The Latest Shows We've Recorded

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Mark Jungers...Work. Then Work Harder.

Remember when country music had rural content? Outside an occasional pink John Deere and a girl thinking someone's tractor is sexy, that bent on country music is gone. Gone with the days of ugly guys like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams being viable draws. That rural content has been picked up, absorbed and embraced by the Americana music scene which is wholly unknown to the music-listening public. One of the bastions of Americana music is Mark Jungers from Martindale, Texas.

I've been listening to Mark's music for two years now in various live configurations ranging from an acoustic duo with guitarist and producer Adrian Schoolar to a full-on live rock-n-roll experience with dual electric guitars, drums and stand-up bass. While the presentations vary, the musicianship and songwriting have both been first-rate, in
addition to a second-to-none level of class and a hearty respect for the audience - what little there is some nights - and a friendliness that is unparalleled.

--A Little Background--
Having roots in Minnesota, Mark's music is infused with the pervasive awareness of the growing season, and the changes and implications associated with weathering storms, floods and bad weather. Mark's music is also drenched in a blue-collar upbringing that makes you believe without a doubt the words wafting around him. Loss, remorse, sorrow, agriculture, toil, suffering, trains, trucks, tractors, dust, double-wides and a dash of irony are not at all strangers to Mark's songs.

I mention Mark's background and the basics surrounding his music not to create some sort of treatise on it but to give you some background. The other pieces of background you need to know are that Mark has a full-time gig that isn't music related and has put out four independent records since 2000.

--The Records--
His debut, 2000's Black Limousine, is a great record. Flat out. Produced by then-bass player Dave Ray, it holds well up to some great rural records like Fred Eaglesmith's Balin' or Butch Hancock's West Texas Waltzes & Dust-Blown Tractor Tunes and in certain respects eclipses them. I can't write enough good things about this record. Get it and have a listen for yourself.

2002 found Mark releasing Standing In Your Way. Some artists have trouble following up their first release with something equally as palatable but Mark seemed to avoid that trap on his sophomore release. The arrangements on Standing seem a bit less elaborate than those on Black Limousine. Standing has more a straight-forward Americana feel with drums, bass, harmonica, mandolin and acoustic guitars in slight contrast to the banjos, fiddles and steel guitars on Black Limousine. In those stripped-down arrangements Mark finds, or more accurately exhibits, the sound that will evolve into his live sound. There's no shortage of excitement in live-show staples "Conviction", "Remorse Waltz", "Unlucky" and "Sentimental Guy" and the lesser-played "Standing In Your Way" and "Be With You Tonight" tuned up for the studio. The record is punctuated by "The Critic Song" which seems to be a pretty clear diatribe on the state of popular music, and likely our culture in general.

In 2004, Mark released One For The Crow. "Just Can't Wait" starts out with a wonderful bit of fiddle that hints at a more diverse Americana feel on this record than Standing. The songwriting on Crow doesn't stray far from Mark's typical wheelhouse on tracks like "Guns And Dust", "Won't Be Long", "You Left The First Time", "We Talk", "Fences" and "Learned By Now". "Digg" really sticks out on this record as a potential theme song for that which is Mark Jungers. In addition to the Americana feel of Standing, this record has some other more experimental arrangements that include a bit of electric guitar, some fiddle, piano, organ and not quite as much acoustic guitar in certain spots in the final mix. These make for a very enjoyable listen and a pleasantly interesting change from the rootsy feel of the first two records. In the end, Crow is a very solid third record that any Americana artist would be proud to call his own. [I don't know much of the sound of this record is owed to producer Lars Goransson or to Mark and the band but the combination yields some great results.]

Mark's latest release is Silos And Smokestacks. Mark and producer Adrian Schoolar have done an excellent job making this record stand apart from the first three records. Electric guitars, banjo, steel guitar permeate this record in addition to Wes Green's mandolin and Josh Flowers' bass. The thematic elements of Silos are more exact and prescient than in previous records. The air struggle and hardship is unmistakable and Mark is presenting it as clearly, concisely and melodically as anyone. This record stands up to Chris Knight's own rural toil and struggle and pushes back on Scott Miller's Civil War and WWII strife with a gusto that I haven't heard before.

There's not a wrong place to start listening to Mark's studio music. The records all compliment each other in way that many artist's records do not without being the that similar that you might get them confused.

--The Live Shows--
You can tell a lot about somebody the first time you see them. Especially when you've never heard a solitary note of their music prior to that first listen. Well, I can anyway. My first encounter with Mark & his band was in Gruene Hall on November 17, 2005. I can't claim that was absolutely blown away by Mark and the Whistling Mules but their show did grab me. It grabbed me in a way that I could relate to down deep. I know the people who reside in those songs. I could draw that dotted line between those songs and their experiences and struggles. I liked that and I decided to come out to another show some day soon. I'm glad I did.

Here are some pictures from that show which was a co-bill with Roger Marin.

There's a lot to like about Mark's shows. There are the varying lineups that include on a given night, drums, mandolin, fiddle, slide guitar, acoustic guitar, electric guitars, harmonica and bass. From night to night, Mark mixes up his setlist and doesn't get caught up in Snider-esque bits where he tells the same story every night or even plays the same 15-20 songs. He plays songs from each of his records - which are all 50+ minutes and 13+ tracks a piece - as well as several well chosen covers from the likes of Neil Young, Scott Miller, Fred Eaglesmith and Jason Ringenberg, among others.

The damnable misery of all of this and for all of his talent, Mark's following is limited. He's never had the big record contract where some company was putting a boatload of marketing money behind him. In a sense, the struggle of those people in his songs - whether directly or indirectly - is really his own. Mark is spreading the seeds of his music all over the growing fields of Texas' bars and dancehalls. Tilling the soil with show upon show all over the Hill Country. Watering it with a good-natured personality and some great music, letting word of mouth soak the soil. He's reaping the rewards of a loyal, if limited, fan following but has yet to reap any great modicum of financial success. Having a straight full-time gig outside of his music lends a certain level of credibility and believability to the tenor of Mark's music that no artist cannot beg, borrow, buy or steal other talents and desires not withstanding. That believability and cred need be earned. Through hard work. And then through some more hard work. In the end, playing music really isn't about getting paid. It's about easing your soul, maybe making a connection with a listener or two. It is because it has to be that way.

You can get all Mark's records at cdbaby - and I suggest you do so asap - or at one of his live shows which are really waaaaaay more fun than waiting at home for the mailman to stop by.

--Some Samples--
More than a dozen live recordings are available to download or stream free and clear from
Powderfinger from June 12, 2007...this is the electric version

Conviction from April 2, 2007

Lonesome LA Cowboy from April 2, 2007

--The CDs--

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