For a singer-songwriter with a decidedly traditional streak, Mark Insley seems remarkably attuned to contemporary necessities. At 44 -- and as a 20-year music veteran -- Insley's hearty demeanor is matched by an uncommon business savvy, as suggested by the following exchange.
New Times: Have you ever been so down and out that you wanted to just give up?
Insley: It's those times that I usually dig deeper into the creative well. It's mostly a catharsis for me, writing. I'm not one of those guys who sits down at the table each day and say, okay, I'm gonna write this song and then this song. It probably shows in my writing because it's pretty rudimentary, you know? But for me it's all about gut. So I'd say I was never ready to give it up, but there have been times when I was desperate enough to sell gear, and that hurts, man. It makes you wonder if it's all worthwhile. But ultimately, it is.
NT: Then is it reasonable for Americana musicians to aspire to more than just getting by?
Insley: There's not a lot of money or record deals just floating around. At the same time, I think there's plenty of audience for everybody. There's enough work if you're ambitious enough and have a good enough work ethic to go out there and get it. I know guys who make their living playing resorts, but then through that they are able to finance making the kinds of records they want to make. If that's what it takes, more power to them. Use your head for business. Say you want to get played on the radio -- Americana is a very competitive field, only about 45 reporting stations, and there's a glut of material -- and you've got something good.
In my case, the title track is the first obvious single, but it had the word "shit" in it, like, "the stuff you go through." So we created a radio single version where we edited out the word to appease the FCC. Lucinda Williams did the same thing with the song "Essence" because it says "get fucked up." They just took a big guitar chord and went "skronkkk!" over it. It's of little consequence to the vision and artistic integrity of the song. It's all about being smart.
The Kansas-born Insley grew up listening to the likes of Merle, Buck and Johnny Cash, nurtured a love for the Stones, Hendrix, Neil Young and Tom Petty, and landed his first professional gig with a California bluegrass band. After years of rambling, he settled in Ventura, California, performing in hot spots like Bakersfield and L.A.'s now-defunct Palomino Club while rubbing shoulders with a who's-who of SoCal luminaries. Among them were several who'd play significant roles in Insley's future: Dave Alvin and his guitarist Rick Shea, session king Albert Lee, Tony Gilkyson (Lone Justice, X, Chuck E. Weiss), Taras Prodaniuk (Dwight Yoakam), and in-demand multi-instrumentalist Greg Leisz.
In 1996, Insley issued his solo debut, Good Country Junk. The Prodaniuk-produced set notched good reviews and earned comparisons to Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens and Chris Gaffney just in time for Insley to see his record label go belly up. Then, not long afterward, Insley's younger brother Dave, a Phoenix-based musician (Trophy Husbands, Nitpickers), partnered with a couple of friends to form Rustic Records. The Valley label made it clear it'd be happy to do the honors for the next Insley record.
Soon enough, Insley was recording what would become Tucson, and he wasn't shy about ringing up some of the aforementioned who's-who, either.
Cutting the rhythm tracks with drummer David Raven, Insley established a foundation for the songs, and then started checking to see who'd be available for overdubbing work.
"Albert Lee was going to Europe the next day, so we got him for a day and did a bunch of tracks," Insley recalls. "We would just let it go whatever direction it was going to, based on who came over. 'Hey, you're here -- you wanna play?'
"We knew we wanted Dave Alvin to play some high-strung guitar on the last song ["Can't Get Over You"], but then we realized we had this perfect electric thing for him, too, on 'Bus to Bakersfield.' That's even got a solo that [is edited so it] starts with Tony, goes to Albert, then ends with Dave. You could never get all these guys in a room together because of scheduling problems, so we got the tracks down, then spent most of the budget mixing. [Laughs.] We created this 'band' that really doesn't exist."
Imaginary combo or not, Tucson (which also features ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher and Tom Waits' keyboardist Danny McGough) nails the vaunted tight-but-loose, band-in-the-garage aesthetic, from the Creedence-meets-Steve Earle title cut to the spooky, desert-noir blues of "Guilty" to the hard twangabilly of "Bus to Bakersfield." Also included is a classic honky-tonk weeper, a cover of Wayne Carson's "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles"). Throughout, Insley's voice -- think Steve Earle's burnished drawl married to a Neil Young/Chris Cacavas keening whine -- and his wanderlust lyrics keep the focus sharp.
Insley admits to some initial ambivalence over the obvious Southwestern visual and cultural images that the word "Tucson" conjures. Yet the song itself is one of his most intensely personal tunes, a classic breakup number: "I remember once you told me/I was in your head like a drug/Said you had to go to detox/Just to try to escape my love/Maybe I'll just go to Tucson/Albuquerque's nice this time of year/Maybe I can even lose some/Of these blues in between somewhere."
Says Insley, "This woman I was involved with used that very term: 'We have to go through detox now.' We couldn't see each other anymore, so it was like detox going to Tucson and just trying to clear my mind, chilling out in the desert. Overall, though, I don't know that my music really reflects the area as much as it reflects my feelings of the stuff I was going through during a time that I was going back and forth a lot. My marriage out here had broken up and I'd started going over there and seeing a new girl. A lot of the songs were written before anything was real definite."
As things tend to work out, though, Insley wound up marrying that girl earlier this year; and a permanent relocation to Tucson is in the works.
"Tucson is great, man," he says. "They have some parties there, burning these pallets in the backyard and things. You do that in California and you'd get arrested! It's a really artsy town, and anything flies there. It's an anything-goes kind of place. And I like to think the music's like that, because music's not about a particular style or particular thing, but what flows, you know?"
At the moment, Insley is packing for the Old Pueblo while gearing up for a couple of Arizona dates with Rosie Flores. Meanwhile, his album, which debuted at number 98 on Album Network's Americana Roots chart, has bolted up to number 35 on that same chart. He also just got back from the Americana Music Association conference in Nashville, where he took plenty of notes.
"It was very cool, really helpful," observes Insley. "Everybody was laid back, checking their egos at the door. Not that there's a lot of them -- that shit doesn't fly for very long. Lucinda doesn't carry it around with her. Neither does Steve Earle. Everybody's pretty real in this music or they wouldn't be in it. We're certainly not in it to get rich. Of course, one of the big buzzes around the conference was that Ryan Adams was gonna be on Saturday Night Live that weekend. The record companies are hoping for exactly that sort of thing; they'll make a lot of money, the floodgates will be open, and then there'll be a million Ryan Adamses running around.
"But that's just the nature of the beast in big business when you have big conglomerates, alcohol companies like Seagram's, owning the labels. Everybody wants to make a living. Hell, I want my record company to make some money! Rounder has Alison Krauss, and she's the real deal, yet now they're doing what I call 'sending her to diva school,' not playing as much fiddle on TV, dressing her up nice and all that. That is gonna happen. But at least the musical integrity is still there.
"I watched the Country Music Awards this week, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? is winning awards, and suddenly there's T-Bone Burnett up on TV giving an acceptance speech. How cool is that? Country music is no longer safe. [Laughing.] And that's a really, really good thing."
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