of stock in labels myself, I listen to all different kinds of music, and just because something's considered jazz or blues or folk or what have you, doesn't diminish my interest before I hear the music. But I realize that not everybody's that open-minded, and some people will hear 'country' and go, 'Aagghh, I don't like country music, so I'm not going to listen to it.' That's where labels become problematic to me...there is a greater truth to it, historically as well. I heard this radio broadcast of Hank Williams...and he was being introduced as a 'folk singer' - Hank Williams, you know, one of the top five legends of country music, as we know him today, was being referred to as a folk singer in his day. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that someone referred to Woody Guthrie as a country singer somewhere along the line. I really feel like when I say 'folk singer', I'm trying to communicate with other people with my music, with 'the folk'. I'm trying to build community for myself and for others around my music, and through the medium of my music...To me, it's really very much in my interactions with people, and so that's why I feel like I'm okay with 'folk singer'. I realize that if you use the word 'folk' it's like a 4-letter word to 95 percent of the country."

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