Last summer a group of musicians made their way from Los Angeles to a tiny house in Joshua Tree National Park. A rocky, foreboding desert, Joshua Tree is a place of mystery, from stories of abandoned rock castles and Mayan jade mines to the sad death of alt country legend Gram Parsons. The musicians, led by singer-songwriter Mark Cline Bates, filled the small house with instruments and recording gear and produced a record, Am I Getting Warmer Now? Like the desert itself, Am I Getting Warmer Now? rides the line between tranquility and danger.

Am I Getting Warmer Now? is Mark’s fourth album, the second to be produced by Grammy Award winner Eric Liljestrand (Lucinda Williams, Ringo Starr, Bill Frissell). “I chose to go out West because of my producer,” says Mark. “I’d worked with him on Night Songs, my second album, and I love the guy. He’s got an excellent ear and intuition as a producer/engineer/mixer and is an incredible guitar player as well. He’s the main sell for driving the truck across the country, for sure.”

Along with near constant touring, Mark has performed on National Public Radio’s famed Mountain Stage program. “Death Sucks,” from his first album, Down The Narrow, was that network’s Song Of The Day pick. He’s performed on morning shows, midday shows, and evening shows on TV and radio stations too numerous to mention, and has been the featured interview in Billboard magazine. A self-titled third album was released in 2014. Produced by Mark Nevers (Lambchop, Alan Jackson), that record leans more toward country than Am I Getting Warmer Now?.  Mark’s song “Take Me Home” was commissioned for the 2013’s Philly Kid, adding a layer of complexity to the conclusion of the popular mixed martial arts film.

The songs on Am I Getting Warmer Now? were born of bereavement. A year ago last fall, Mark lost a close relative, the patriarch of his family, and spent the entire winter in deep isolation at his family’s farm house in West Virginia, eventually writing 150 songs or so. He sent them all to his producer, and they were patiently whittled down to the eleven that ended up on the record. “There was a lot of bourbon consumed and a lot of strings that were broken,” says Mark. “I came out of the experience a different person, and the songs on the record are remnants of those months at the ‘Old Homeplace,’ as my family calls it.”

Hot during the day and cold at night, Joshua Tree can easily slide from solitude into loneliness, and Am I Getting Warmer Now? describes the kind of restlessness of mind that enjoys companionship while always looking over its shoulder for an opportunity to move on. As he laments on “Oh, Carolina”:

Watch the sunsets with my feet in the sand
Till the stars come out
Warm breeze, smell of salt
And a heart free of doubt

But then one day with my wandering eye
I will have to return
To my home in the hills
Where the winters freeze and the summers burn

Mark splits his time between Nashville, Los Angeles, and West Virginia. Along with touring, that’s a lot of travel. It makes sense then that Am I Getting Warmer Now? has a prickly relationship with settling down. “I’ve got the fastest pair of wheels in town/ Even time can’t slow me down,” Mark sings on the record’s moody title track, while moments later declaring, “Oh baby baby, you know I need you/ I’ve been so lonesome”.

Am I Getting Warmer Now? may be poignant, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock. Like the desert, the record has a dangerous side. On “Elvis Presley First,” for example, Mark invokes the King––and a plate of Memphis ribs––as the anecdote (or is it permission?) for his introspective tendencies. The song features a reckless two-four groove courtesy of bassist Dan Schwartz and drummer Brian MaCleod, who have worked together on numerous projects, including records by Sheryl Crow and Roseanne Cash. Amidst the commotion, Mark speculates that Elvis’s “…heart was broken, and he died from all the hurt.”

Likewise the threatening, downbeat stomp of “Another Saturday” finds Mark “Going off the deep end/ Howling like the north wind/ …buzzing like the freeway.” After ending up in the jailhouse, Mark is regretful but not exactly remorseful. “You know Saturday ain’t easy after dark for me,” he sings on the song’s breezy, halftime chorus.

Recording together in a small space, any musician will tell you, is different than being spread out over a large studio or overdubbing parts seperately. You can actually hear the little Joshua Tree house on Am I Getting Warmer Now? as sounds congeal in its dusty corners and aged wallboard.

Mark’s first experienced performing in the Pentacostal church where his grandfather was the preacher. “When I turned 13,” Mark says, “my granddad said, ‘Son, it’s time for you to start doing something for God, so get up there and sing us a song.’  I couldn’t sing my way out of a bucket at the time and refused to do it. So, he got up there himself, with his awful arthritis, and sang. Then he said, ‘See church! I stole his blessing!’ Next week I sang out of guilt, and the rest is kind of history.”

Church music might not have been Mark’s calling, but you can hear its firey urgency on Am I Getting Warmer Now? “Duel In The Sun, for example, finds Mark examining the nature of evil: “Sinners sin, saints do, too/ Nothing’s black and white/ Right or wrong or inbetween/ It’s a hell of a hard fight.”

When the Joshua Tree sessions were completed, Mark and his producer took the tracks to the legendary Village Recorders in Los Angeles for overdubs by studio ace and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench. Tench is Am I Getting Warmer Now?s glue. Avoiding the usual rock cliches of piano pounding and Hammond organ sweeps, his parts are atmospheric and otherworldly, as befits a record that took form in the Joshua Tree desert. The plucked piano strings on “Shake It Up, for example, enhance that song’s sense of isolation. “You can lose track of the time/ On this great mountain that we climb/ Freeze your blood/ Run out of air,” Mark sings, as Tench settles into a more traditional piano pad.

“Sometimes I just feel like running away/ Blowing through every red light, a thousand miles a day/ Past the minivans, the tractor-trailers, and cops/ ‘Till I find a desert, or ocean, or mountaintop.”

Mark Cline Bates can’t make an ordinary record. Am I Getting Warmer Now? wasn’t pieced together over time at a neighborhood recording studio. Rather, as the above lyric from “Listen To Me Whine” infers, Mark is the kind of artist who will drive across country to find the correct mood, location, and cast of characters and then capture the moment. Am I Getting Warmer Now? documents the brief period in time where the songs, the music, and the vibe came together in the tranquil, terrifying solitude of Joshua Tree.

– Biography written by Paul Griffith

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