Mark Cline Bates on his ‘Whiskey Cup,’ songwriting & West Virginia heritage: Exclusive

Mark Cline Bates

West Virginia native Mark Cline Bates is a daring traditionalist, whose music is roughly-hewn masterpieces cut from an emotional cloth. He vividly writes about the life he knows, prompting him to lift straight out of his small-town sensibility and big-city dreaming. On his self-titled new album, he's a western swinger with a penchant for melodic stories that are as captivating and memorable as the work of Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. He might only be a 20-something, but he knows who he is and what story he wants to tell. "I tend to obsess on things quite a bit and that pushes me to develop ideas until a general thought becomes something that can articulate the story I want to tell," he shares exclusivly with NashvilleGab of his songwrting style. "I haven't done my job if the song I'm singing doesn't take the listener to a different place."

He wrote or co-wrote all of the tracks on the record (produced by Mark Nevers, known for his work with Alan Jackson and George Jones). ­ On collaborating with other songwriters, he weighs the pros and cons, "It is a really unique experience coming in with an idea and allowing another writer to help develop it into something that only a collaboration could have created. The best writing sessions usually end up with those kind of results for me. Writing with someone new can be tough if you aren't comfortable enough to take a risk with an idea that could be good or bad. Sometimes you have to explore an idea first before you know if it will work or not. It becomes easy to play it safe with someone you aren't comfortable with. Safe thoughts can produce unoriginal and uninspired material."

"Whiskey Cup," one of the album highlights which he performed recently at The Stone Fox, is a delightful toe-tapper. He retells the creative process, "[The song] was a co­write with my good friend Clark Paterson. He was driving to my farm in West Virginia from Nashville for a writing session and he told me about an idea he had. By the time he arrived, I had some story lines in my mind plotted out. We wrote that song in about 15 minutes and it was done."

His live show is a charmingly cool production that sits comfortably in his back pocket. Bringing his recordings to life on stage isn't difficult for Bates. He explains, "I've played enough shows with the tunes on the new record to kind of know what works and what doesn't with the arrangements. I'm fortunate enough to play with some really talented folks who know how to play to the benefit of the song. That always makes the process a lot more enjoyable for me."
Born and raised in a small town in West Virginia, he was exposed to down-home country music very early on. "My mother was playing Merle Haggard pretty constantly before I could walk or talk. Country music has been apart of my life for as long as I can remember," he says. "Growing up in a small town in West Virginia was a wonderful experience for me. My family is full of hard workers who come from humble beginnings. They have always taught me that I can accomplish whatever I want with a hard work ethic and a humble heart."

"Making music for a living requires being able to take repetitive blows to the heart without giving up or getting knocked down for the count. I never would have had the tenacity or hard work ethic necessary to navigate those tumultuous channels without my family."
Musically, he notes Tom Petty as one of his biggest influences, as you can hear on "The Better Side of Me." On the album that has changed him the most, "I would say that 'Wildflowers' by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. [It] has been my favorite album since I was a kid. I know it's not a country record, but the stories and beautiful arrangements on that album have always really moved me. He can use a small amount of words to paint an incredibly in depth picture. Hemingway was able to do that as well and I have always appreciated writers who can convey the deepest emotions with a single line in a verse."
For Bates' own work, he cites "The Last Six Months" as the most emotional album track to perform onstage. "[It's] a song that expresses certain vulnerabilities at a pretty raw level and that can be difficult sometimes. The song seems to resonate with people though, and I'm always glad to have that reception after singing it. It's the closest thing I have to therapy at this point!" He finds it is his "job to be as honest as possible," he says of giving himself permission to open up in his music. "That can be uncomfortable for me, but I made the decision to write with that openness when I decided to do this for a living. The stories may come from a different character at times, but the well of experiences that I draw from come from real events in my lifetime or from people that I know."
Before moving back home, Bates tried out the Los Angeles lifestyle for a couple of years. He admits that that experience certainly crept into this album. "Living in Los Angeles was a great experience for me in a lot of ways, but it also drew me closer to my home in West Virginia. Living 2,000 miles away from the farm in brought out a lot of feelings of longing, and when I did return, I was able to tap into the culture that I come from. It definitely reinvigorated my writing and and gave me a lot of inspiration for the songs."
Of course, he's not alone in his musical talent. Many family members have also demonstrated their knack for melodies and musicianship. "My Grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and had a really unique voice. He would get up and sing choruses every Sunday and I deeply loved to hear him sing. He has been gone for a couple of years, but I can still hear his voice as clear as a bell when I sing those hymns that he loved. My Nanna has played piano in the church for 65 years and learned to play by ear. She is the world's best kept secret and is an incredible talent. She is also a wonderful singer and taught me how to harmonize parts. My Aunt Brenda sings beautifully as well and my father plays the acoustic guitar. I was lucky enough to come from a very musical family."
Admittedly, it took a few years for many in his family to realize that music-making wasn't just a phase. Bates recalls, "It was especially challenging when I first started out. That mindset was prevalent with a lot of people that I knew at that time. It took a couple of years for folks to realize that I wasn't drifting through the ether aimlessly. It eventually became clear that I was a really obsessive worker who wasn't playing around."
He continues, "However, my family has been incredibly supportive from day one. I told my dad that I was going to leave school and play music for a living at the end of a Bob Dylan concert. People were filtering out of the arena and we were still sitting down. I was 18 years old and had no idea what I was doing… but intrinsically knew that this was something I had to figure out. My dad has never turned his back on me throughout the journey and I couldn't have gotten this far without him. My mother has always encouraged my dreams and believed in me when it was most difficult to believe in myself. Their support and love has sustained me through the rough times."
Of course, those rough times have changed who he is and only fueled him to push forward. "I've been doing this now for eight years or so and it hasn't been an easy ride. There have been a lot of bumps in the road, but I was aware it would be a tumultuous path to seek out when I decided to do it," he says of his journey so far. "It is absolutely everything that I signed up for. Whether it be the next show, the next song, or the next album, it is my growing body of work that is always pushing me forward. I've decided to spend my lifetime building these things and they give me an immense amount of gratification."
To sum up his 2014 and what he's hoping for next: "I'm really excited about what is around the corner this year. We are getting some good buzz about the new record and I'm proud of how it turned out. I've got high hopes that the album will do well and my biggest goal is to get it out to as many folks as possible. I have been to Chicago, Houston, Nashville, and New York City within the last three weeks. It's been a wild ride and I expect the same kind of adventures are waiting for me in 2015!"
Grab a copy of Mark Cline Bates new album on iTunes now!

[Photo Credit: Mark Cline Bates]

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