Nashville-based musician Mark Robinson talks about the power and impact of Rock/Blues and his own paths

"I hope that the blues continues to thrill people for many, many years. I think it will. It connects with listeners in a way that most music doesn’t."

Mark Robinson: Southern Roads

Mark Robinson’s debut album Quit Your Job - Play Guitar ignited like the first kaleidoscopic blast of a fireworks display. It was an attention-grabbing harbinger of even more exciting, incendiary things to come. Robinson’s follow-up Have Axe - Will Groove (2013), provides an even more colorful and explosive display of the Nashville-based guitarist and songwriter’s estimable skills. For Robinson, the door to the blues opened when he was a teen, after hearing Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Allman Brothers, which in turn led him to the music of Muddy and other foundational artists. Soon after that the Bloomington, Indiana native abandoned his attempts to play trombone - an instrument his father also played - and bought a battered Gibson with money he made cutting lawns. Although he describes his trombone playing as “awful,” he was immediately able to make his guitar sing.

"I communicate best with a guitar in my hands, that’s just who I am."  (Photo by Gregg Roth)

Robinson (aka Guido) went to school in Bloomington, at Indiana University. He earned a degree in telecommunications while playing with bands and working at a local studio. Robinson was touring in a Top 40 band - and hating it - when his wife Sue was offered a job in Chicago. And Robinson’s hard-core schooling as a working blues musician began. The list includes Tad Robinson, Sunnyland Slim, Byther Smith, Lefty Dizz plus Jimmy Johnson and Queen of the Blues Koko Taylor. The latter two provided Robinson with epiphanies during his three-year Windy City stay. As luck had it, his wife got a job back in Bloomington, and Robinson found a position teaching in the University’s audio-visual department. In 2004 Susan got yet another job offer, this time in Nashville. And as Robinson’s debut album proclaims, he quit his job to play guitar, relocating to Music City. Soon he found himself collaborating with some of Nashville’s best roots songwriters and supporting a variety of artists including Tracy Nelson and Tommy Womack. Guitar slinger-songwriter Mark, whose first two albums were named to several “Best Of” blues and blues-rock lists, released a new digital single, Gone South, and itʼs going to surprise a lot of folks who thought they had him pegged solidly in the blues genre. The Mark Robinson Band released a new live CD "Live at The 5 Spot" (Releases July 7, 2017)This live album is what happened when a blues-rock band got to stretch out and play without limits. At its core, the Mark Robinson Band consists of Mark Robinson on guitar and vocals, Daniel Seymour on bass, and Rick Schell on drums. Blues, jazz, rock, country, soul and even a bit of psychedelia end up in extended jams that dig deep into the songs, the instruments, the players - into the heart of the music.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

I think living the life of an artist had given me a particular perspective on the world. Perhaps we are more open-minded and tolerant of different views. And traveling in different parts of the world has made me realize that people are basically the same everywhere. If you take politics out of the equation, everybody wants the same things. Music really is a universal language, and creates friendships across borders, boundaries and political parties.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues means to you?

To me, the blues is music that moves people, it communicates feelings and emotion. I have learned that I need to play music, and that playing blues is good for my soul. I communicate best with a guitar in my hands, that’s just who I am.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESΜΑΝ and SONGWRITER?

I’ve lived an interesting life. I’ve traveled the world, met all kinds of people, done all kinds of things. I’ve experienced love and heartbreak. I’ve been down and out and I’ve been on top of the world.  And I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazing songwriters and musicians—and to learn from them. I’ve made mistakes, but I wouldn’t change anything. The life I have lead is what makes me a bluesman and has given me a lot of stories to tell.

Mark Robinson with his guitar & Bruno the Big Brown Dog in his studio. (Photo by Andy Snyder)

How do you describe Mark’s sound and progress and what characterize your music philosophy?

I think I had my own sound very early on, but finding my voice as an artist and a songwriter has taken me some time. I think I am just coming into my own as an artist on my second CD, “Have Axe – Will Groove”. My music philosophy? You have to have great songs, and you have to give great performances. Connecting with your audience is the most important thing an artist can do.

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Roots/Rock n’ Roll researches and experiments?

I was a real rock and roll fan as a young kid, starting with the Drifters when I was barely old enough to talk, then on to the Beatles. By the time I was a teenager I was listening to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Steppenwolf, Jeff Beck, James Gang, also The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Allman Brothers. These bands led me back to Chicago Blues and then on back to Delta Blues. I dug deep into different Blues records and artists. I was listening to as many kinds of music as I could. When I got a guitar and started to play, I wanted to be a rock and roll guitar player -- but I quickly branched out and started to learn to play all kinds of things. Blues, Rock, Jazz, Country -- I was interested in playing all of it. The Allman Brothers were really big for me, and I loved that I could hear all kinds of musical influences in what they did. It helped me understand that it can all fit together. I still want to blend it all together -- it’s all one thing to me. I’m lucky, being in Nashville, I get to play all kinds of music with great musicians.

Has your music/lyrics changed greatly over the years or have you embarked on new directions recently?

I’m moving in some new directions now -- I have played guitar and produced some fantastic Americana and Roots artists in Nashville- Tommy Womack, Davis Raines, David Olney, Tiffany Huggins Grant, Mark Huff and others. I’m experimenting with roots music that connects more with Country, Folk, Rock and even Jazz -- mixing these styles with the Blues and Rhythm and Blues I have recorded and performed over the past 5 years. I’m interested in a broader approach to Roots music that takes in more styles and ideas.

"To me, the blues is music that moves people, it communicates feelings and emotion. I have learned that I need to play music, and that playing blues is good for my soul."

How do you describe ‘Live at The 5 Spot’ sound and philosophy?

Over time, the band began to stretch out more- playing deeper grooves, taking longer solos, making tempo changes and taking chances. A lot of the time, all three of us are improvising together. As this way of playing evolved and this became the way we perform, that became the philosophy behind what we do –start with good solid blues based songs and take them further out, go places blues band don’t go. It’s more about musical chemistry and gong places than it is about strict arrangements.

What´s been the highlight of gig in The Five Spot?

We are very comfortable playing at The 5 Spot. The sound is great, the staff is great and the audiences are really there for the music. Having a place to play music is a luxury anywhere, but particularly in Nashville, where the competition for gigs is so fierce, and clubs change so frequently. We used our residency at The 5 Spot to do an old school Revue show, like the R&B shows of the 50s and 60 – with us as the house band, supported guests artists every week. The highlight of the shows for me was David Olney and RB Morris singing “Stagger Lee” with the band – it was pretty incredible.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?

Most of my friends have been musicians, and a lot of what I know, I have learned from them.  And I have learned a lot from the blues legends, as well as some obscure players, writers and singers as well. But to single out one person who has had a lot of influence on me; Johnny Otis has been an inspiration to me. The Johnny Otis Revue was the model for one of my projects, the Mark Robinson Showband and Rhythm Revue. Johnny was a bandleader, a producer, a songwriter, a player, a musician. Not to mention that he was a host of radio and TV shows, a preacher, an author. He did so many things--he did them all well, and always with style and class.

What is the best advice a bluesman ever gave you?

I was playing with the great Chicago blues drummer Willie Smith one night years ago, and I was over-playing, just playing too much. Willie leaned over to me and said “Mark, space is notes too”.  I knew just what he meant, and I began to work on not overplaying at that moment.

Are there any memories from Willie “Big Eyes” Smith which you’d like to share with us?

I want to share a memory of playing with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. Willie was a fantastic drummer, he played with Muddy Waters for years. I was playing bass with Willie one night, in Chicago. I was not a very good bass player, and I was over-playing. I knew I was over-playing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Willie leaned over to me between songs and said, “Mark, you know space is notes, too.” I knew exactly what he meant, and it helped me to play less and find the groove. I still use that idea, that “space is notes, too.” Willie was a kind and generous soul and it was always great to play with him.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

I think I am in the most interesting time in my life right now. I am living my dream, making my own music and getting it out to people all over the world. I’m a very lucky man. I can’t wait for what comes next.

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Be true to yourself, play music you love and believe in. Don’t do it for money, if you don’t love what you do, it won’t matter to you in the long run.

"Absolutely the best place to be a musician is Nashville."  Photo by Gregg Roth

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?

The blues moves people and expresses deep feelings—when people experience the blues, they want to be a part of it in any way they can. The blues has been around a long time, and the blues is going to be with us for as long as people make music.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

When I lived in Chicago in the 80s, I went to the jam night at Buddy Guy’s club. This was the old club, the Checkerboard, years before he opened his current club, Legends. I walked in with my guitar and sat at the bar, the bartender came over to take my order and it was Buddy. He asked me, “Did you come to play, son? And I told him yes. He said, “Stick around and you can get up with me in the next set.” And I did. I got to play with him quite a few times after that. He’s an amazing player and entertainer. I learned a lot watching him and listening to him.

What has made you laugh from Sunnyland Slim?

Sunnyland was always positive and encouraging about what I played. Even when I didn’t think my playing was very good, he would always say something nice about it. He was very idiosyncratic – meaning that he never played a song the same way twice. So it was hard to learn how to play with him, it was hard to know where he was going to go. Sometimes I would say, “You lost me on that one, Slim” and he would answer, “But I found you again” – and he would laugh, which made me laugh.

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

I don’t really look back into the past. I’m much more interested in moving forward into the future. I’m surrounded by amazing musicians, artists, songwriters and singers in Nashville. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but in the here and now in Music City. I hope I can keep doing what I’m doing for a few more years.

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

I wish that excellent musicians and artists who dedicate their lives to playing music could make a decent living by working hard at it. The reality of the music business now is that most musicians aren’t making a living playing music. I’m not sure what it would take for this to happen, and I’m not sure if people will continue to create art if they can’t get paid reasonably for it.

What are some of the most memorable recording and fan times you've had in studio?                                       Photo by Dave Rust

When I recorded my first CD, “Quit Your Job – Play Guitar”, I wanted to have the legendary singer Tracy Nelson sing on it. I had a song I wanted her to sing on (“Try One More Time”). I knew she lived in Nashville, but I had never met her. So I found her email and sent her a message. She asked me to send her the song. A couple of weeks later she called me and told me she wanted to sing on it, and she had all of the backup vocals worked out in her head.

Having Tracy come sing on my CD was a huge thrill for me. I have been a fan of hers for many years, so I was really excited to work with her. She brought in Vickie Carrico to sing some parts and they were amazing!! That is a great memory for me.

Indiana, Chicago, Nashville, from the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between the local blues scenes?

Chicago has a great blues scene, and my hometown, Bloomington, Indiana, has a great music scene. But Nashville is the coolest music scene in the world. The blues scene in Nashville is not as active as it could be—but I play a lot of different kinds of music, and the creative community in Nashville cannot be beat.  Absolutely the best place to be a musician is Nashville.

When we talk about blues, we usually refer to memories and moments of the past. Apart from the old cats of blues, do you believe in the existence of real blues nowadays?

I think that blues, like all art forms, should be moving forward, evolving at all times. To me, the Allman Brothers are as much real blues as Sonny Boy Williamson. People always resist change. Remember that Eric Clapton, now thought of as an elder statesman of the blues, was once a young rocker. The blues purists said that he wasn’t playing “real” blues. There’s lots of cool new blues that I certainly think of as real blues. Just to name a few people: John Nemeth, Tad Robinson, JD McPherson, Otis Taylor (and his guitar player, my friend Shawn Starski), Colin Linden, Joe Bonamassa, the Royal Southern Brotherhood, Shaun  Murphy, Janiva Magness, The North Mississippi Allstars, my friend Ted Drozdowski of Scissormen—lots of new, younger artists are doing very cool things with the blues, and moving the style forward into new places.

Tell me a few things about your experiences from your travel in Greece?

We were only in Greece for a short time—but Athens is wonderful. The people are friendly, the history and culture are incredible--and I like ouzo! I hope I get to come visit Greece again—and this time I want to come and play the blues in Greece. I hope we can meet and have a drink when I come visit again.

Photo: Sue and Mark in Parthenon temple at Akropolis rock, Athens Greece

Why did you think that the Blues continues to generate such a devoted following in new generation?

Blues may have a devoted following with a young audience—but I wish it was a bigger following. Once in a while a blues artist breaks through in a bigger way into the popular culture—like Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan.  I think musical tastes are formed when people are young, and music that has a profound effect on someone in their formative years will stay with them.  People who connect with the blues at an early age are usually blues fans for the rest of their lives. I think the blues calls out to listeners who are looking for something real, something true, and something meaningful. Not everybody is seeking meaning or truth in music—some people want a catchy melody and a driving beat and that’s enough for them.

Would you mind telling me most vivid memory from workshops and lessons?

I remember having a guitar student who was probably 12 years old who wanted to play lead guitar. He worked at it, and worked at it, without much success. He struggled with it. One day he came in and asked me to play a 12 bar blues pattern for him. I started playing and he stood up in the small lesson room and began to play—making “guitar faces” and playing some lead lines that made sense and worked over the chords I was playing. When I got done with the 12 bar pattern I stopped playing and said “You’ve got it now!” He smiled and said “I’m bad, I’m Nation-wide”. I love that moment when a student “gets it” and something new becomes clear to her or him in that moment.

What's the legacy of Blues in world culture and civilization?

The blues is a wonderful combination of European and African influenced mixed together into a gumbo of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas that are unique.  Every form of popular music has been influenced by American pop and rock music. The foundation of American rock and roll music is the blues. Blues has had a big impact on all popular music throughout the world.  So hip-hop, Bollywood tunes (Indian Cinema music) rock, country, Americana—they all have their roots deep in the blues.

"Blues has had a big impact on all popular music throughout the world."  (Photo by Dave Rust)

Do you know why the slide and resophonic guitar are connected to the Blues? 

Around 1900 on a railroad platform in Mississippi, W.C. Handy listened to an African American man playing a guitar—using a pocket-knife as a slide. Handy said it was the eeriest, strangest music he had ever heard. No one knows for sure if the idea of using a slide on a stringed instrument comes from Africa—but many of the early bluesmen report playing a diddley bo—a one-string instrument, using a bottle or bottle neck to slide on the string.

I think that the slide was popular with early bluesmen (and current bluesmen—I have my own brand of slide; Rocky Mountain Slides makes a Mark Robinson model) is that the slide allows guitarists to imitate the way blues singers sing. It allows for the blue notes, lowered 3rd, 5ths and 7ths—but it also makes it possible to play a note that is just a little flat—1/4 step flat, instead of the ½ step that equals a move of one fret on the guitar.

What are the secrets of slide and reso-phonic?

The resophonic guitar (also Resonator or Dobro) has a louder, brighter sound. In the days before electricity—it was easier to fill up a juke joint or house party with sound using a resophonic guitar.

The slide has a very vocal quality to it, a singing sound. Mysterious and beautiful. It attracts listeners and players alike—it pulls them in with its warmth and tone. Other forms of music besides the blues utilize the slide, of course; Hawaiian music, rock and roll, country, bluegrass—the slide has become a part of the vocabulary in many kinds of music. I think the vocal quality of the slide imparts more emotion to the phrases it is used on.

Give one wish for the BLUES

I hope that the blues continues to thrill people for many, many years. I think it will. It connects with listeners in a way that most music doesn’t.  And I hope that the music continues to grow and evolve without losing the feeling and inspiration of the originators of the music.

"I’m interested in a broader approach to Roots music that takes in more styles and ideas."

What is the impact of Blues & Rock n’ Roll music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

I’m not sure that a lot has changed in America as far as racial and socio-cultural conditions in today’s society. It’s sad, but I think we are still struggling with the same issues that people struggled with back when Rock n’ Roll started. I think the music and politics of the ‘60s showed great promise in terms of changing the culture, but unfortunately it seems like as a society we are as intolerant as ever.

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

I’d love to go back to Sun Studios in Memphis when Sam Phillips was recording Elvis Presley with Scotty Moore and Bill Black. That’s the Big Bang -- where it all started, when all kinds of American music came together to create Rock ‘n Roll. Those three young musicians were taking elements for Country, Pop and Blues music and blending them in a unique way. And Sam Phillips was there to recognize the importance of this and to get this music out to the world.

Mark Robinson - Official website

"Be true to yourself, play music you love and believe in. Don’t do it for money, if you don’t love what you do, it won’t matter to you in the long run."  Photo by Gregg Roth

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