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Mark Newton becomes "Hillbilly Hemingway"

By John Lupton, December 2006

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Having made the decision to re-energize his career in Music City, he bumped into Carl Jackson at the 2004 IBMA shindig, then still in Louisville. Jackson encouraged Newton to contact him once he got to Nashville, and to make a long story short, Jackson ended up not only producing "Hillbilly Hemingway," but contributing material and vocals as well. Having produced himself in the past, Newton was more than ready for a fresh approach.

"Carl's value is...that he was raised on the music. He knows the music. He's a picker. He plays banjo. He plays guitar. He's a singer. He knows all the harmony parts. He knows harmony structure, and he sees it and hears it different ways. So, I think having that type of person come in...in some ways, it puts me in a position where I can just totally focus on my job at hand - singing a line, phrasing a line. I don't have to necessarily worry about the arrangement. However, he's someone that gets (to add) input. To me, that was something that I really needed."

The title track of the album refers to Hank Williams, and like many of Newton's generation and background, the music of the Alabama poet provided a soundtrack for much of his youth, but Newton recalls a personal connection.

"My mother...worked for the phone company back in those days, and Hank came to Paducah to the theater there and did a show. Audrey, his wife, unfortunately, went into the hospital and had to stay overnight in Paducah, and my mother was working the switchboard...so her claim to fame is that Hank called, and she placed Hank's call into his wife's hospital room."

As the album came together, the song seemed a natural choice as title track.

"Carl would send me these demos, and when that song got to me, I connected to it immediately because if you listen to it and understand the history, it's about his life...When we were trying to come up with the title track, which I think is always one of the most difficult things to do - it just seemed like 'Hillbilly Hemingway' - we just all kind of signed off on it."

As a crowning touch, the album cover features a photo of Hank's boots, courtesy of Marty Stuart.

"(Marty) goes out and buys a lot of the memorabilia from different country artists over the years, and so he bought a bunch of stuff from Hank Williams' sister...So we called Marty, and he said, 'Yeah, just come on up to my warehouse.' So we walked through the warehouse...and it's like walking into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He just has all this cool stuff."

Also a contender for title track, though, was "It's A Good Town To Die In," which Newton found equally imbued with meaning (noting that Mike Ward, a longtime associate of Jackson's was the lead writer for both songs).

"I really connected to that song immediately. It's a song, to me, that I lived. If you listen to the lyrics, (the singer) starts as a small child in the neighborhood in (his) hometown...and then eventually, you know, we all go out into the world. We're all from someplace, our hometown, but we may have to go out in the big world and work. And then eventually you get, if you're fortunate, to retire or whatever, or you gravitate back to where you come from. No matter who you are, you're riding down the road and you have memories, and you reflect on your childhood or your hometown or certain things that stay with you all your life."

Again, Newton relates the personal chord struck in him by a song.

"You know, the word 'die' can be, in some peoples' minds - they might not sort of see it - but maybe they see it as a downer or something. But I see it as a very spiritual thing, I see it as a good thing because, you know, we all go back to where we come from. The last verse speaks upon laying your father to rest (with) the whole town gathered around. Well, I lost both of my parents. My dad was 55, my mother was 62. It sort of just takes me there, and I lived this image, and I just love singing it."

Newton is quick to point out, though, that although the band bears his name, he relies heavily on each of them (Clay Hess, guitar; Andy Ball, mandolin; Beth Lawrence, bass; and John Wheat, banjo) for their creative inputs as well as musical chops.

"I'm very blessed to play with a very talented band that represents our music...I'm gifted to work with really talented people."

In the end, Newton says, while the move to Nashville has been rewarding not only from a social and personal standpoint, "Hillbilly Hemingway" demonstrates that it was the right professional move as well.

"I think it's a great representation of my influences. It's really just an extension of what I have done for most of my career. People think it's some kind of a drastic change, but it really isn't...I've been a contemporary singer, but I also have my traditional roots. This record clearly represents all the musical influences I grew up with, whether it's country-flavored or bluegrass-flavored."

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