Q&A with Mark Wenner (The Nighthawks) - mission of recreating rock ’n’ roll from the ever-exciting roots of American Music

"Rock and Roll and the popularity of real African American music really did help change America (and other counties too). When Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper and Al Jackson and Booker T worked together at Stax, it proved that there could be joy and harmony. Still not enough to stop all the hate and fear but it did shake the walls."

Mark Wenner: The Nighthawks On The Road Again

New Year’s Eve 2021 into 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary for the band as it has remained true to its initial mission of recreating rock ’n’ roll from the ever-exciting roots of American Music. Seminal American roots music band The Nighthawks are travelin’ that blues highway once again on their new CD, Tryin’ To Get To You, releasing April 17 on EllerSoul Records. The Nighthawks, who will celebrate 50 years as a band at the end of 2021, have long been celebrated for their excursions into the great American songbook of blues, roots and early rock ’n’ roll; and Tryin’ To Get To You continues that righteous run, as the quartet delves into some deeply-rooted chestnuts, along with several new original songs from the group. The current band includes original founding member Mark Wenner - harmonicas and vocals; Dan Hovey - guitars and vocals; Mark Stutso - drums and vocals; and Paul Pisciotta basses and vocals. Tryin’ To Get To You was produced by David Earl and The Nighthawks and recorded at Severn Sound Studio. The album’s 13 tracks showcase the breadth and expertise of the band in their explorations into all branches of roots music. Besides their scintillating covers, the album includes two original songs from Dan Hovey and two from the combined pens of Mark Stutso and Pittsburgh flash Norman Nardini.

The Nighthawks was an idea in Mark Wenner's brain long before he was able to implement it. The musical product of pre-1958 radio in Washington, D.C., he did not know there were rules against mixing blues, R&B, honky-tonk country, doo-wop, gospel and rockabilly into one delicious stew. In 1972, Mark, then 23, returned to his hometown after a New York City band apprenticeship eager to start a real, work-every-night band based on American roots music. He found a receptive local scene. Washington has long been a musical melting-pot of the kind that made Memphis the source point for the evolution of American music in the second half of the 20th century. It just never had a Stax or Sun record label to tell the world. As the city exploded with an influx of people from all the surrounding states during the Great Depression and World War II, Washington became a hotbed of musical cross-fertilization. When Bill Haley first brought his wacky Pennsylvania mix of hillbilly music and rhythm and blues to D.C. in 1952, people got it. And white kids like Mark found the Howard Theater – now recently restored and part of the historic top tier of the Chitlin' Circuit that included Baltimore’s Royal, Chicago’s Regal and New York’s Apollo – just a 25-cent bus ride away from the suburbs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues n' Rock music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Like they used to say about the Navy, join and see the world. My music has gotten me to quite a few places, 49 states in the US (not Alaska) and a dozen countries including most of Northern Europe and Japan as well as the Caribbean.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Blues people are as varied as all people: a lot of really nice people and a few real assholes. I found the Blues element in most American roots music to be the most appealing part. It has been the soundtrack to most of my life.

How do you describe your songbook, sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

My songbook encompasses a wide swath of most American roots music based on the smaller groups, black and white, that evolved in the late 40s into the early 60s. I prefer the sound of one or two guitars, with harp, bass and drums. Organ and piano are optional. As far as material, anything goes. I have been able to format nearly everything I have wanted to do into that style and sound. I enjoy electric bass, but have always loved the thump and groove of the big upright. Horns are optional. I didn't even like horns in my blues until later. I remember discovering a BB King album without horns and really loving it. When they remastered some of Muddy’s awful album, Blues and Brass, and eliminated the horns so you could hear Cotton and Spann, I was thrilled! I don't know where my "creative drive" comes from but it dominates my behavior and keeps me in trouble.

"I am afraid that if Blues were to be more mainstream and popular it would turn to shit like most pop culture, even though I spent a lot of time early on promoting Blues and trying to get everyone to like it!" (The Nighthawks on stage/ Photo by Chip Py)

What characterize the current lineup of The Nighthawks? What are the lines that connect the legacy of The Nighthawks from the 1970s to nowadays?

The transition from the last version of The Nighthawks to the current lineup went smoothly over the summer of 2018, as Paul Bell and Johnny Castle chose to stay off the road but stay active locally. As often as possible, Dan Hovey and Paul Bell played together that summer. Dan had always been the guest guitarist for the traditional pre-Thanksgiving event in Kensington, Maryland, and had subbed for Paul several times. By the Fall, Dan was holding down the core of the tunes and Paul was free to add the spice. As Johnny brought his focus to his own band, the Thrillbillys, Paul Pisciotta took over holding down the big bottom. Paul P was no stranger to the band, having just missed joining in 1974 after auditioning the same day as Jan Zukowski. I remembered listening to him in the early ’60s when Paul was playing with Robert Gordon in the Confidentials. He and Mark Stutso, now with a decade under his belt, quickly became a rock-solid and swinging rhythm section virtually overnight. Both his own vocal harmony and Dan’s relaxed yet powerful baritone have taken the three- and four-part harmony to new heights. Mark Stutso and Dan Hovey both are actively writing, and their skills are apparent in the originals included on this set.

What touched (emotionally) you from new album's songs? Anything you'd like to say about "Tryin’ To Get To You"?

The tasty covers include tunes from Jimmy Reed (“Come Love”), T-Bone Walker “I Know Your Wig Is Gone”), James Brown (“Tell Me What I Did Wrong’ - also recorded by the ’Hawks on their 1990 release Trouble, which featured Danny Morris on lead vocal), and their contemporary roots brethren Los Lobos (“Don’t Worry Baby”). As in albums past, The Nighthawks continue to salute Elvis with the presence of the title track (also culled from the Trouble album), take on Elvis Presley’s take on a tune from the gospel group The Eagles. Mark Stutso and Dan Hovey both are actively writing, and their skills are apparent in the originals included on this set. Dan Hovey gets lowdown with Hank Ballard’s “Rain Down Tears” on the new disc; and me takes a stab at the Manhattans’ “Searchin’ for My Baby,” from my educational days and nights attending the Howard Theater in D.C. in the early ’60s. The crew is back to the swinging feel for the obscure “Luscious” from Rockabilly Roy Hall. From the kings of the Carolina Beach Music scene, Chairmen of the Board, comes the heavy blues riff of the same name, “Chairman of the Board” with a Mark Stutso lead vocal. Showcasing the band’s acoustic side to finish off is a Dan Hovey original, “The Cheap Stuff.” In typical Nighthawks fashion, the playlist is all over the map, yet the style and sound are unmistakably THE NIGHTHAWKS.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My relationship with Muddy Waters was the most important of all. James Cotton as well. Muddy's band from the mid ‘70s and John Hammond. And all the fine folks who have been in the Nighthawks. The best advice I got was from Slim Harpo. He said "You play pretty good. Find some guys and stick with them."

"I found the Blues element in most American roots music to be the most appealing part. It has been the soundtrack to most of my life."

(Photo: Mark & Muddy)

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

There were giants in those days. I don't foresee anyone coming down the pike who comes close to people like Muddy, Wolf, Hooker and Hopkins. I don't have hopes or fears about the future of the Blues. I am more concerned about the future of Humankind.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I am afraid that if Blues were to be more mainstream and popular it would turn to shit like most pop culture, even though I spent a lot of time early on promoting Blues and trying to get everyone to like it!

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

Rock and Roll and the popularity of real African American music really did help change America (and other counties too). When Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper and Al Jackson and Booker T worked together at Stax, it proved that there could be joy and harmony. Still not enough to stop all the hate and fear but it did shake the walls.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

No question. 1952 to 1954 Chicago tavern with Muddy, Walter, Jimmy, Spann, and Below ripping it up and the women screaming.

What touched (emotionally) you from tattoo art and rare vintage motorbikes? What does 'Road' mean to you?

First time I saw a real, colorful forearm dragon tattoo in a store in Woodstock, New York, I knew I was destined for ink. I remember seeing the DC African American guys on their multi light dresser Harleys when I was in the back of my parent's car. I remember hearing a group of Harley's picking up my friend's sister a few blocks away. What a sound in the night! Road has meant a way of life. I am easing back quite a bit but it is still not unusual to find me behind the wheel for 3-5 hours on a US highway. I hate leaving my wonderful home, wife, dog and motorbikes, but once I pull out I do feel a sense of freedom. The best excuse for not having done something is "I was on the road."

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