It was a cold winter night in December 1997, and walking up Saluda Street towards Monterey Jack's for the annual Fishco Christmas party, I heard a familiar voice calling out my name. "I've got something I want you to hear," Mark Bryan said, as he pressed a white label cassette into my hand. "It's some stuff I just recorded up in Charlotte, some of my old songs that I may put out after the next Hootie album." A little over two years later, that time has come with the March 14th release of the guitarist's first solo album for Atlantic Records, "30 On The Rail." Back in 1997 Mark asked me to listen to that tape and tell him what I thought, maybe even write up an unpublished review and send it to him as a lark. Although I did pop the tape in later that night and several more times over the intervening months, that 'review' was never written -- I suppose this one will have to do.
Fast forward to early February, 2000. It is a few days before the Valentine's holiday and Bryan is stuck in New York City doing interviews like this one to promote the new album. When he calls me, it is from a phone booth on 6th Avenue, during a break from shopping for his wife's Valentine gift. Ignoring possible Wallflowers references, we manage to talk about his record, his songs, and life as a Blowfish, as trucks and pedestrians blow audibly by.
The obvious first question here is "Why?" He is a member of the most successful rock band of the 1990's, four musicians in the envious position of never having to work again if they don't want to. As Mark explains it, "I really did this just for the songs. As a songwriter I can't leave these laying around my house--they need to be heard." According to him, "These were songs I had written over the years, stuff that never got onto a Hootie record."
Some of the songs are quite old, Mark says. "She Stays In Love", that's from 1988, it's probably the oldest song on the album. That was supposed to be a Dash Rip Rock sort of thing," Making the Dash connection even more powerfully is the use of that band's original drummer and current Cowboy Mouth leader, Fred LeBlanc. Mark reveals, "If you listen real close, Fred yells into his drum mike at the end of that song."
The entire band Bryan utilizes is made up of all-stars, in fact. In addition to LeBlanc, the session included Don Dixon on bass and Peter Holsapple (the fifth Blowfish at one point, currently in the Continental Drifters). Raleigh, NC band Hobex shows up to back Bryan on one song, the breezy "Drinkin' You Pretty," Hank Futch of The Blue Dogs plays on the bluegrass-y "Halfway To Nowhere," Danielle Howle sings backing vocals on the ballad, "City By The River," and Hootie percussionist and current Cravin Melon drummer Gary Greene contributes his talents on congas and tambourine.
Having such a group of musical friends to tap for a project like this made it easy when it came to the recording sessions, Bryan says. "We had all toured together in different situations, so it wasn't so different that it was a big deal. We did the whole thing in two weeks, really knocked it out." Over the years, Bryan's singing voice has been a bone of contention among Hootie fans, but his performance here is solid and surprisingly strong. Bryan is the first to admit he's not the greatest singer in the world, but as he explains, he had some help in this first step up to the lead microphone. "Aside from just getting better on my own over the years, Don Dixon helped coach me with phrasing and other stuff. 'How would you sing it?' I asked him. For "City By The River," for example, we even recorded a take with him on vocals, to show me his way of singing a song like that. He smoothed me out a little bit and took off some of the rougher edges-- he's such a good singer."
That vocal coaching shows on some of the album's standout tracks--and there are many of those. In Bryan's hands, free from the collaborative aspects of Hootie, one can hear more of his personal musical influences in the songs. Early Springsteen surfaces in "The Story Goes On," Elvis Costello in "City By The River," The Replacements on "Drinkin' You Pretty," and The Smithereens in the opening track, "If It Happens." Bryan agrees that these songs show more of him than his work within Hootie, "because with the band it's worked on by the rest of the band, shaping it into a Hootie song. With this, I had complete control over the end result. It's like, 'I wrote it, here it is, lets play it.'"
Like any given Hootie album, there are local references sprinkled throughout the songs. "City By The River," is about a relationship, but the city in question is undoubtedly Columbia.
The propulsive guitar rock of "I'll Fade Away," begins with the line, "I was stuck at Sticky's on a Friday in July," a reference to a tiny, long gone 5 Points bar (J. D. Stickys, where both Darius Rucker and Dean Felber tended bar at one time--it is now Rough Draft.). Mark says, "A friend and I got drunk there and he came up with that line, and the song came out of it." The album title itself is another reference to a night spent in a bar, Mark adds. "I turned thirty around the time I recorded this album. It was the summer of 1997 and a friend of mine was also turning thirty. For his birthday, he wanted nothing more than to be sitting on the rail at Group Therapy. All night long, he kept shouting, 'Thirty on the rail, thirty on the rail!' and after that I had my title for the album."
For all the songs that were set free on this album, Bryan says there are more still out there. Some of them were consciously not released. "Future Is Another Place," a song some may remember from early Hootie shows, "Was just not a good fit with the rest of the album, even though we recorded it at the same time." Another forgotten Hootie song by Bryan which he still gets questions about is "Fake ID." That one, he admits, "Is just too immature of a song, really--I wrote it when I was very young myself. Darius got to a point with the band where he didn't want to sing it, and we let it go after that."
Knowing that Bryan is the lead guitarist with Hootie, one can hear many songs on his album which would have worked well with the band. It isn't a question of whether they work, however, it is more a problem of if they will fit, he says. "We just have too many damn songs, which is a good problem to have, as a band." Other outlets are helping clean up some of the stray tunes, however. Mark reports that "The band just redid "City By The River," with Bebe Winans and a gospel choir, for the soundtrack to the Jesus miniseries." And Mark has other ideas about some of the songs on his own album. "I'm not fooling myself into thinking this will sell tons of albums, but just having the songs out is a big help. Now that there's a chance for them to be heard, I could see someone else covering one of these songs and having a hit with it five years from now."
Hootie fans shouldn't expect to see a Mark Bryan solo tour anytime soon, he says. "I'm just hoping that everybody likes it first, but I'm happy that it is coming out. There may be some TV appearances, radio stuff in some markets, but I am not going to tour. I want to stay home and be daddy for a while."
Bryan talks a lot about this album as a closing point for this part of his life. He has used it to release early, unrecorded songs, and used musicians whom he had been a fan of long before they played with his band. The album was even recorded in the same studio room in Charlotte, NC where Hootie recorded their first CD, "Kootchypop." One recent story Mark tells illustrates the way his life has come full circle. "I was fourteen years old when I got my first guitar, an Ibanez Blazer Fender copy, for 180 bucks at The Harmony Hut in Lake Forest Mall (In his home state of Maryland.). Just recently, I saw it in San Diego--some kid from my old neighborhood has it and he brought it to a Hootie concert to show it to me. He had sanded it down and repainted it with graffiti, I could barely recognize it."
Like that guitar, Mark Bryan has passed through many years as a musician and a member of Hootie & The Blowfish, adding metaphorical coats of paint to his life, as his songwriting and performing abilities grew. 30 On The Rail, then, is a summation of the journey so far.