Mark's Banjo Bio
I began playing banjo in September 1971 when me and my family lived in Jenkinsburg, Georgia. I was eleven years old and my parents enrolled my sister, Janet, and I in group lessons at the local YMCA. "Group" lessons meant horns, mandolins, drums, electric guitars, fiddles and banjo, all in one room and playing at the same time. After a short while I retreated to a back room with a boy I knew from school named Bill Lively. Bill's mother was one of the instructors and Bill knew a few tunes on banjo in the 3-finger style. Bill showed me how to play 'Boil Them Cabbage Down' and pretty soon I was hooked.
A couple of months later, in early 1972, my family relocated to Rising Fawn, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. But, the only tune that I could play was 'Boil'em Cabbage Down.'
I began taking formal banjo lessons for the first time in January1973 at Cameron Music, located in Trenton, Georgia, about 10 miles from my home.
In mid-1973 I met a young man named Joey McCormick, who was 10 years old at the time. His folks had observed me sitting on our front porch practicing and decided he and I should try and play music together.
Joey played guitar very well (amazingly well, for his age) and already knew a lot of Bluegrass material. He even had a 'real' banjo (Gibson RB-100) I was allowed to borrow. He owned the first Martin guitar I ever saw in person. Joey and I formed something of a partnership and played numerous banjo contests held in our area from October 27, 1973 until early 1975.
In later 1973 and early 1974 I began taking lessons from Johnny Wooten, on Sand Mountain, near Trenton, Georgia, and it was from him that I learned to play tunes in ways that further piqued my interest and motivated me to practice more and more. Johnny was/is an excellent teacher.
During this era there were numerous banjo contests in North Georgia, North Alabama and Southeast Tennessee and James McKinney, from Ft. Payne, Alabama was the winner in every contest in which I ever saw him play. When he showed up, he won. I hardly knew the names of other banjo players in my area until he left town for Nashville around 1975. Watching him play was amazing and inspirational.
In 1975, Norman Blake moved to Rising Fawn, not far from where I lived. My mother (who had known him in school) encouraged me to stop by and introduce myself, which I did. Back then, flat-picking was a new sport and there were no other flat-pick style guitar players in my area and I soon adjusted my musical path to include flat-picking guitar, as well as to learn fiddle tunes on banjo. The very first tune I played for Norman was Sailor's Hornpipe.
By late 1975, my sister, Janet, had become proficient on rhythm guitar and began playing with me in banjo contests. In 1976 we were invited to play with a band stocked with locally seasoned players (especially compared to us) called Bill Lowery and The Traditionals. Our primary focus was playing contests and it was during this stint that I began to win banjo contests once in a while. Our competitive pursuits even took us to seemingly faraway places like Leitchfield, Ky. in the summer of 1976, which is where I first heard Mark O'Connor play.
In later 1976 I began to play rhythm guitar for some of the regional contest fiddlers, like Wally Bryson, from Chickamauga, Georgia and J.T. Perkins from Alabama. With the help of Norman Blake, I learned to play Texas-swing rhythm--a foreign technique to other rhythm guitar players in the area.
It was a fun time--I was able to learn a lot of fiddle tunes, perform in contests and a few paying gigs and, best of all, to jam with experienced players that knew a lot of music. During this year I had the opportunity to venture into a recording studio for the first time while recording an instrumental fiddle album for Johnny Ray Watts (I played banjo on this project) in 1976.
By 1977, the year I graduated high school, I was playing guitar for several fiddlers, as well as playing banjo in a couple of local groups. There was, at that time, a Bluegrass radio program on WDOD on Sunday evenings and I was able to hear more and more innovative banjo players, such as Larry McNeely, Butch Robbins, Courtney Johnson, Alan Munde and Vic Jordan.
One of my personal highlights of that year was attending the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships at Opryland in Nashville. To be able to hear some amazing fiddlers up close was an experience I have enjoyed in memories throughout the many years since.
In 1978, I auditioned for and was awarded a banjo playing job in Nashville with Hardy Brendle and the Virginia Partners. I had no idea what to expect when I quit my day-job (I was 18) and moved in with the band, but my first cue should have been when, a couple of weeks later, Melba Brendle said something like, 'maybe you should find a job until the gigs pick up.'
Soon, I was working at Davis Cabinet Co. in Nashville. The gigs were plentiful, but the money was low and slow. I stayed in Nashville all summer, had some fun, learned a lot and got to hear cool music. On a few gigs in North Carolina, mandolinist 'Red' Rector performed with us. We also performed several times on Knoxville, Tennessee's Cas Walker television show.
1978 also marked my first visit to The Station Inn (the old one off West End, in Nashville), and to the Bluegrass Inn, where Hubert Davis and The Season Travelers entertained several nights a week, and to the Ole Time Pickin' Parlor, on 2nd Ave in Nashville.
In early 1979, I met Al Smith, banjo player from the Atlanta area, who would later have a major influence on my playing. Later that year I moved back to Nashville for another season with Hardy & Melba Brendle. I was able to travel some and play Bluegrass festivals, as well as record a few tracks with Hardy and Melba and legendary fiddler, Marion Sumner. But, the money was still very low and I worked odd jobs just to get by.
Later in 1979 I moved back to Rising Fawn and attended the first of many performances at the newly christened "Mountain Opry" hosted by Dr. Ray Fox and J.J. Hillis on Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga.
In January, 1980 I was married for the first time. In April, Norman Blake invited me to quit my day job and drive the bus for him. I made a few trips with Norman and Nancy and James Bryan, and was able to be around some great musicians.
By 1981 I was playing banjo for a well-established Bluegrass group based in the Chattanooga area called the Grasscutters. Tom Jones played mandolin, Newell Angel played guitar, Don Maness played bass and Billy Deal played fiddle. I had lots of fun, and played some good gigs. It was good experience because it required me to focus on how the band sounded, rather than just how I sounded. It was also during this era that I became reacquainted with Al Smith, in the Atlanta area, who had changed his primary instrument from banjo to acoustic guitar.
1982 was a great year for jamming and learning new music. My wife and I relocated to Rossville, Georgia and I became acquainted with more of the Chattanooga area musicians including Lou Wamp, Gordy Nichol, Donnie McRae, Bob Chuckrow, Pattee Wilbanks and a great many others. I hosted lots of jam sessions and there was a fair amount of low-paying gigs. I taught lessons to supplement my income and eventually accumulated a half-dozen or so steady banjo and guitar students.
By mid-1983, I was living in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Al Smith and I were jamming regularly working up many of the tunes from the David Grisman albums, as well as from Tony Rice's recordings that featured his own style of 'new acoustic' music.
Al taught me more of the hot, jazzy "Dawg" music than anyone else. He knew a lot of the cool guitar chord voicings and progressions. I spent hours and hours working out scale patterns and licks and lines to play over the improv sections of those pieces. By 1984 I was very comfortable improvising over the Grisman style music.
In March 1984 I auditioned for the banjo playing position with James Monroe and The Midnight Ramblers, in Nashville. During my audition, my playing was littered with melodic lines, jazz-influenced phrasing and lots of single-string babbling, which I considered 'fancy stuff,' sure to impress even the most jaded Bluegrass purist.
However, after offering me the banjo position, he remarked with unimpressed candor: "Believe me, in a few weeks you won't recognize your own playing." He was correct.
Bill Monroe was at our first practice session, in Nashville, as was James Monroe on guitar, Merle 'Red' Taylor on fiddle, Robert Bowlin on 2nd fiddle, and Monroe Fields on bass. During our rehearsal, Bill would occasionally interject something about my banjo playing, even sometimes pointing to the fingerboard indicating which register I should play the fill-ins or melody lines. There were lots of 'straight' rolls and standard, Scruggs-style hammer-ons and slides. One tune I remember well is Bill Monroe's classic, Cabin in Caroline. For this one he pointed to the 4th string at about the 2nd fret and moved it laterally to about the 5th fret; then immediately to the 3rd string at about the 2nd fret moving to the 4th fret and finally to the 2nd string of my banjo to the 3rd fret, indicating the melody notes he wanted me to emphasize when I played my break.
From this experience with the Monroe's I was able to play onstage with Bill Monroe, on occasion. The first tune I remember him allowing me to take a break on was Bill Cheatam at an event in Warren, Michigan.
As one of James Monroe's Midnight Ramblers, I played quite a number of gigs in 1984, from April until September when James disbanded. It was great experience to play banjo around so many notable and famous musicians and to play large Bluegrass festivals.
During that year I also performed with Mac Wiseman on 5-6 gigs and Clyde Moody on at least that many. I would occasionally get to play on stage with Bill Monroe when James and Bill performed songs from their Father/Son recordings. To be on stage with guys like Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker, Red Taylor, Wayne Lewis and other greats was a remarkable privilege. Other particularly notable folks I was able to meet and play onstage with were Little Jimmy Dickens, Leona Williams, Ernie Ashworth and George Jones.
Josh Graves played Dobro for James most of that season and I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time around him, even rooming with him on several occasions when we were on the road. On one trip to Bean Blossom, Indiana, Josh knew Bill Monroe was looking for someone to drive his limousine back to Nashville, Tn. and Josh spoke to Bill and said 'me and Mark will drive it back for you.' During that 5-6 hour, all-night trip I enjoyed Josh recalling many of his experiences playing with Flatt & Scruggs, The Earl Scruggs Revue and many others. He stayed up the entire trip back to Nashville, keeping me company. When we arrived at his house he invited me in and introduced me to his wife.
Many years later (1997) I was on a recording session for Monroe Fields first album that included Josh on Dobro and Josh said to me, "Remember that time me and you drove Bill Monroe's limousine back from Bean Blossom to Nashville?"
In 1985, Ricky Rorex, mandolin player from North Alabama, invited me and Al Smith to play on his instrumental recording project. This effort largely featured a mix of fiddle tunes and Grisman-style new-acoustic tunes, and included the late fiddler extraordinaire, Randy Howard, from Milledgeville, Georgia, on several cuts.
Ricky, Al Smith and I played several gigs that year featuring the 'new acoustic' tunes we enjoyed.
Also, in 1985, I decided to try and conduct my own Bluegrass Festival. I gathered the support of Dr. Ray Fox, step-dad Marty Hickey, Steve Irvine and the late Bob Smart and we held the Lookout Music Fest at New Salem Community Center, near Trenton, Georgia, in late July. Our festival featured the talents of such diverse acts as New Grass Revival, Clyde Moody, Monroe Fields, The Dismembered Tennesseans and the aforementioned Randy Howard.
Our festival was a well attended event given that the remnants of a hurricane were blowing through with record winds and rainfall rivaled only by those in Noah's time. We managed to only lose about $500 per investor, not counting our time and energy. It was still a fun event and it was amazing to be able to see and hear New Grass Revival up close after having been a fan for many years.
Throughout 1986 I performed with various groups in ever-changing configurations. From the 'new acoustic' music to fiddle music to traditional Bluegrass gigs. Al Smith, Ricky Rorex, Randy Smith and I played a number of gigs around the Chattanooga and Atlanta areas.
I tried to rekindle interest in doing another music festival in 1986, but it was hard to find folks inspired to work really hard on most evenings and weekends for weeks and months on end, and still lose $500 each. The stars didn't align for another festival that year.
1987 brought much music: often from spirits previously unknown to me. I played several gigs with Wally Bryson and J.T. Perkins, as well as quite a few with Pattee Wilbanks and Virginia Parham in a group called Bittergreen. I also began playing guitar with Michael Walker: a 10-year old banjo player who was something of a prodigy. Randy Smith and I accompanied Michael on two performances on The Mickey Mouse Show.
That year, I formed a band with Ricky Rorex, Neal Nichols, Kenny Smith and Bobby Burns called Backwaters.I also recorded an album with Wally Bryson, Randy Howard, Jim West and several others.
I was also able to enlist fresh support for another music festival on Lookout Mountain from friends Donnie Cassell and Richard Schreiber. We had much better weather than the previous event and only managed to lose about a $100 each. In addition to New Grass Revival we also had Norman and Nancy Blake, The Knoxville Grass, The Dismembered Tennesseans and several local groups.
In early 1988 I put together a music event at The Hunter Art Museum in Chattanooga that featured Backwaters. I also played lots of guitar for Michael Walker including recording an album, and those aforementioned tapings for The 'New' Mickey Mouse Show.
In early January, 1989, Al Smith, Ed Bashum, Bill Everett and I formed a contemporary Bluegrass group called Acoustix and played almost every weekend. However, Acoustix disbanded in May. I also played quite a few places with young banjo player Michael Walker, who had begun playing television shows such as Nashville Now and the Ralph Emory Show.
In early 1993, I was able to play on stage with Charlie Louvin. In late 1993 I went to hear Bill Monroe and James Monroe in Blue Ridge, Georgia and James invited me to play onstage with his band. In January 1994 James called me and asked if I would be interested in playing banjo again for him during the upcoming season. The cast consisted of James on guitar, Monroe Fields on bass, Danny Cole on fiddle, Vernon Derrick on mandolin, Lou Wamp on Dobro and me on banjo.
I played quite a number of dates that year with James and it was another opportunity to occasionally perform on stage with Bill Monroe. James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers even recorded a 'Live at Bean Blossom' performance with Bill Monroe that year for MCA Records, though it has yet to be released.
James and Bill Monroe tried to help/coax me into the music 'booking' business. I met with them on several occasions (outside the normal context of performing music) and they offered advice and informational resources (lists, old performance schedules, names and tips). My booking business, Highland Enterprises, worked with several well-known artists for the 1994-95 season, including James Monroe, Carl Story, Josh Graves & Kenny Baker, The Sullivan Family and others.
When James Monroe's picking season ended after the September Bean Blossom festival, Monroe Fields, Vernon Derrick, Al Smith, Lou Wamp and I formed a group called Fields and Derrick that played several dates at the end of 1994 and into the early months of 1995 before dying a slow death at the feet of poverty. Fields and Derrick essentially showcased the song-writing talents of Monroe Fields, the showmanship of Vernon Derrick and the instrumental talents of Al, Lou and me. However, we were poorly funded, musically mis-matched and barely made pie money.
Later that year, Al Smith and I teamed up with hammered-dulcimer player Dan Landrum to play gigs around the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. Occasionally, we were joined by bass player Mark Nelson.
In 1996, Dan, Mark Nelson and I auditioned for and were awarded instrumentalists positions for a musical-theatre production of 'Quilters' that toured much of the U.S. for several months. For this adventure I played banjo, guitar and mandolin.
During the remainder of 1996 I was devoted to composing music, eventually accumulating over 160 original pieces during the next several months. I was also honored to play a few gigs that year as a guest with Kathy Chiavola from Nashville, TN. Al Smith and I also played a gig in Chattanooga with her that featured Randy Howard on fiddle.
In 1997 I played and recorded a fair amount with hammered-dulcimer player Dan Landrum. Dan had a studio in his home and graciously allowed me to record some of my original music, as well as some of the music he and I worked on at the time. We played a lot of 'Christmas' gigs in late 1997 and played our 'standard' jazz, pop, old-time and classical material well into 1998, sometimes partnering with our friend Jim Palmour on guitar, flute and bass.
By the time the year 1999 rolled around I was somewhat dis-interested in music and gave the bulk of my limited artistic talents to writing Christian literature. My first book was completed in 2001, though it wasn't published until 2006.
In late 2000 I re-located to Southern Louisiana. In 2001 I began playing mandolin for a Bluegrass group based in the Baton Rouge area called 2nd Glance. In 2002 I played banjo for another local group, Louisiana Purchase based in the Lafayette, Louisiana area. That year I also taught a weekend-long guitar workshop near Colorado Springs, Colorado and several guitar and banjo workshops in Southern Louisiana.
After a short time with the Louisiana Purchase band I retreated to giving a few lessons, learning a new fiddle tune on banjo from time to time and mostly playing around the house, again giving the bulk of my creative talents to writing.
From 2007 through present day I have become more and more involved with playing banjo on recording sessions for a number of talented artists from varying genres. I recently become re-involved with teaching banjo workshops. I also enjoyed playing banjo with the Baton Rouge based group Jemini Venture, which features Marguerite Gravois on violin, Jim Bookter on mandolin and guitar, Kathryn Carlson on bass and Dan Williams on guitar. JV has a new CD project (Give Me Back My Heart) released in October 2013.
In September 2009, I began working on an all-original banjo CD project at Wally Alford's studio in beautiful downtown Tucker, Georgia. It was a work that truly took on a life of its own and evolved into a much different project than I originally had in mind.
This CD, Fit of Clarity, features not only my personal compositions, but also the stellar musicianship of Al Smith, fiddler Tim Passmore, bassist Tommy Sauter, cellist Helen Gillet and multi-instrumentalists Brian McDowell, Lou Wamp and Justin Moses.This project was finally completed in June 2012 and released in September.
In 2009, I also began working on a Cajun Banjo CD with local Cajun musicians from Louisiana--recording this project at Joel Savoy's studio near Eunice, Louisiana. This project is still complete and was released in November 2013.
In late 2010 and early 2011 I played guitar, and a little banjo, on some gigs with acclaimed fiddler and Cajun-French great, Hadley Castille and even recorded a cut on Yvette Landry's debut album.
In 2010 and 2011 I wrote several articles and had several pieces of music featured in Banjo Newsletter Magazine.
In April 2012 I relocated to the Greater St. Louis, Missouri area and have been performing gigs almost non-stop—mostly solo gigs, some with a small ensemble and others, of the Bluegrass variety, with the great St. Louis bluegrass band known far and wide as: The Foggy Memory Boys. I also organized, rehearsed and fielded a progressive acoustic group called Outside Passage to support my September 2012 CD release of Fit of Clarity.
Fit of Clarity features original compositions that reflect my personal musical tastes, ideas and banjoistic approach. It touches on a variety of genres from acoustic jazz, to Irishy-fiddle tune compositions, to Classical and banjo/acoustic fusion, but retains a very unique and original artistic umbra.
My second personal recording project, as mentioned above, attempts to interpret some of the Louisiana music culture, with traditional Cajun music rendered on a non-traditional Cajun instrument: 3-finger style 5-string banjo. This recording project features the distinctive talents of seasoned local, Cajun musicians and became available November 7, 2013.
In 2015, I formed a musical partnership with Chris Talley, primarily focusing on developing our unique ideas about teaching banjo workshops and performing unique arrangements of fiddle and swing music.
Raborn & Talley began performing in 2016. Our music features Irish Fiddle tunes, Swing Jazz, Cajun Fiddle Music, Classical and, of course, traditional Bluegrass. Chris plays banjo, acoustic guitar, and fiddle and I play banjo, guitar and mandolin.
Oh, and remember at the beginning I said I started playing banjo in 1971 after having been shown a banjo tune by Bill Lively and his mother, Arlene Lively. In August 2015 I was given that banjo by their family (David, Leda, Kathy and Mark Lively) after both Bill and Arlene passed away (2005 and 2015, respectively). I now have the first real banjo I ever saw--a 1957 Gibson RB-150.
As of late 2019, I still perform with the Foggy Memory Boys. I also do more than 400 solo gigs per year, mostly here in Missouri and Illinois. I also teach banjo workshops, as well as private lessons.
JAMES MONROE AND THE MIDNIGHT RAMBLERS 1994 (L to R from bass) Monroe Fields, Lou Wamp, Me, James Monroe and Danny Cole.
JAM SESSION MY HOME 1977 (L to R) Norman Blake, Richard Campbell, Me, Jim West, Janet Raborn and Nancy Blake in scarf
BACKWATERS 1987 (L to R) Neal Nichols, Ricky Rorex, Bobby Burns, Me, and Kenny Smith. This picture was taken at the Fall Color Cruise on the Tennessee River at Nickajack.
JAMES MONROE AND THE MIDNIGHT RAMBLERS 1994 Nirvana, Michigan
CLYDE MOODY 1985 (L to R) Wally Bryson, Don Maness, Clyde Moody and Me. This picture was taken at the New Salem Community Center at Lookout Mountain, Georgia
FIELDS AND DERRICK 1995
(L to R): Lou Wamp, Monroe Fields, Vernon Derrick, me & Al Smith