When describing his hometown, Mark Cline Bates can’t help but light up with a heavy dose of Putnam County pride.
“I was raised in a little town called Hurricane, West Virginia, which until they put the Walmart in was a one-stoplight town. The town was full of very friendly people. I had a very great family upbringing and we all were very close. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, so music was always a big part of my life — even as a child. My great-aunt Nanna helped raise me, and she’s played piano at the church for 65 years. Being around her has always been an invaluable experience. My high school was in a field by the river, it was very rural and small-town.”
Those roots of Bates’ upbringing run deep in the music and lyrics of his brand-new self-titled album. He said his musical influences run the gamut. “I started off with George Jones, Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. Those guys were all on my radar and gave me my love for country music,” he said, admitting that he listened to a lot of other styles. “I also listened to a big variety of music, and lately I’ve gotten into the Texas singer-songwriters likeTownes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, as well as Hayes Carll and Corb Lund — he’s from Canada, but he has that same style,” he says, while also citing rock legends such as Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen.
The new disc — released last week — is Bates’ third. He says he has become a lot more comfortable with the creative process. “When I first started recording, it was kind of an unknown place. There’s definitely a learning curve. It’s very different than playing live. But, this time around, I had worked very hard in putting a team together that saw eye to eye with what I was doing, and shared my vision. So, it was a very different process. I was still trying to find my identity on the first two.”
Bates spent a couple of years living as far removed from Appalachia as one can imagine: Southern California. He said being out west helped him revisit his heritage. “I think that, oddly enough, it brought me back closer to my roots. It was the first time I had been that separated from home before, so there was an emptiness from being apart from that lifestyle. So, I gravitated toward what I knew and where I came from. If anything, the two years there made me find out who I am, what made me tick, and what I love.’
One of the highlights of the disc is the title track where Bates name-checksRandy Travis — an artist that is one of his favorites. “When I wrote that song, Randy was going through a lot of personal issues, and I was listening to him a lot. That brought that out,” said the singer. One can also hear a heavy dose of a restless spirit throughout the album — including “If I Don’t Win,” which he says is very reflective of who he is.
“As a musician, I’ve been pounding on the door for about eight years now, so it’s been a long road. But it’s also endowed me with a little bit of grit and staying power. The recurring themes for me when I was writing this record was ‘Yes, this is kind of a difficult time, but I’m going to continue to fight the good fight. I’ve swam over halfway across the river at this point, so it’s too late to turn back now. There is a restlessness because that’s a part of the bumpy road.”
His songwriting is also an element of his career that he feels has grown. “I love to tell stories. When I first started, I was just telling stories, and hadn’t lived much at that point, and I was writing from other perspectives. Now, I’ve lived quite a bit of life and seen a lot of things, and that well to draw from has expanded. I’m still telling stories, but I think they are hitting home a little closer now.”