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Click on the thumbnails below to view / download 300 dpi image files suitable for publication. Top left and bottom left photos © Mark Utley. Top right and bottom center photos © Michael Wilson. Bottom right photo © Scott Preston.
MidPoint Music Festival - September 9, 2015
2015 MidPoint Music Festival Preview: Mark Utley and Bulletville
Mark Utley had divided his Blues/Roots and Country output between his longstanding band Magnolia Mountain and his more recently-assembled Bulletville project, respectively, when a rash of departures forced him to shutter the Magnolias. That left Utley with plenty of time to concentrate on Bulletville and incorporate even more of his Country influences into his songs; he chose to name his recent sophomore solo album after the band. And like everything else that Utley does, when he goes Country, he doesn’t go in half measures; his Bulletville songs are as authentic as Hank Williams’ suit in the Hall of Fame, and his passion for his work and its sources is deep, wide and undeniable. Bulletville is Country music at its finest, because that’s the only gear Mark Utley knows.
You’ll Dig It If You Dig: The ghosts of Country music haunt an MP3 player, making a cosmic connection between the classic past and the brash future.
Bucket Full of Nails blog - July 3, 2015
Review: Mark Utley - Bulletville
If you thought true country music was dead, step out of Nashville and head north to Cincinnati, Ohio. There you’ll find Mark Utley upholding tradition with his backing band Bulletville. Invoking the soul of country music from beer-soaked floorboards, Utley’s latest outing, Bulletville, released in April, takes up where 2013’s as-country-as-country-once-was Four Chords and a Lieleft off.
The glass ain’t half empty and it ain’t half full
No saints are to be found on Bulletville. Extolling aging sinners (“Good Timin’ Girl”), empty-pocketed drunks (“Jesus Wept”) and sunrise philosophers (“Four in the Morning”) who overthink, love too much drink and take life one lonesome night at a time, Utley and Bulletville spin a continual waltz of bad choices, regrets and raw truth. The characters on Bulletville find solace at the bar (“Honey, I’m Home”) and the dance floor (“Remember to Forget”) while aching to escape home (the should-be-classic “Wish You Were Her”).
I’m a sweet little thing when I wanna be
This time out, Utley utilizes his backing assets; wisely bringing singer Renee Frye to the forefront, she proves a worthy Tammy to Utley’s George, be it delivering the sass on “Firecracker,” trading verses on standout duet “Only in Our Minds” or admitting defeat on “The Only Thing,” Frye is a worthy counterpoint to Utley, exuding emotion and showing why the fairer sex always has the upper hand.
Without relying on metaphysical claptrap or twang-laden covers, Utley should be acknowledged among the vanguard of those upholding country music’s history. With whip-smart songs that are traditional to the hilt, Bulletville is country through and through, speaking to any color collar or neck while proving there’s no good reason to ever leave the bar.
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County - June 1, 2015
Mark Utley - Bulletville
Cincinnati’s Mark Utley begins Bulletville with “Good Timin’ Girl” – thus begins the listeners journey back to the popular honky-tonk sound of the late ‘60s and ‘70s when Glen Campbell, Charlie Rich and Hee Haw were prime time television fixtures. These aren’t campy or over nostalgic songs, but simply what is needed in today’s country music. Utley is a sensitive singer-songwriter whose pain and tears rival the great Keith Whitley’s. Utley is joined by his Magnolia Mountain partner Renee Frye on several songs. Their harmonizing and soulful connection on “Only in Our Minds” and “The Only Thing” couldn’t be stronger. The only problem with this CD, produced by John Curley of the Afghan Whigs, is that it ends after 11 songs. Quite possibly the best local album of any genre released this year.
cincymusic.com - April 2, 2015
Bulletville Release New Album at MOTR Pub
We sat down with Mark Utley to discuss the new album, his band and honest, true country music.
Tell us what this next album means to you…
Given the talent in Bulletville, how does the writing process work?
And this band is ridiculous. Singing with Renee Frye is almost a spiritual thing for me, with the blend and the back-and-forth and just how soulful she is. Jeff Vanover is one of the most tasteful, talented guitar players I've ever heard, and he can play anything. Ricky Nye is fucking Ricky Nye, and I pinch myself on a regular basis to make sure I'm not dreaming that a cat that talented and (again) so deeply soulful digs my songs and wants to play on them. John Lang is an impeccably understated but melodic steel guitar player, such a joy to hear. Todd Drake on drums is simply the rock that I've built everything musically upon since 2011. I broke up Magnolia Mountain because he left and I put it back together when he came back. We've got a bit of musical chairs going on with the bass player slot, but all of the guys we've got, whether it's Ken Kimbrell (who plays on the album), Chris Douglas, Ben Franks, or Greg Thomas, they're all solid, swingin' guys with a great sense of the pocket and the groove. I just try to do my job, which is to bring in quality songs and put my heart and soul into performing them.
What brings your heart back to “old country”?
What is next for Bulletville? Any touring in your plans?
Blabber 'n' Smoke blog (Glasgow, Scotland) - February 26, 2015
Mark Utley - Bulletville
Blabber’n’Smoke first came across Cincinnati’s Mark Utley when we reviewed Magnolia Mountain’s album Town And Country back in 2012. A double album that spanned the breadth of country rock from folky roots to grungier grooves, Town and Country was followed by Beloved (which delved into a Muscle Shoals direction), while Utley simultaneously released a solo album that hankered more to his country leanings. His next step was to form a band that would perform the country songs from the solo album and hence Bulletville was born. A splinter group of sorts Bulletville features Magnolia Mountain members Renee Frye (vocals), Jeff Vanover (guitar), and Todd Drake (drums), who are joined by bassist Ken Kimbrell, keyboardist Ricky Nye and pedal steel guitarist John Lang. Here they deliver a solid package of tear stained and heart wrenching country songs that run the gamut from George-and-Tammy- like laments to beer fuelled honky tonking gut busters fuelled by lashings of pedal steel.
The album opens with the loping bass into to Good Timin’ Girl, a breeze of a song with a classic bittersweet country tale that could have been written by Dolly Parton and sung by Kenny Rogers, in fact if Rogers or any of his ilk ever took this on then it would be a guaranteed hit. As it is the performance here is exemplary, Utley almost croons the words while Frye adds a multtitracked refrain, the pedal steel is sweet and honeyed and Nye offers up a fine piano solo. Wish You Were Herhowever steers well clear of the charts and heads for the bars as the band sway into Ameripolitan territory and the guitars grimace instead of smile. A woozy waltz time lament with a seventies feel courtesy of the electric keyboards and fuzzy bass line it sees Utley and his partner sharing a table but separated by miles of estrangement. The album is packed full of these wonderful odes to lost or failed love with Utley mining the past and coming up with new treasures such as the classic couplet “I just can’t remember to forget” on the honky tonk tones of Remember To Forget while Honey I’m Home weeps wonderfully as Utley swaps the family home for the local pub in an attempt to drown his sorrows. One Heartbeat At A Time is another break up song but it’s delivered with the commercial heartbeat that John Hartford sounded out on Gentle On My Mind and is another example of the commercial potential contained herein. While all of the band are in excellent form here Renee Frye in particular sparkles with her harmony support with Only In Our Minds, an excellent country duet. She has two showcases here, the rolling and tumbling boogie Firecracker where she is as sassy as Loretta Lynn, while The Only Thing is another tear jerking lament offering the female counterpoint to Utley’s songs of loss.
If this were all the album would be a winner but they throw in a couple of belters just to up the ante. Four In The Morning swaggers in with a muscular swing as beefy pedal steel and swirling organ churn and boil over a menacing rhythm producing a song that has the heft of a Joe Ely song back when he was a pal of The Clash. Jesus Wept is simpler in its delivery with some Bakersfield country in the twang guitars as Utley sings “I’m broke as hell, all my bills are due, My girlfriend’s mad and my wife is too” on a song that just about encapsulates the stereotype of red necked country music lovers. It’s a bit of a hoot. Utley closes the album with the only cover, a version of fellow TIAM artists, Great Peacock’s Bluebird which he dresses up in warm vocals and sweet pedal steel murmurings, a sweet end to a meaty album.
Atlanta Music Examiner - February 12, 2015
Bulletville: Country Music Done the Right Way
Mark Utley is a man that knows his way around a song, just treat your ears to any of the albums from Magnolia Mountain and you will understand what I am talking about. With his latest project – Bulletville – Utley is joined by a collection of Magnolia Mountain veterans and a few talented friends as they focus on the traditional sounds that made Country music so damn good. Their latest album, Bulletville, to be released this April on This Is American Music, is loaded with the sweet twang of a pedal steel; classic honky tonk rhythms and lyrics that will make you laugh and tear up all at the same time. The hooks and melodies lure listeners in, allowing Utley’s lyrics to sink their teeth into them. Songs about lost love, tough decisions, loneliness, and wanting are given life through Utley’s country warble, and they may be some of the best songs the man has written.
“Good Timin’ Girl” welcomes listeners to Bulletville. A song about regret from all sides, Utley delivers a tale of a man and woman that question their abnormal relationships. She has spent a life giving herself to the next man and now has nothing to show for it, while he wasted most of his time trying to pursue her love. The song “Honey, I’m Home” is a brilliantly-written song about loss and heartache. Utley sings of a man that has lost his wife and can’t bear to spend time in their home. So the local watering hole and the inside of a bottle take its place. Bulletville kicks up the twang with the track “Jesus Wept”. Infused with a bit of humor it is a satirical statement letting listeners know that one person’s bad day/life may be trivial compared to others. Plus, how can you not like a song that successfully references Elvis dying on the commode, missing George Jones, or yelling at kids to get off the lawn. Adding a bit of Southern soul to the record is the bluesy “Four in the Morning”. Utley unleashes one of the best lines on the album, “this is the time of the evening when you can’t fool yourself no more / when the good Lord ain’t talkin’, and the Devil’s at the door”, as he paints a vivid image of a man at the end of his rope. The album comes to a close with the beautiful “Bluebird”. The music takes a backseat to the vocals as Utley and Renee Frye harmonize on this melancholy tune. Speaking of Ms. Frye, be sure and listen to “Firecracker” and “The Only Thing” where she takes lead vocals. Going from feisty to forlorn, her sultry voice is mesmerizing.
From beginning to end, this record is true Country music. Influences from Country music’s past litter the songs as Utley and company deliver a classic sound that never gets old. Country music is at a crossroads where over-produced pop melodies and hiphop-inspired vocals have over taken the industry, threatening to choke out any semblance of the classic sounds. Thankfully, there are bands like Bulletville that understand that good Country music is about substance not style, and this album is full of substance.
WVXU - January 20, 2015
Mark Utley - Bulletville
There's a video going around lately, created by Nashville songwriter Greg Todd, in which six current hit county music songs are all played simultaneously. If you watch the video, what you quickly realize is how shockingly and painfully similar each of the songs are.
One could easily argue the case that the majority of current popular music is equally formulaic, regardless of genre, and that given most of the songs you might find in today's "Top 40," it is the producer, not the artist, who is the driving force behind the industry. Look at the work of Max Martin or Calvin Harris and you'll see title after title performed by various, insipid Johnny Bravos who worked the assembly line, played the game and achieved their fifteen minutes.
Knowing this makes me want to scream "Thank goodness!" that there are still true musical craftspeople out there like Mark Utley.
I became acquainted with Mark and his band Magnolia Mountain back in October, 2013 when I wrote a review of their album Beloved. Even then, my first impression was of an individual with a vision who made no excuses and accepted no compromises.
Bulletville (both the band and the 11-track album) shows that that impression still rings true with such gripping songs as "Wish You Were Her" and the bluesy "Four in the Morning." The music is as bone-deep country as you can get without calling yourself Willie or Waylon, and the lyrics are brash, abrasive and rife with old-school heart-on-your-sleeve pathos.
In 2012, Bulletville evolved as an outgrowth of Magnolia Mountain and includes several of the same musicians -- Renee Frye on vocals, Jeff Vanover on guitar and Todd Drake on drums -- joined by the likes of Ken Kimbrell on bass as well as some all-star talent in the persons of Ricky Nye on piano and John Lang on pedal steel. Vocalist Melissa English makes a guest appearance on the album as does the amazing Paul Patterson [Faux Frenchmen].
Just like in the creation of Beloved, Utley and his band of gypsies partnered with John Curley at Ultrasuede Studio to record and produce the album. Like he so often does, Curley exhibits a masterful skill in production by knowing precisely what to keep in and what to edit out. The end result is a graceful harmony between polish and raw honesty.
With the opening bass line of "Good Timin' Girl," Bulletville brings you immediately back to the heyday of WSM and The Grand Ole Opry, when country was king and the radio was the most important gizmo in the house. Lang's pedal steel playing is immaculate and blends with Frye's vocals to put the the icing on the cake that is Nye's piano and Utley's guitar.
"Firecracker" is precisely the kind of boogie-woogie piano-driven composition that I think of when I think of Ricky Nye, so this track is really his chance to shine. However, this song is all about the strength of a woman and Renee Frye refuses to take the back seat to Nye - or to anyone. This ensuing battle for the spotlight only serves makes this song better more powerful.
In "Honey, I'm Home," Utley weaves a tale of barroom brotherhood with far more style and grace than you might get from the likes of Toby Keith. It is not a heavy-handed, pandering beer-commercial like "I Love This Bar," but it is, instead, a well-written story with characters and development that touches upon the human condition.
From the first listen the song that most grabbed my attention was "Jesus Wept." If you put the lyrical poetry of country legends like George Jones and Johnny Cash together in a collection, the words to "Jesus Wept" would fit in quite comfortably and not feel the slightest bit out-of-place.
In the end, however, it is the music that propels this collection and, as musicians go, Utley has surrounded himself with some of the best of the best. I don't know how many takes each song needed to get it right - or how much cutting and splicing Curley had to do to finally get all of the pieces to line up together - but the end result feels like it grew naturally out of the spirit of friendship and collaboration that is Bulletville.
Thank goodness for that.
Cincinnati Enquirer - September 26, 2014
The 8 Coolest Moments from MidPoint: Night 1
1. Real Country Music: Every summer, mainstream pop-country acts slather this region. But, this area's so enriched with great bluegrass/country/honky tonk acts, the smaller local acts need attention, too. Main Street was the place to be Thursday night, with Mark Utley of Magnolia Mountain's rambling band Bulletville at Mr. Pitiful's, and the charming Nikki Lane at MOTR – who closed out the first night with a blistering performance.
CincyMusic.com - September 24, 2014
Mark Utley and Bulletville - 2014 MidPoint Music Festival Preview
Mark Utley & Bulletville will play at the MidPoint Music Festival this Thursday, September 25th at Mr. Pitiful’s. This will be the seventh year for Utley, but he is returning with some newer bandmates and a recommitment to singing the songs he considers his roots. Utley enjoyed a long run with Magnolia Mountain before that band wound down, and has held on to some songs and musicians as a base to build around. Bulletville is a commitment to more of an old-school Honky Tonk sound, and it is a lineup of top-notch players and singers. I recently asked Mark Utley some questions to help introduce his newest projects to Cincinnati music fans:
Tell me about the conversion from Magnolia Mountain to Bulletville. Which band members have carried over and who are your new additions?
What elements of the Magnolia Mountain sound do you still hold on to?
Have your venues or audiences changed at all with the new band?
How has your songwriting changed to fit the new band? What are you able to do now that you could not with other bands?
What are you looking forward to when it comes to your next album?
Do you have a release date set? Have you always had vinyl versions of your albums? Do you think your sound is captured well in that format?
CityBeat - September 9, 2014
2014 MidPoint Music Festival Preview: Mark Utley and Bulletville
Last year, singer/songwriter Mark Utley divided his normal double-album output of written songs into the single Magnolia Mountain disc Beloved and his solo debut, Four Chords and a Lie. In 2012, Utley formed Bulletville as a repository for his Country focused material, leaving the rootsy, Blues/Americana tracks to Magnolia Mountain. Four Chords and a Lie offered the first studio appearance of Bulletville on a handful of tracks, but next year will see the release of Utley's new solo album titled Bulletville, which will presumably feature the band. Utley's brilliance within both musical entities is his understanding of the subtleties that differentiate his bands' various genres and writing for each outfit with the appropriate authenticity and stylistic touch. If you prefer your Country without big hats and flashpots, Mark Utley and Bulletville have a few musical stories to share with you.
You'll Dig If You Dig: Real County music from the days when you could get a towel from a box of laundry detergent (no shit, look it up).
Bucket Full of Nails blog - December 19, 2013
Review: Mark Utley - Four Chords and a Lie
Unlike the glut of holiday compilations, overpriced box sets and repackaged deluxe editions, Four Chords and a Lie, the first solo album from Mark Utley (Magnolia Mountain), received a late-year push from This Is American Music. This follows Utley’s recent acclaim via two nominations for his hometown Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. The first for Best Folk/Americana album for Magnolia Mountain’s Beloved, the second for his contribution as singer/songwriter on the Music for the Mountains 2 compilation.
I been thinkin’ and drinkin’ and losin’ my mind
Released in July, Four Chords and a Lie is simple and familiar, the ten originals split between Magnolia Mountain splinter group Bulletville and Utley performing solo don’t provide much differentiation; this is for the best as the album is a cohesive collection of Telecaster twang, pedal steel and honky tonk piano which highlight Utley’s understated bar stool poetry of love (“Blackbird on a Wire”), lust (“Little Black Dress”) and libations (“Not All Right Together”).
Let’s be not all right together
One long slow dance, Four Chords and a Lie is as country as country once was, bypassing the focus group-tested formula spoon fed to today’s commercial masses and served straight up. These songs are meant to be heard amidst both neon bar room glow and a barren moonlit road. Four Chords and a Lie further justifies the recent accolades bestowed upon Utley for his consistency throughout 2013, proving authenticity can still be rewarded.
Blabber 'n' Smoke blog (Glasgow, Scotland) - November 9, 2013
Magnolia Mountain/Mark Utley
We mentioned Cincinnati band The Tillers a week ago and this reminded us of another Tri State crew, Magnolia Mountain and the fact that we’ve been sitting on their latest release for far too long so time to unearth and examine it. In fact this exhumation from the pending pile unearthed two albums, Magnolia Mountain’s Beloved and a solo effort by the band’s front man Mark Utley, Four Chords and a Lie. Both albums were released simultaneously back in late summer and one might be surprised by Utley’s work rate if you didn’t know that his last two Magnolia Mountain albums were effectively doubles with 2012′s Town and Country released on a good old fashioned two disc vinyl edition.
WVXU - October 8, 2013
Magnolia Mountain - Beloved
Magnolia Mountain is a Jack Daniel’s and Budweiser band in a town made for craft brew and Buffalo Trace - and that seems to be just fine by them.
Magnolia Mountain is a band that pretty much has it all. With a lineup that includes Mark Utley [guitar & vocals], Renee Frye & Melissa English [vocals], Jeff Vanover [guitar], Dusty Bryant [keyboards], Victor Strunk [bass] and Todd Drake [drums], there are no holes in this group’s sound.
When you combine that with one of the best recording engineers in town in the person of John Curley [Afghan Whigs] – Beloved, the 4th full-length release by the band, presents a bold and beautiful collection of music.
Their no-frills, no-pretense approach to songwriting comes right from the soul, and lead singer Mark Utley has no problem baring it all in the poetry of his lyrics.
The album opens with the song “Midnight Man” in which Utley proclaims:
It is this take-me-as-I-am approach to songwriting that has made Magnolia Mountain one of the premier live bands in town.
“Ain’t Enough Anything” caught my attention right away as a somber yet bold and brash statement, and when sung by Renee Frye, that female voice given to the hard words reminded me of Patsy Cline or a young Loretta Lynn – women who were as uncompromising in their music as they were in their lives.
Similarly, in “Not That Much,” Melissa English’s presence as a strong and independent woman is closely reminiscent of Chrissie Hynde [Pretenders].
Utley’s vocals on “Lonesome Train” mix perfectly with Dusty Bryant’s keyboard work to make one of the most touching and moving blues songs I’ve heard in a long time.
Whether it is the ‘angry jilted lovers'’ anthem of “Fool No More” or the ‘let’s run off together and start all over’ dreamscape of “The Southbound Lane,” Beloved holds a little something for everybody inside.
It is far too easy and simple to classify Magnolia Mountain as a country, alt-country or country-roots band because their music draws from many places including Americana, rock, R&B and soul. The band doesn’t fit into any category. They’re just a really good group of musicians – and that seems to be just fine by them.
Fuck Yeah Alt Country Boys blog - September 6, 2013
Magnolia Mountain's fifth, and newest album Beloved is falling quickly into that category for me. It brings back the nostalgia of my youth & reminds me of some of the bands my dad listened to when I was a kid. They have a deep well of talent that they are able to draw from also. The band consists of 3 singers. With some really tight vocal harmonies. They are able to sculpt it from smooth & slow, to a soulful powerhouse guaranteed to please. The band consists of Mark Utley (vocals, acoustic guitar, electric guitar & banjo), Melissa English & Renee Frye (lead & harmony vocals), Jeff Vanover (electric guitar), Victor Strunk (bass), and Todd Drake (drums). The band also employs Ricky Nye (keyboards) and Cameron Cochran (pedal steel) on special occasions. They are currently on This Is American Music's label.
Some of my personal favorite tracks are, “Fool No More”, “Going Out Of My Mind”, “Ain’t Enough Anything”, “You Got A Hold On Me”, “Not That Much”, and “Lonesome Train”.
“Going Out Of My Mind" is a great song about being driven crazy over a love you can’t have, "I got a heart full of want you and a head full of sin"
“Lonesome Train" is actually probably my favorite out of the entire album. I love the organ on that song. I also love how it’s got that mellow & warm blues guitar that sets up the tone & mood for the song. I talk about guitar tone a lot, mostly because I play & actively seek it, like many guitar players do. So when I hear great guitar "tone", I tend to take note. There has to be that spark for me with music. Magnolia Mountain is able to get that spark going. It doesn’t stop there though. With that spark they are able to coax it into a burning fire.
As stated previously, 2013’s Beloved is their fifth studio album. The other albums in their growing quiver are 2012’s Town & Country, 2011’s Music For The Mountains, 2010’s Redbird Green& 2009’s Nothing As It Was.
Also, be sure to check out singer Mark Utley’s solo work too.
CityBeat - August 1, 2013
On their first three albums, Mark Utley and Magnolia Mountain set out to prove just how diverse one band can be, mastering pure bluegrass, straight country, rocked-up Americana and swaggering rockabilly, with touches of twangy gospel prayers and tangy Cajun spices. With Beloved, their fourth outing, Utley and the freshly retooled Magnolia Mountain concentrate on the Americana end of the spectrum with an emphasis on the blues and rock aspects of their sound, resulting in a wonderfully dark and driving album that details the various shades of bruising caused by every relationship. The diversity on Beloved comes from the songs themselves, from aching ballads to ballsy rockers, and in their presentation, as Utley occasionally stands down to allow longtime vocalist Melissa English and new voice Renee Frye to take the mic and the lead spotlight. Beloved is smolderingly intense even in its quietest moments, positively incendiary when it's amplified and very likely to be the album that takes Magnolia Mountain to the next level.
July 24, 2013
Mark Utley has proven to be pretty great in the songwriting department; perhaps less so on the editing end.
The last two Magnolia Mountain albums, 2010’s Redbird Green and 2012’s Town and Country, were legitimate double albums, packed to the very edge of a CD’s load limit. Both albums were designed with an intentional four-sides-of-vinyl flow, which was evident on the digital versions and proven with Kickstarter-funded pressings of actual double-vinyl versions.
Thankfully, Utley’s songwriting acumen has totally overshadowed his lack of editing skills. Neither Magnolia Mountain album felt overly long nor would they have significantly benefited from trimming their track lists to a more conventional length.
Given Utley’s success with quantity on the first two Magnolia Mountain releases, it might seem slightly odd that the band’s fourth catalog entry, Beloved, clocks in at a breezy 44 minutes and features just 11 tracks (much like the band’s 2009 debut, Nothing as It Was).
It becomes less of a mystery when coupled with the fact that Utley has bundled the release dates of Beloved and his first solo offering, Four Chords and a Lie, where you’ll find an additional 10 songs and Magnolia Mountain’s missing 35 minutes.
“I just write so much,” Utley says with a laugh over beers and dinner at Northside hangout The Comet. “Even with the solo album aside, this one was always going to be a single record. As much as I’ve enjoyed doing the double albums and as much as people seemed to like them, it’s daunting for some people. It’s a lot to digest, even if you break it into four sides. I’ve spent the last year paring down these songs, cutting out choruses and taking out bridges and moving things around. I wanted an album full of sharp, focused, three-and-a-half-minute songs that made some kind of stylistic sense together. I think we did it.”
Magnolia Mountain has always exhibited a broad sonic diversity, moving easily from Country to Folk to rootsy Americana to twangy Rock. Utley decided to use his solo debut (which also features his side band, Bulletville, on a handful of tracks) as a repository for the more Country aspects of his writing spectrum, leaving the heavier, bluesier, funkier tracks for Magnolia Mountain.
“The biggest difference is stylistic,” Utley says. “We started doing the Bulletville project last fall and that came out of some trio shows we did with Cameron Cochran joining us on pedal steel. There’s a couple of people in Magnolia Mountain that are not as crazy about Country music as others, and the situation presented itself where we could start this thing as an extension of the trio, which was myself, Renee (Frye) and Jeff (Vanover). Then when Cameron started playing, we put a rhythm section to it, which was (bassist) Chris Cusentino and (drummer) Brian Aylor, and we’ve got Ricky Nye on piano and organ, for God’s sake.
“That freed up Magnolia Mountain to be a little more stylistically pure, in a sense. We took the more blatantly Country stuff out and put it over here and that left us with a little more focused palette, if you will. Lyrically, they’re probably pretty well related, they’re just in a different musical framework.”
Since Utley assembled Magnolia Mountain in 2007, one of the band’s most consistent qualities has been its revolving door membership. As it stands now, the only original members of Magnolia Mountain remaining in the band are Utley and vocalist Melissa English.
The rest of the current lineup is aforementioned vocalist Renee Frye, guitarist Jeff Vanover, drummer Todd Drake, who joined just prior to Town and Country, keyboardist Dusty Bryant and local bass icon Victor Strunk, who, like Drake, formerly played with The Hiders, Ruby Vileos and many others. (Strunk has gone full-time with the band since relocating from Brooklyn, N.Y., back to Cincinnati.)
Utley is quick to acknowledge that the direction of any given Magnolia Mountain album has been largely determined by the lineup at the time.
“It’s completely all about that, actually,” Utley says. “We’ve grown and shrunk, some people have left under good circumstances, some left under a cloud, but I think that has a lot to do with explaining the different personalities of each of the records. As a songwriter, you tend to write to the strengths of the people you have around you.
“When Jordan (Neff) and Amber (Nash) left to concentrate on (Cincy Folk Pop band) Shiny and the Spoon, we brought Renee in to replace Amber, and singing with Renee has been a revelation. She’s got this sweet Southern soulful thing that slays me. It’s like we finish each other’s musical sentences. And then having her come in on top of the thing I already had going with Melissa, because I’ve been singing with her for the better part of 20 years … they’ve both been a godsend. We’ve been featuring the girls more and I’ve been writing songs for them to sing and they just sing the shit out of this stuff.”
For the foreseeable future, Utley feels confident in allowing Magnolia Mountain to represent the more muscular Blues/Rock side of the equation as evidenced on Beloved (co-produced by Utley and John Curley) and his solo/Bulletville configuration to address his more traditional Country/Honky Tonk interests as espoused by Four Chords and a Lie (co-produced by Utley and The Seedy Seeds’ Mike Ingram).
While Utley believes he and his bands found the heart of his creative intentions, he recognizes the interplay between the two musical entities “It’s so hard when you get into labels; I don’t think we’re Country as much as a Southern thing, but over time there are all these connotations that have attached themselves to people,” Utley says. “There’s so much cross-pollination between both bands; Bulletville plays at least four of the songs on Beloved, we just Country ‘em up a little bit. And the song ‘The Southbound Lane’ is on both records.
“So, yeah, on paper, you would think that Magnolia Mountain would probably hoe closer to that line and as long as Bulletville’s around, it’ll be closer to the Honky Tonk/Country thing. But who knows? I was joking with someone recently that just when we think we’re settled with this band, this lineup and this sound, it wouldn’t surprise me if, like, three months from now I’m on some clawhammer banjo kick. Everything must change.”
CityBeat.com - July 24, 2013
ICYMI: The Bunbury Music Festival Rocked
Reluctantly ducking out of the Harlequins set, I headed over to the Cincinnatus Stage to check out newly shorn singer/songwriter Mark Utley and three of his Magnolia Mountain compatriots, longtime vocalist Melissa English, new vocalist Renee Frye and recently installed guitarist Jeff Vanover. Although this was billed as a Mark Utley show, most of the set seemed geared toward Magnolia Mountain, with some tracks from the band's about-to-be-released album Beloved, a few from their excellent back catalog and a smoldering cover of Buddy and Julie Miller's "Gasoline and Matches." Beloved will be joined on its release date by Utley's debut as a solo artist, Four Chords and a Lie, a more stripped down Country affair, but in either context, Utley's songwriting prowess is obvious. For Bunbury, Utley presented this quartet version of Magnolia, with the exquisite harmony-to-lead vocals of English and Frye, Vanover's powerfully sinewy guitar and Utley himself as the soft-spoken eye at the center of Magnolia Mountain's hurricane of talent. With the release of two distinct albums in the offing, you're likely to see any number of structural combinations supporting them; solo, duo, trio, quartet or full band (with occasional guests from past line-ups, no less). The certainty is that you'll be witnessing something truly extraordinary when you stand in front of Mark Utley and any conceivable version of Magnolia Mountain.
Official Guide to MidPoint Music Festival 2012 - September 12, 2012
If somebody was visiting Cincinnati and asked if there were any good Americana bands in town, most would immediately send them Magnolia Mountain's way. Led by roots music genius and masterful songwriter Mark Utley, Magnolia Mountain has emerged as the cream of the local Roots scene crop (which is saying something considering how fertile Cincinnati is for great Americana music). Besides the timeless songwriting and impeccable musicianship (Utley always manages to enlist some of the best players in town for the band), the group's versatility and ability to inhabit whichever mood or style a song calls for is especially impressive. MM's latest, Town and Country, was its most diverse yet, offering dips into various permutations of Folk, Roots Rock, Country and beyond. And yet Magnolia Mountain never ceases to sound like Magnolia Mountain, perhaps the band's greatest feat of all.
Brand New Kind of (blog) - August 3, 2012
Magnolia Mountain - Town and Country
Another excellent release from This Is American Music, Magnolia Mountain makes far more traditional country/Appalachian folk than most of TIAM’s rockier bands; beautiful harmonies and great picking on both guitar and banjo. Contains a startlingly spectacular cover of Will Johnson’s gorgeous “Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming”.
firdaposten.no (translated from the original Norwegian) - July 17, 2012
Magnolia Mountain - Town and Country
Roots rock / alt.country band Magnolia Mountain from Cincinnati is out with their third album, Town and Country, available as a double album on vinyl, and also as a CD and digital download.
Town and Country is a particularly varied and beautiful affair, with some songs of an otherworldly quality. There is very great variety of musical expression, and two cover versions thrown in. The band leader, songwriter, and singer is Mark Utley, but he has great help from the rest of the band, which for this occasion is enhanced with various respected musicians (among others, singer Lydia Loveless).
We get our first taste of Town and Country's musical diversity on the opening track, "Black Mollie". Pretty Irish in sound, with fiddle and banjo. According to the band, folk music from the Appalachian Mountains. "One Waking Moment" is more straighforward, simple folk country, lighter and easier-sounding than its predecessor. They turn over for more blues-inspired tunes on "Baby, Let's Pretend", though still light and bouncy. "Set on Fire" takes it all the way, with fuzzy slide guitar, a heavier sound, and a screaming harmonica along the way. "Rainmaker" is a Booker T.-inspired rave-up, and expands the musical landscape even more. Next is their duet with Lydia Loveless called "Shotgun Divorce". Not exactly punk in sound (maybe more in attitude and mood), but very good anyway. "Bad for Me" puts them on the ballad track, with a beautiful saxophone prowling mostly in the background. A little slower in pace, but quite beautiful.
The first cover song included is "Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming", written by Will Johnson from Centro-matic. And here they lift the roof all the way off, because this ballad is absolutely lovely and delivered beautifully. "The Devil We Know” is dark, Celtic- inspired blues-rock. Things get a little lighter on the slow, November-night ballad "Mister Moon". "The Old Ways" takes a new detour to the Appalachians, with the return of the fiddle and banjo, which are also featured on "The Hand of Man" and "All My Numbered Days". "Train To Glory" increases the speed as the band "drives that train" with a fine organ and fine harmonica. Singer and songwriter Mark Utley is completely alone with his acoustic guitar on "Hard To See", a concert recording from a pub, which fits nicely into the concept of the rest of the album.
"Don't Leave Just Now" shows that Mark Utley is not only a splendid songwriter, but also knows how to pick up nice tunes by others to record. This song, by fellow Cincinnati band Wussy, led me to another great new band to explore. And again, it is an indescribably beautiful ballad. They are situated in the same mood with "Cry For Me", still quite beautiful. And here they could actually stop. But thankfully they don't, as "A Light to Bring You Home" leads us home in good shape. With marginally higher speed, and a little more sound, it's still nice and tender. The layered harmonies bring to mind an Americana-edition of the Beach Boys.
While 18 tracks might seem to be a bit much to handle in one sitting, Town and Country does not feel like that. The great variety and the strong tunes make it easy to keep coming back to this record.
Another splendid record from the big country in the west.
Adobe and Teardrops - July 11, 2012
Magnolia Mountain - Town and Country: An Americana Tour de Force
Clocking in at 18 songs and 75 minutes, I can no longer justifiably call any album other than Town and Country a tour de force. And it's not just the sheer quantity of music here: every one of the 18 tracks here is top-notch.
Magnolia Mountain's music can best be described as Americana. You've got everything from country to folk rock, gospel, Appalachian folk, rockabilly, etc. etc. In spite of this diversity, however, Magnolia Mountain's "voice" can be heard all the way through, which should be expected of a band's fourth album. I can't quite explain what the "voice" is -- I probably will be able to after a few listens, but I've already sat on this review for a criminally long time.
Americana UK - June, 26, 2012
Magnolia Mountain - Town and Country: Adventurous Double Album from Cincinnati Roots Rockers
Town and Country is the third long player in almost as many years from this band of Cincinnati roots rockers led by Singer/Songwriter/Producer Mark Utley, and seeks to raise the bar on previous albums which have garnered favourable comparisons with The Band’s all-encompassing Americana stew.
Town and Country, an 18 track double album no less, attempts to meld the band’s more traditional country, folk and mountain music core with a grittier rock and blues feel, so not only is the line-up extended to an eight piece (not to mention a cast of guests) but the stylistic goal posts have been widened to include any and all styles of classic American music. As wide-eyed bids for musical liberation go its certainly no London Calling but the country tunes now sit comfortably alongside spirited stabs at Stax Soul, Soft Rock balladry, Gospel, acoustic laments and swaggering bar-room Blues. Despite the ever-changing styles, Town and Country hangs together rather well.
Among the highlights, the ragged "Shotgun Divorce" (a duet of marital disharmony with Lydia Loveless) is good rowdy fun, while conversely "The Devil We Know" offers wonderfully portentous ghostly harmony before the band pile in to whip up an evocative Blues-infused drive. The tremulous "Bad For Me" is a slow-burning, almost 80s inspired, pop-rock number while "Hard to See" is Utley at his most tender and direct. The musicianship and arrangements throughout are exemplary, as they traverse their many styles - whether knocking out Bluegrass like "The Hand of Man", or sweat-drenched blues chuggers.
Blabber 'n' Smoke blog (Glasgow, Scotland) - June 23, 2012
Magnolia Mountain. Town and Country
A Cincinnati-based eight-piece country rock combo, Magnolia Mountain are very much the brainchild of Mark Utley, a big man with a big sound and judging by this a big talent. Singer, guitar, and banjo player and writer of all but two of the 18 songs here, one senses that Utley is steeped in rock, country, and blues with the result that the album is a smorgasbord of delights. Fiddle-laced romps sit side by side with slide-driven rockers and devilish blues moans, an eclectic mix indeed and it goes some way to explain the dichotomy of the album’s title.
The country side is evident from the start with Black Mollie where a rustic fiddle leads into a Celtic influenced jaunt with banjo and mandolin sprinkled throughout. One Waking Moment continues with this mandolin and fiddle country style but with a smoother approach and some nice Bakersfield-type electric guitar flourishes. The Old Ways ripples along with some fine fiddle soloing from Kathy Woods that is spinechilling. This is a thrilling song that sounds as old as the hills and ably demonstrates Utley’s ability to capture in his lyrics age-old worries. He brings this band up to date however on the tremendous Hand of Man, a great folk song that rails against the despoliation of the country by mining companies who are “greedy for that coal” and the consequences of their greed.
“White Star Holler was my home. Shared the crops that we had grown, Shared the water from our well, Shared the life we loved so well, Coal men brought the mountain down, Leaked their poison underground, Mother, neighbour, friend, and son, Cancer took them, every one.”
Delivered with a fiery passion and with some great harmony singing by Melissa English and Renee Frye the song blazes with a righteous indignation fuelled by the real life protest against mountain top mining in the Appalachians that led Utley to compile a protest album Music For The Mountains. The sweeter All My Numbered Days runs like a clear mountain stream and is reminiscent of John Hartford with its country pop sensibility.
Back in the grittier side of town life, Magnolia Mountain prove themselves to be capable of some fine urban grooves and bluesy slinks. Baby, Let’s Pretend is like a blue-collar version of The Mavericks while Set On Fire grinds its loins lustily. The Southern soul groove of Rainmaker is rousing and sexy with an infectious dance feel while The Devil We Know is an impressionistic and spooky film noire set to music. Guest vocalist Lydia Loveless adds some fire and brimstone to the fast paced and slide guitar driven duet that is Shotgun Divorce, where Utley and Loveless toss insults and threats as if they were trailer park descendants of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.
There’s a temptation to conjure up the word “epic” to describe this but this is partly because it arrived as a beautiful double vinyl album package and compared to the usual CD review copies it just seems, well, big. While I’d recommend the vinyl, it is available in digital form. Whatever format you go for, it’s a great album.
Atlanta Music Examiner - June 20, 2012
Magnolia Mountain release new record Town and Country
After a successful run with their last album Redbird Green, Ohio’s Magnolia Mountain (MM) is back with their follow up Town & Country on This Is American Music. Head honcho Mark Utley has once again pilfered the musical storage box that is in his mind and constructed a record full of tunes that pull sounds from a wide array of music. Utley and cohorts have crafted each song as an individual piece of work that stands on its own but when brought together make each other better.
Starting the album is the banjo heavy bluegrass tune “Black Mollie”. With the sound and feel of old time Appalachia; don’t get fooled by the quaintness of the opening track becauseTown & Country has more turns than a NASCAR race. On “Rainmaker” and “Set On Fire”. dirty blues take over with blistering guitars and southern rhythms. They channel their inner honky tonk with “Baby, Let’s Pretend”, a country track with rock-a-billy undertones. “The Devil We Know” packs brooding rhythms and haunting vocals taking the listener to a dark place while “Train To Glory” is a bouncy uplifting southern gospel tinged tune. A nice addition is Lydia Loveless making an appearance on “Shotgun Divorce”. Her voice is a nice compliment to Utley’s on this country-rock tune.
Magnolia Mountain continues to produce good music. They do not follow a specific formula when creating their music. All of their songs and albums have their own unique sound yet are all remarkably cohesive. The quality of their albums just keeps getting better with each release and on Town & Country MM has set the musical bar even higher.
CityBeat - June 4, 2012
Review: Magnolia Mountain's Town and Country
When people are confronted with my ridiculously voluminous music collection, they are most often struck with its distinct lack of commonality. Growing up within 70 miles of Detroit in the ’60s will do that; anything you can imagine between and beyond Motown and The Stooges will generally light my sparkler.
In reference to music specifically and to life in general, I have often remarked, “Specialization is for insects,” but if Mark Utley would like to borrow the phrase when he’s talking about his band, Cincinnati's Magnolia Mountain, he’s more than welcome.
From the band’s beginnings six years ago, Utley has endeavored to reconcile his Rock past with his fresh love of all things Americana by investing his Magnolia Mountain output with a reverence for the Bluegrass, Folk, Country and Rock forms while investing them with fresh angles, lines and perspectives. Like a sculptor who has immense respect for the permanence of the stone but also implicitly trusts his chisel and creative vision, Utley shapes the raw material of Americana’s various stylistic permutations into songs that are comfortably familiar yet blazingly original. That ethic was a hallmark of Magnolia Mountain’s last double album, 2010’s Redbird Green, and it comes into even sharper focus on the band’s third and latest release, the aptly titled Town and Country.
Part of Magnolia Mountain’s variance from album to album is at least partially due to the shifts in personnel that have affected the band from the start. At the same time, Magnolia Mountain has always been something of a rotating collective with guests becoming permanent members and members becoming guests. Town and Country follows that template, as Jordan Neff and Amber Nash (who left to devote full attention to their side project, Shiny and the Spoon) and David Rhodes Brown (who has defected from his numerous band affiliations to concentrate on solo/side work) appear sporadically on the album’s 18 tracks. And once again, guests abound on Town and Country, including piano master Ricky Nye, Tillers banjo ninja Mike Oberst and Americana chanteuse Lydia Loveless, among others.
Utley’s grounding in and love of vinyl forces him to think of his dozen and a half songs in the context of four separate sides (which he also did on Redbird Green; both albums are available in double vinyl format), and the first side is indicative of the broad range of Town and Country. “Black Mollie” kicks things off like a traditional Folk ode, “One Waking Moment” is a classic Appalachian Bluegrass break-up jaunt and “Baby Let’s Pretend” is a bopping Country thumper that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Rodney Crowell or T Bone Burnett set.
But just when you think you’ve got Magnolia Mountain pinned down, Utley and company (Jeff Vanover, Melissa English, Renee Frye, Bob Lese, Kathy Woods, Bob Donisi and Todd Drake) blister the paint with the wicked Blues menace of “Set on Fire,” with sweet “sugar, sugar” backing vocals, searing slide guitar and thundering rhythm section. That quartet is a mere hint at the broad spectrum of styles and approaches that Magnolia Mountain achieves on Town and Country, from the funky twang soul Blues of “Rainmaker” to the supercharged Roots Rock swing of “Shotgun Divorce” (Utley’s duet with Loveless) to the atmospheric swamp boogie of “The Devil We Know,” as well as superb covers of Will Johnson’s “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming” and Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now.”
As usual, the brilliance of Utley’s songwriting is that he and Magnolia Mountain craft each track as a separate jewel that fits perfectly into the gorgeous crown that is Town and Country.
CityBeat - April 19, 2012
Q & A with Magnolia Mountain's Mark Utley: Frontman talks about his local band's past, present, and future
This Friday night, Cincinnati's finest Americana outfit, Magnolia Mountain is set to celebrate the release of its fantastic new LP, Town and Country, easily one of the best locally-produced albums of the year. Frontman Mark Utley and his bandmates will party in Town and Country's honor by performing tomorrow at the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre. The all-ages show kicks off at 8 p.m. with guests Jeremy Pinnell and the 55's, Chuck Evanchuck and the Old Money and Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker from Wussy performing a duo set.
Click here to read this week's CityBeat feature on Magnolia Mountain. Below is the full interview with Utley.
CityBeat: Tell me about the new album. What was your mindset going into it — did you have a good sense of what you wanted to do right away? Did it end up as you planned?
CB: What's the significance of calling the album "Town and Country"?
I mean, think about it, I grew up in southern Indiana and I’ve lived here in southern Ohio for over 20 years. We’re on the border of north and south, our ears hear a mixture of Rock and Pop and Country and R&B every day growing up. We hear phrases like “world’s biggest small town” tossed out as compliments and as urban as we try to be sometimes, our backgrounds are often very blue collar, very working man, very rural, even.
I think Magnolia Mountain is very much about all that, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.
CB: When someone asks you what your band sounds like, and it's someone who might not have a great grasp on musical styles beyond the surface ones, what do you say?
I usually start with words like “rootsy” or “Americana” and if their eyes gloss over I’ll default to “Folk” or “Country." Or change the subject. I accepted long ago that the vast majority of the population doesn’t live or die by music the way I always have, so I don’t hold it against people for not catching obscure musical references or being well-versed in sub-genres. I’m just trying to find words or chords that people respond to no matter what their musical pedigree.
I couldn’t be happier with how they’ve all worked out. They’re such incredible players and singers and great people to know and spend time with. For whatever reason, this version of the band feels the most comfortable in its own skin and I love that. The audiences seem to sense it, too. The new stuff is going over great live.
MM: Assuming the new location of the Southgate House is up and running by then, I’d like to do another multi-artist “Music for the Mountains” benefit concert in the fall. I don’t have the energy for another compilation album right now, but maybe down the road. The bad guys don’t sleep, you know, and neither can we. It’s just my little thing that I feel like I can do to help the folks that fight it day in, day out.
I do generally find, though, that once people become aware of what’s happening, either through a book or a speaker or a song, that they want it to stop, and that’s encouraging.
I don’t know, really, other than the fact that people can sense the authenticity of some of this music and perhaps they want to discover it more deeply, or co-opt it to their own ends, or try it on like a new suit of clothes. Whatever it is, and however the trends cycle in and out, I think people can tell who plays these kinds of music because it’s part of them and who’s just trying on the suit.
Again, there’s the attraction of a sense of an authenticity, of something foreign and exotic, of times and places and people either long gone or vanishing inexorably. Our world is getting more and more controlled, more homogenized, more corporate, soulless and these Roots music forms are the antithesis of that.
We’re also working with a booking agent out of Nashville who’s setting up some tour dates for us, and we’ll be doing some trade off gigs with some of the other TIAM bands. It’s difficult with the size of our group, but we’re going to go out on the road as much as we can. I’m also doing more stripped-down gigs with Renee and Jeff as a trio, and we’re looking at touring with that configuration as well.
Sleeping Hedgehog - March 25, 2012
Magnolia Mountain - Town and Country
If Magnolia Mountain‘s new album consisted just of Mark Utley’s hot duet with Lydia Loveless on the butt-kicking country rocker “Shotgun Divorce,” and the elegiac bluegrass ballad “The Hand Of Man” about mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia, and the band’s devastatingly sad cover of Wussy’s “Don’t Leave Just Now” – it would be enough. But Town and Country, the sprawling country masterpiece by the Cincinnati octet has 18 tracks and is being released on one long CD or a double-disc vinyl album. Riches untold.
This is Utley’s third full-length studio recording as leader of this big country band, which keeps getting better on each outing. This one was recorded over about a six-month period starting in July 2011, and I suspect many of the members have day jobs or other gigs. But somewhere in there, Utley also finds time to write some high-quality songs and corral this gaggle of musicians to performances and studio sessions, and be a family man as well. And in 2011 he also spearheaded a major project called Music For The Mountains, a compilation of music by artists from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama to benefit organizations that are fighting to stop mountaintop removal mining.
One of the things Utley stands for is a connection to the land and to the music of our collective past, and he’s well-versed in the various threads that are woven into the fabric of country music. All of his albums are primers in country music’s variety, this one perhaps more than its predecessors. It starts with “Black Mollie,” a rollicking bluegrass reel that makes explicit the connection between Scots-Irish folk and American stringband music. This song is a fine example of everything that is right about this album: Utley’s banjo and Kathy Woods’s fiddle and the sweet harmony vocals of Melissa English and Renee Frye, and not least the fine production, in which each instrument and voice has its place in the spacious arrangement.
In addition to the opener and “The Hand Of Man,” other bluegrass and old-time tracks include “The Old Ways,” about that connection to the land and the music, and the gospel “All My Numbered Days.” But there’s the classic country shuffle, “One Waking Moment,” and the love songs “Mister Moon” and the countryfied arrangement of Will Johnson’s (Centro-Matic, South San Gabriel) “Just To Know What You’ve Been Dreaming.” As for the town part of Town and Country, “Bad For Me” is a gritty urbane blues that Dave Alvin would be proud of, “The Devil We Know” brooding country noir and “Baby Let’s Pretend” rocking honky-tonk. “Rainmaker” is chugging Memphis style country soul with lots of color from organ, lap steel, slide guitar and a couple of saxophones, and “Train To Glory” is a rockabilly gospel number with some more hot organ and harmonica licks. And Utley & Co. wrap it all up with the blue love song “Cry For Me” and the sweet parental love note “A Light To Bring You Home.”
In addition to Utley on banjo and acoustic and electric guitar, and those already named, Magnolia Mountain includes Jeff Vanover on electric guitar, Bob Lese on mandolin and harmonica, Bob Donisi on acoustic and electric bass and Todd Drake on drums. They’re a heck of a band and keep getting better. I hope I get to see them on stage some day.
(This Is American Music, 2012)
The Huffington Post - February 20, 2012
"The Hand of Man": Powerful New Music Video Captures Appalachia's Grief Over Mountaintop Removal
As millions of pounds of explosives from mountaintop removal strip mining operations continue to devastate historic mountain communities in central Appalachia, a powerful new music video released this week by the beloved American Roots band Magnolia Mountain captures the haunting grief and stories of stricken families in America's cradle of roots and country music.
Driven by Mark Utley's banjo licks and Magnolia Mountain's effortlessly haunting and plaintive harmonies, "The Hand of Man" joins the pantheon of classic mountain ballads and mining tunes, including Kentucky legend Jean Ritchie's "Black Waters" and John Prine's timeless paean to his family's demise in western Kentucky to Peabody coal, "Paradise," and 2/3 Goat's recent metrobilly hit, "Stream of Conscience."
One of the most popular urban Appalachian bands today, the Cincinnati-based Magnolia Mountain has won a dedicated and growing fan base across the nation as one of the hardest-working, bone-shaking, and original bluegrass, folk, and blues bands on the American Roots circuit.
Thanks to Utley and fellow artists like Melissa English, Magnolia Mountain is also one of the most committed bands in the Appalachian and Ohio River heartland: Joining the tireless work of Grammy star Kathy Mattea, among many others, "The Hand of Man" is part of the compilation CD and music festival benefit, Music for the Mountains, that Utley and Magnolia Mountain organized over the past year for various grassroots activists defending mining communities against mountaintop removal operations.
"The Hand of Man" takes the listener to White Star Holler in Kentucky, where seven generations of mountain families have struggled to defend their lives and livelihoods from the toxic fallout from coal company destruction.
CityBeat - September 7, 2011
MidPoint Music Festival 11 Guide
Magnolia Mountain bandleader Mark Utley adds his distinctive voice and songwriting skills to a tangle of varying Roots music stylings, coming out the other end with an incredibly rich and stirring strain of Folk, Country Blues and a variety of Americana shapes and sizes, all gorgeously performed by a collection of some of the best young and established musicians in the Cincinnati area. The music of MM is written and arranged by Utley with heart-driven grace and an intuitive understanding of tradition, something that doesn't just stop with the sound. Utley and the band have been heavily involved in raising public awareness about the serious environmental and health issues many beiieve result from mountaintop removal coal mining. Utley's work on the benefit album Music for the Mountains, as well as a swell of other grassroots activities, actually had tangible results as the topic is now front-page news and opinion polls show most think the controversial methods should be stopped. Working together to right wrongs - just another part of Magnolia Mountain's call-back/look-forward take on Folk music tradition.
DIG: Bob Dylan, Hank Williams, and other key architects with a hand in drafting the blueprints of American Roots music.
The News-Record - February 13, 2011
Mountaintop Removal Spurs Musical Protest
As mountaintop removal becomes a hotter subject, one Cincinnatian's eight-month labor of love has culminated into a 21-track album featuring local bands trying to save Appalachia.
Music for the Mountains is an album for the mountains. Mark Utley's eight-month labor of love to stop mountaintop removal.
Utley, front man of Cincinnati's own Americana and folk band Magnolia Mountain, put together Southgate House's Saturday night benefit to give back to the Appalachian Mountains with a 21-track album featuring bands from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.
A three-pronged benefit movement to end mountaintop removal, Utley and others have produced the record, scheduled a double movie screening at the University of Cincinnati's MainStreet Cinema of "Low Coal" and "Coal Country" and a put on the music festival at the Southgate House.
All proceeds of the album and activities are split equally between Ohio Citizen Action and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in an effort to stop mountaintop removal.
Mountaintop removal is a practice in which the tops of mountains are detonated for strip mining, producing 5 percent of the nation's coal annually.
Jeff Biggers, a speaker at the event and author of several books concerning Appalachia, was adamant about bringing an end to the environmentally damaging act of mountaintop removal by the end of this year.
Following Biggers, Melissa English from Ohio Citizen Action and Ben Baker of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth delivered speeches on the effects of mountaintop removal, as well as information on the upcoming "I Love Mountains" protest event in Frankfort, Ky., scheduled for Monday.
More than 20 local musical acts played original and traditional Appalachian songs to support the end of mountaintop removal. Highlights of the night's music included Americana acts like Magnolia Mountain, Browngrass and Wildflowers and The Tillers. Joe and Kelly Kneiser, Janet Pressley and Kim Taylor won over the audience with their songwriting and stripped-down acoustic performances. Rabbit Hash String Band also really brought home the true sound of the mountains with their raw bluegrass feel.
In the ballroom, The Lucy Becker Trio filled in for Duquette Johnston, capturing the audience's imagination with magnificent mandolin and fiddle vamping. There were also the evening's stylistic oddballs, The Frankl Project and Frontier Folk Nebraska, bringing a more rock-influenced sound to the stage.
The show not only sold out the Southgate House, but the musicians raised more than $11,000 to be split between the two charities.
People of all ages and backgrounds came to support the cause, sharing the love of music and the mountains..
Americana UK - January 4, 2011
Magnolia Mountain - Redbird Green - Impressively Wide-Ranging Americana Set
There can be few bands as eclectic as Cincinnati eight piece Magnolia Mountain, and fewer still who can actually deliver on such a wide range of styles. Available as a single CD or double vinyl album, it fuses influences from across the entire palette of American roots, bluegrass, folk and traditional music and adds in some nice harmonies to make an impressively listenable album that pretty much serves as an encapsulation of where Americana is today, at least the more traditional end of the spectrum.
Leader and songwriter Mark Utley is a mean hand with the words too, with the title track sitting firmly in blue collar Springsteen state-of-nation territory and, while it lacks the power of James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” it compensates with a deeply personal resonance and hope, even if only a sliver of it. It’s by no means an isolated example either and this, combined with lashings of soul (check out “Reconsider (Please Don’t Go)”) make this a superior set. It lacks a single killer song or pin your ears back moment but it good and solid all the way through, and there are few double albums of which that can be said.
Rating: 7 out of 10
CityBeat - September 24, 2010
MidPoint Music Festival 10: Dance Party USA
After seeing three acts use and abuse electronics, I decided to go for something completely different and headed down Main Street to Mr. Pitiful’s for a set by Cincy’s Americana powerhouse Magnolia Mountain. The eight members crammed onto the Pitiful stage (which has some of the best sound of all the MPMF venues) but there was nothing cluttered about their elegant, accomplished Roots sound. It had a jamboree-like feel, with different members taking the lead throughout, kind of like The Last Waltz come back to life as one unified band. It’s hard not to fall for Magnolia Mountain’s sweet, eclectic Americana sound — they play with a joyfulness that is infectious. Smiles abounded on the stage and throughout the crowd.
MidPoint Music Festival 2010
Magnolia Mountain (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Soft as a baby's cheek, tough as a campfire steak, cool as an autumn evening, hot as a habanero pepper dipped in Tabasco and horseradish, Magnolia Mountain is all of this and so much more as they tear through the diverse Americana stylebook with a casual grace, effortlessly shifting between Country, Rockabilly, Gospel, Rock, Cajun, and Folk, with any combination of genres likely to bubble up to a boil in any given song. The band's latest album, Redbird Green, is a marvel of creative vision and execution and is clearly one of the best works this year (and available on double vinyl!).
You'll Dig It If You Dig: Drive-By Truckers and Waylon Jennings listen to the Louvin Brothers and Hank Williams on a $50 stereo through $1,000 headphones.
Artvoice - August 25, 2010
Magnolia Mountain - Redbird Green
It’s no small feat for a band to pull off a balance of artful depth, skill, and un-self-consciousness. It’s even more impressive when we are talking specifically about a band from Cincinnati pulling off genuine country music. Magnolia Mountain does it, proving they’re the real deal. Borrowing from the past and spinning it with refreshing originality, the band has crafted a double album (available as a digital download, compact disc, and 2-LP vinyl) of spirited, refreshingly warm and genuine Americana that dips deep into country waters, treads hilly bluegrass paths, and brushes the back streets of folk traditions.
With a regular lineup of eight but bolstered by a rotating cast of nine extras for this record, Magnolia Mountain is a big band (pedal steel, mandolin, organ, harmony singers) that shows decided restraint and poised power. Led by singer/guitarist Mark Utley—who wrote most of Redbird Green’s 16 tracks, barring just a few like the stripped, meditative, and bluesy cover of Hank Williams’ “Long Gone Lonesome Blues”—the band proffers a brand of country taste with just enough real spirit and rawness tempered by the innate ability to know when to lay back.
Another major strength is Magnolia Mountain’s flawlessl execution of stylistic hairpin turns: Take “Reconsider (Please Don’t Go),” a burner that ably leans on the kind of Stax-style, country-informed, Southern soul that will likely have you swearing it must be a cover from an old 45. Immediately following is the powerful “One Day More (For the Mountains),” which is another original—co-written with West Virginia singer/songwriter/activist Elaine Purkey—that sounds again like an old, dusty record, but this time an old protest ballad. Utley can tell a story, too. The dark themes of rustbelt despair in Redbird Green’s title track sounds like something straight from Springsteen’s The River.
All in all, this is an album that exhibits how great American roots music can be…so long as it isn’t afraid to dig in to all those different roots in the ground. Fans of the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Band, Gillian Welch, and Steve Earle will find plenty to love in Magnolia Mountain.
Unsigned: The Magazine - August 14, 2010
Magnolia Mountain: Tricky DIversity
Exactly how does a hillbilly orchestra stay on the right side of the border between classic and cliché? I don’t know but what I do believe is that God whispers this sacred secret in the dreams of only a chosen few and surely Magnolia Mountain’s Mark Utley is among them. Resounding with echoes of country music’s heyday, Magnolia Mountain’s Redbird Green sounds like it could have been recorded forty years ago.
The album’s lead-off track “Gone” resonates with a comforting familiarity. And the song’s “I’m outta here” sentiment is as tried, true and trustworthy a motif as you are likely to find in country music. Angry resignation may indeed be the fuel of many a country boy’s revenge songs, but here Utley becomes the bitter emotion itself, morphing into an exultant hillbilly phoenix. Brushes on the snare drum flutter soft as dew on the tall grass under a purple pre-dawn sky. The upright bass bounces lazily like a sleeping bull grunting at its shadow in the throes of an unsettling dream.
In the intro to “One Day More (For The Mountains)”, Utley’s ominous banjo dances like a wicked spider up in the rafters of the barn out back. Elsewhere, Bob Lese’s mischievous mandolin dances in and out of the mix, momentarily tugging your rapt attention away from the layers of angelic harmonies provided by Melissa English and Amber Nash.
A large ensemble can be an unwieldy thing. But each member of Magnolia Mountain calmly executes sparse, complimentary lines of simple grace. The musicians display mindful instincts, and perform with a well-grounded wisdom and humble confidence. It is perhaps the only way to craft music like this that’s both subtle and direct, eager but earnest. Always front and center, Utley’s voice is surrounded by sympathetic voices, acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, harmonica, fiddle, and the ethereal pedal steel keening of David Rhodes Brown.
Says Utley, “Magnolia Mountain is an unusually large group, but it came together in a very organic fashion and everyone brings something unique to the project. I’m real big on vocal harmonies and we spend a lot of time crafting 2-, 3-, and 4-part harmonies for everything we do. I’m also blessed with a group full of talented but wonderfully unselfish musicians, who know how to listen as well as they play, and that makes a huge difference in what we can pull off.”
In a recent conversation, I asked Utley to expound on the influences that lead directly to the writing of the songs on Redbird Green. Hoping his response would include not just musical influences, but life experiences, signposts, and landmarks along the way that lead him and the band to this point, I was not disappointed.
“I think the thing that’s allowed so much of Magnolia Mountain to fall so easily in place for me as a songwriter”, he says, “is that I finally got to a place where writing and playing and singing music felt natural again. Maybe I also just got more comfortable in my own skin. Who I was, who I wasn’t, where I came from, being old enough to have some perspective on where I’d been, where I am, and where I’m going. Being okay with being a blue-collar kid from Indiana, one generation removed from being a farmer, and everything that that history brought with it.”
“I started playing acoustically for the first time and really enjoyed the warmth and humanity of it, and how a group of people playing acoustically together draws listeners in a different way than playing electric does. I was struck by how so many divergent types of people all responded to these older tunes and spent a lot of time thinking about why that was, and how I could incorporate some of that into the songs I was writing.”
A Cincinnati-based band, Magnolia Mountain has a Midwestern twang that draws from the Ohio River Valley and the tri-state confluence of Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. Produced by former Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley, their Redbird Green is a Southern Gothic mood piece collage, a pastiche of down home imagery both romantic (“Ma Belle Marie”) and bleak (“Long Gone Lonesome Blues”). In its own peculiar way, the album can almost be seen as a journey through country music’s storied past, with important side trips to visit its crucial cousins the blues (“Medicine Man”) and gospel (“I Do Believe”). Lazy, lilting evening shadows fall for “Emma Claire”, a beautiful ballad with a heavenly steel guitar and fiddle break. The song’s calm, cool instrumental segment is a study in rock solid restraint, courtesy of the slow burning rhythm section of bassist Bob Donisi and drummer Matt Frazer. “Reconsider (Please Don’t Go)” is a classic last call slow dance waltz. It’s the perfect soundtrack for holding your partner close for one last dance, or sitting alone at the bar to cry in your beer.
About his youthful dalliances with other genres, Utley confides, “I played in punk, goth, and alt-rock bands for years but pretty much walked away from it during a transition period when I started having kids and wanted to do right by them, which essentially meant getting a straight job, at least for a while. I made a few musical stabs at things occasionally, but it always felt like I was trying on clothes from my youth that didn’t quite fit anymore.”
“I never stopped listening to music or loving music, though, and over the years continued something I’ve always done, which is to trace the music I love backwards, to see who my favorite artists were influenced by, where that music came from, and so on. This search, together with a newfound interest in tracing my family genealogy, led me to a lot of country, folk, mountain, and old-time string band music, back toward the Irish, Scots-Irish and British roots from which much of this music (and all my ancestors) sprang from. I’ve also always had a deep fascination with the American South and all of its social, racial, and musical history. I started to see how intertwined all these different strains of American music were, realizing more than ever what an amazing melting pot American music has always been.”
Country music recordings adopted a more direct and punchier production in the early 60s, employing a few of early rock and roll’s conventions, in particular a little more drums in the mix. Some consider this era a low ebb in country music’s history, a time when it was rarely heard outside of the south. But the music’s popularity exploded again late in the 60s and into the early 70s with what became known as the “Countrypolitan” sound, due to the layers of sophisticated string sections and a large choir of vocalists in the chorus of many tunes. An uncommonly strong collection of songs, Magnolia Mountain’s Redbird Green cleverly walks the line between those two phases in country music history. Incorporating a large dose of bittersweet bluegrass, it has the feel of a long lost obscure country record one might discover in their grandparents’ collection. (Appropriately, the disc is also available as a double-vinyl LP.)
In an industry where even country music has been shamelessly carved up and re-shaped into any number of ridiculous and dubious sub-genres it’s not just refreshing as hell to hear classic country sounds as genuine and sincere and bone-deep, heartfelt real as Redbird Green, it feels like a Godsend.
Among his vast array of musical influences, Utley’s favorites are Hank Williams, X, Gillian Welch, The Band, The Faces, Woody Guthrie, The Everly Brothers, and Ola Belle Reed. “As a songwriter”, he says, “this band frees me up to pretty much try anything, and the confidence I get from having such amazing musicians play and sing with me has really helped to open up the floodgates, so to speak, and allow just a ridiculous amount of songs and music to flow out.”
“The ‘curse’ that comes with all these blessings is that we can be so stylistically diverse that it’s hard to know how to describe ourselves to people. That can be a little tricky in terms of booking shows sometimes, because we can be seen as too country or too traditional by some, and not country or traditional enough by others. But all in all, I think it’s a good problem to have.”
August 12, 2010
Magnolia Mountain - Redbird Green
Magnolia Mountain's "Redbird Green" feels something like a master class in Americana, an at-times rousing, at others emotionally resonant roundelay of roots rock, bluegrass, blues and gospel.
Leader and chief songwriter Mark Utley and his sprawling, talented group of musicians and backup singers have created not just a labor of love, but something you'll love, as well, a generous, 17-song recording that mines the well-tilled landscape of its genres and finds beauty anew. Even when they embrace the conventions of the sundry songwriting styles, they still manage make them special and fresh. These songs would have knocked out listeners when this brand of music was in its burgeoning stages and will have the same effect today.
"Redbird Green" opens with "Gone," a prototypical and typically catchy song about the ramblin' urge which manages to make Utley's voice feel lonesome even when buttressed with pretty harmonizing from Melissa English and Amber Nash and boasts deft interplay between its soloists, from Annette Christianson's fiddle to Rockne Riddlebarger's Hawaiian steel guitar to Bob Lese's mandolin. It assures you you're in good, friendly, welcoming hands for the time you spend listening to the album.
Utley and company subsequently offer up sprightly bluegrass ("Ma Belle Marie," "Early Morning Train"), blues ("Medicine Man," "Hellbound Train") and gospel that even an unbeliever can embrace ("I Do Believe").
It's easy to enjoy Jordan Neff's Eagles-esque "Like Any Other" without having to actually like The Eagles, and one can imagine "Reconsider (Please Don't Go)" emanating ceaselessly from '50s jukeboxes. And you'd swear "One Day More (For the Mountains)," which Utley adapted with English from a lyric by activist songwriter Elaine Purkey, came out of Woody Guthrie's songbook. "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" actually does come from Hank Williams' songbook, just in case you haven't figured out where this band is coming from, but Bob Lese's mandolin solo ekes out so much emotion that you practically don't need the lyrics.
"Savannah" is, you know, yet another love song, but boasting a gorgeous melody, and "Emma Claire" is the sort of song of regret that you've heard before but still manages to resonate thanks to the wry, wistful way Magnolia Mountain handles it.
"Home" is both simple and complex – on its face, it's a sweet and joyous celebration of the simple pleasures that life has to offer. But, couched amidst the other, darker songs on the album, it also underscores just how difficult obtaining and appreciating those simple pleasures can be.
My favorite songs on the album, however, come near the end. "Opalene" is the sexiest song on the album, more a song of lust rather than love, with Nash and English's backing vocals more than capably evoking the sultry attitude that'd fill a songwriter with desire. Still, Mark and his collaborators offer a fairly tasteful version of the song. You can imagine a really raunchy version of this song played in some backwoods Southern roadhouse inspiring all sorts of sex (and, no doubt, dozens of unwanted children, but that's another story).
And the final, title track, "Redbird Green," recalls Bruce Springsteen's "The River" in its sad, weary tale of ordinary, working-class folks beleaguered by grim economic injustices. But Springsteen was a superstar trying to imagine the plight of the working man (and, make no mistake, he did it quite well); Utley and his colleagues, working significantly closer to real, hard life, have created something more lived-in, something deeper and more haunting.
I covered the music industry full-time back in the '80s, when major labels were obsessed with the slick and superficial and video-ready, and have covered it intermittently since then, when those labels met the fate their behavior in the '80s suggested they ultimately deserved. In the past, bands like Magnolia Mountain would likely have met with indifference by those major labels, or been outright ruined by them (remember, in the 1980s, Neil Young was sued by his label for not being commercial enough).
Today, with most bands savvy enough to realize that they can pursue their own muse and find audiences without having to concede to major-label pressures, more musicians are able to remain true to their instincts and connect with like-minded fans without having to sell their souls and still eke out a living (or, well, almost).
It's one of the few positive quality-of-life trends of the past decade, to my mind, and Magnolia Mountain, while hardly reaching the heights of, say, Wilco, has under this new world musical order been able to craft lovely and affecting music that they – and their listeners – can genuinely revel in.
CityBeat - July 27, 2010
"I Shall Be Released" Record Review Column
Magnolia Mountain’s debut album, last year’s Nothing As It Was, was a stellar introduction to a band with an almost boundless amount of Americana/Bluegrass/Country potential and it garnered a good deal of deserved acclaim as a result. In the subsequent year and a half since its release, Magnolia Mountain lost a member, gained two more, gigged relentlessly and immediately set to work on their sophomore release. How immediate? At the release show for the debut album, the Cincinnati-based band played five songs that wound up on its incredible sophomore album, Redbird Green.
From sheer amount of music to stylistic shifts to depth and breadth of songs, the Magnolias have amped up every facet of their presentation on Redbird Green. Mark Utley is proving to be a world-class songwriter and Magnolia Mountain is becoming the perfect vehicle for interpreting his work in any and every conceivable musical permutation under the Americana banner. Structured like a four-sided double vinyl album (Redbird Green is also available in the vinyl format), the album starts off with a quartet of diversity on “Side One” — the propulsive done-me-wrong chug of “Gone,” a hybrid of Johnny Cash’s traditional magnificence and Rodney Crowell’s authentic translational skills, the spicy Cajun swing of “Ma Belle Marie,” the field Blues-meets-banjo porch stomp of “Medicine Man” and the plugged/unplugged Americana lilt of “Like Any Other.”
The range exhibited in these four songs would indicate a pretty flexible band, but Magnolia Mountain is far from showing off its endless versatility. They make a credible Gospel outfit on “I Do Believe,” Bluegrass doesn’t come much bluer than “Early Morning Train” and they turn out pure Country and Folk goodness on “Savannah” and “Home,” respectively. And, as Todd Rundgren once rightly noted, still there is more, from the Country Blues ache of “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” and the pure Blues scorch of “Opalene” to the Rockabilly rave-up of “Hellbound Train” and the Neil Young-channels-Bruce Springsteen modern economic Dust Bowl balladry of the title track.
Most bands couldn’t achieve that kind of wide variety on a single release, let alone sustain it over the course of 70 minutes and not have it sound like a muddled genre mish-mash or a forced effort to please too many disparate listeners. That may be Magnolia Mountain’s most valuable asset — they have the rare ability to inhabit any branch of Roots music and still sound unmistakably like Magnolia Mountain.
CityBeat - June 23, 2010
CityBeat - June 16, 2010
Magnolia in Bloom: Magnolia Mountain Goes Lo-Tech and High Class on Ambitious New Album, 'Redbird Green'
Gather round, kids. Pappy wants to tell you how it was in the old days. Way back then, we used to get our music on big black dinner plates we put on a revolving platter and then played using an arm with a diamond needle at the end which would run along in a groove and make the music come out of the dinner plate. Then you’d have to get up and turn over the plate to hear the other side.
Hey, don’t look at me like that. Your music comes flying through wires willy-nilly and it’s made of ones and zeros, and if your computer machine crashes you don’t have a single solitary note of music left. Your way doesn’t make any more sense than ours.
The point is that local Americana/Roots outfit Magnolia Mountain remembers the old days and wanted to connect with them in some significant way, so they’re releasing their new ambitiously sized CD, Redbird Green, in a double-album vinyl format. It was clearly a structure Magnolia frontman Mark Utley was working toward; the titles on the back of the CD are separated into four distinct sides.
“I’m a vinyl freak and I wanted to do the first record on vinyl but we didn’t have enough money,” Utley says from the living room of his Price Hill home. “Sitting down with one CD for an hour can be a little exhausting, but the good thing about the record is its broken into logical sections. You can listen to three or four songs at a time and they fit together with themselves as well as they fit as a piece with the whole thing.”
And while the Magnolias are going old-school technology on the vinyl release of Redbird Green, the band’s methodology to raise the funds to finance the pressing and printing of the album was on the cutting edge of Web networking. Utley posted the album on Kickstarter.com, a new fundraising site for musicians, artists, inventors or anyone looking to get a project bankrolled.
“We put it up as a project we were working on and asked for donations,” Utley explains. “We had a goal of $3,500 initially, but when all was said and done we had gotten almost $6,000 in donations. We were just trying to get enough to make a double album, nothing fancy, just a thick sleeve that both records would fit in, but now it’s turned into a gatefold, with a nice Michael Wilson photo of us across the inside, full color everything.”
“Ambitious” is the word for Magnolia Mountain all the way around. The band — Utley on vocals, guitar and banjo, guitarist Jordan Neff, vocalist Melissa English, Bob Lese on mandolin and harmonica, upright bassist Bob Donisi, drummer Matt Frazer — released its debut album, Nothing As It Was, last February to fairly universal acclaim and in the interim lost a member (steel guitarist Rockne Riddlebarger) and added others (vocalist Amber Nash, Neff’s partner from Shiny and the Spoon, and local guitar legend David Rhodes Brown). Most bands would require a period of adjustment to sort that all out, but Utley had different plans for Magnolia Mountain. The first order of business was to keep writing.
“When we did the CD release show for the first one, we did an extra five songs at the end of the show, which turned out to be five of the songs on this record,” Utley says. “We just kind of kept rolling. If there was any problem at all, it was knowing when to stop. What do we not put on this record?” The Magnolias debated the wisdom of including so much material on the album, but eventually they decided to release the CD with 17 tracks at just over 70 minutes. It was clearly the right move: Redbird Green, once again produced by John Curley at Ultrasuede, plays with the breezy pace of a single album.
“There were a lot of discussions about that; I wrote the lion’s share of (the songs) so they’re all kind of like my babies, I don’t want to get rid of any of them,” Utley says with a laugh. “But I also don’t want to be the guy who can’t edit himself, so I was always asking, ‘What should we take off? What should we leave?’ At one point, we had the lucky 13, and of the lucky 13 we chose 17.”
“Reality demanded that we stop,” English says. Much of the album’s appeal lies in the fact that Magnolia Mountain is adept at so many different styles under the Americana umbrella: the straight up Country of “Emma Claire” and “Savannah,” the rousing Rockabilly of “Hellbound Train,” the Gospel-drenched “I Do Believe,” the Cajun spice of “Ma Belle Marie.” It’s a testament to Utley’s creative vision and the amazing execution of the Magnolias that the genre mash-up on Redbird Green doesn’t sound choppy.
“I think the band had gelled more and I know this all sounds like an after-game sports interview, where they say, ‘I just want to help the team,’ but it was a more cohesive unit,” Utley says. “Everybody molded better.”
“With the first one, we had a lot of the arrangements pretty well established,” Neff says.
“Whereas with this one a lot of that stuff was written in the studio.”
As on the first album, studio guests helped expand the Magnolias’ sound on Redbird Green, including The Tillers’ Mike Oberst, Lagniappe’s Jessie Berne, The Kentucky Struts’ Adam Pleiman, the Joneses’ Rashon Murph and The Comet Bluegrass All-Stars’ Ed Cunningham. Utley’s hoping to get most, if not all, of the album’s featured players to drop by for the album release party at the Southgate House this Saturday.
Typically, there’s very little downtime in Magnolia Mountain’s world. Utley is putting together a benefit album to raise funds to halt the mountaintop removal method of mining. So far, Glossary, The Hiders, Ed Cunningham, Katie Laur and Ma Crow have all signed up and more are expected by summer’s end. Neff and Nash will work in some Shiny and the Spoon work, and Rhodes will be splitting his time between 500 Miles to Memphis, Magnolia Mountain and a variety of other projects.
“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” Brown says. That might just be the Magnolia Mountain mantra.
Southgate House website - June 15, 2010
Ballroom, Saturday, June 19th
Americana roots act Magnolia Mountain are unquestionably one of the area's most beloved bands, consistently earning CEA nominations, along with critical and fan praise, for their accomplished live show that demonstrates wonderful songwriting with bluegrass-folk accompaniment. This time out, Mark Utley (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, banjo), Jordan Neff (harmony vocals, electric guitar, accordion, banjo, piano), Melissa English (harmony vocals), Amber Nash (harmony vocals), David Rhodes Brown (lap steel, slide guitar), Bob Lese (mandolin, harmonica), Bob Donisi (upright bass), and Matt Frazer (drums, percussion) celebrate the long-awaited release of the self-produced CD/Double-LP sure to take the band to a whole 'nother level; Redbird Green offers both familiar country rambles and beautiful, transcendent moments of songwriter bliss. This incredible lineup also touts bluegrass-folk trio The Tillers (quickly leading the charge of our region's stellar Americana revival), The Hiders (with great '70s-tinged mellow-folk chestnuts) and The High Strange Drifters.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - June 13, 2010
Jason and the Scorchers Heat Up Twangfest
Opening on Saturday was Magnolia Mountain of Cincinnati, an eight-person band featuring singer-songwriter Mark Utley and guitarist David Rhodes Brown. The band's acoustic-based and original amalgamation of country, rock and bluegrass was well played and enthusiastically received.
Metromix Cincinnati - June 4, 2010
Songs from Daniele's iPod: Magnolia Mountain and More: What Our Music Writer is Listening To
Artist: Magnolia Mountain
Metromix Cincinnati - October 17, 2009
Magnolia Mountain at the Crow's Nest
Harmonies, guitars, accordions, banjos, pianos, mandolins, harmonicas, upright basses, oh my! Folk Americana band Magnolia Mountain has such a multitude of talents backing it that it's hard not to be impressed. It released its debut album, "Nothing As It Was", earlier this year, and it also earned a Cincinnati Entertainment Award nomination in the folk/Americana category in 2008. The music has an old-time feel, which is especially appropriate considering that the full band is playing at one of the oldest West Side bars. Order some beer-battered fish and a beer, sit back and enjoy the music.
Americana U.K. - July 31, 2009
Magnolia Mountain - Nothing As It Was
Music of the Appalachian hills flavoured with a slice or two of urban folk, plus a nod towards their forebears from the other side of the Atlantic
Fronted by lead vocalist Mark Utley, Cincinnati, Ohio based Magnolia Mountain is a seven-piece mainly acoustic band that keep it simple, and at the same time, innovative.
On merging country, folk, Celtic and bluegrass into their music —the entertainment is never finer than when, after a brief acappella beginning they deliver ‘Little Wildflower’. A superb country offering possessing fine electric lead guitar and Dobro, Utley not only shines on lead vocals but the pickers play with a great freedom as they likewise do on the dobro (Rockne Riddlebarger) fired ‘A Little South Of Birmingham’ and ‘Nora Mae’ — that speaks of separated love and how the lure of Dixie holds strong.
‘Irish Maggie’ pretty much speaks for itself, and with mandolin, fiddle (best heard on the soul searching intro), Hammond organ and Dobro put to good use the music transcends America and Ireland. Prompted by a chugging rhythm, Utley and Co are in unstoppable form.
[T]he album regains impetus on ‘Autumn Rose’. Warmed in lead guitar, mandolin and a fine shuffling rhythm, seamless vocal harmonies and a sprinkling banjo it finds MM near their best.
‘Annelise’ takes the listener down into the southern states, Louisiana maybe —such the moody presentation and impressive vocal assists from Melissa English.
Green Man Review - April 2, 2009
Magnolia Mountain - Nothing As It Was
Mark Utley, a former rocker from Cincinnati, has gone rootsy with his current band, Magnolia Mountain. Their debut disc Nothing As It Was is a warm, likeable collection of Americana that combines country, folk and bluegrass sounds.
This is heartland music at its best, expressed in honest lyrics and solid musicianship. Utley sings the lead vocals in an approachable baritone, and he's backed by a big group of musicians on mostly acoustic instruments, with a touches of electric guitar, Hawaiian steel guitar and organ.
Full disclosure: I'm acquainted with Utley from an online music-related community we both belong to. But I wouldn't say that I liked his music unless I really liked it, and I do.
In his bio on the Magnolia Mountain Web site Utley says he didn't used to think very highly of his rural roots. "But like many others, age and experience (particularly the experience of raising children) have given me a different vantage point on life. These days I am more interested in who I am than in who I am not. I have actively sought out my roots, from my ancestors in Ireland, Scotland, and England, through their time in Appalachia and out into the farms, towns, and cities of the midwest and the south, and I have found a sense of pride, humility and grounding there."
Those Celtic and Appalachian roots find their expression particularly in the third song here, "Irish Maggie." It kicks off with a sweet fiddle intro, very Irish-Appalachian sounding; some accordion is added and some mandolin, then the tempo picks up a bit, the dobro kicks in and it's a full-blown country song, but still with that Irish lilt as befits the subject matter.
Throughout, the instrumentation, arrangements and tempo fit the subject matter in like manner. "Nora Mae" is a mid-tempo song with brushed snares from Matt Frazer, more dobro from Rockne Riddlebargber, and a touch of electric guitar from Jordan Neff, who elsewhere contributes accordion and other keyboards. "A Little South of Birmingham" is even more up-tempo, with a railroad shuffle beat and lovely harmony vocals from Melissa English.
This kind of music used to be called country & western, and it's songs like "Beautiful Mirage" and "Murder on My Soul" with their Hawaiian steel, harmonica and such that could still be called that. "Little Wildflower" is a bluegrass-style love song with a beautiful multi-part harmony vocal introduction; "Autumn Rose" is a jaunty, bluesy swinging country song; "Out of My Mind" is a slow honky-tonk weeper with piano and fiddle; and "Annelise" tugs at the heart strings with Appalachian-style harmonies before it turns into a country-rocker complete with organ from Neff -- it's one of those "devil woman" songs in which the fellow is telling her to leave him alone but doesn't really mean it.
Mostly these are sweet love songs of the country kind, and they tend toward understatement. Local independent musicians like this deserve all the support we can give them these days. I encourage you to go on over to Magnolia Mountain's Web site and listen to the song samples, then consider purchasing directly from the artist. You'll also find it on iTunes and CDBaby.
CityBeat - February 18, 2009
Though known for a wide-range of musical styles, Greater Cincinnati has always had an especially strong Americana/ Roots music scene, as evidenced each year by the stacked lineup at the annual Rivertown Breakdown showcase. With the release of Nothing As It Was, Mark Utley and his band Magnolia Mountain should instantly jump to the top of any list of Cincinnati’s best Roots practitioners.
Nothing As It Was — to be released in conjunction with a MM show Saturday at the Southgate House with guests The Tillers and Kim Taylor — is soulful, haunting and pure, taking the best of Country, Folk and Bluegrass and refracting it through a modern prism. It rings incredibly authentic and timeless, an album that could have come out 40, 30 or 20 years ago but is too lively and crafty to stand as some sort of retro-music museum piece.
The “Roots” being spread around on Nothing are widereaching — “Irish Maggie” strides and jigs like a vintage Celtic Folk song, while the highlight, “Out of My Mind,” has the sad, earnest feel of a great George Jones love lament.
Most startling and appealing is when Utley and Co. create something that transcends any genre. “Murder on My Soul,” while perhaps designed with “murder ballad” intent, is a hovering, spooky slice of ethereal soul-searching that recalls the ghostly Indie Folk of artists like Midlake and Fleet Foxes.
Nothing As It Was announces Mark Utley as one of the finest songwriters in the area. He and the amazing band he’s assembled have a knack for crafting something that is both traditional and refreshing. Fans of Roots music old and new will find Magnolia Mountain’s latest one of the more enchanting albums they’ll hear all year.
CityBeat - November 18, 2008
2008 CEA Music Nominees
MARK UTLEY AND MAGNOLIA MOUNTAIN: Rock veteran Utley switches gears with Magnolia Mountain, a graceful, skillful Americana powerhouse.
BuyCincy.com - September 25, 2008
Magnolia Mountain at Arnold's
It's nights like this that make you love Arnold's. Good bluegrass music, a nice fall breeze, and delicious Christian Moerlein.
Magnolia Mountain is up now. I'm really digging their set, which has touches of blues, folk, and a good dash of roots bluegrass. Best of all, they feature both a slide guitar and an accordian. You just can't beat the accordian/slide guitar combo for a chill Thursday night.
Arnold's courtyard is one of our favorite places to hear live music and we could think of no better place to kick off what we hope to be a very successful Midpoint weekend.
CityBeat - September 25, 2008
MidPoint Music Festival: Thursday Sept. 25
11 p.m. Magnolia Mountain (Cincinnati)
CityBeat - November 14, 2007
Locals Only: Mark Utley
When he talks, smile lines, those telling creases, form on the sides of his eyes. His manner is that of a thoughtful man, and beneath that depth rests an obvious vast knowledge of music. He says, "I was pretty much always writing songs from early on."
Originally from Evansville, Ind., Utley is a Rock veteran. In 1979, he joined the band presently named Matinee Idol. Utley says, "They were alarmingly good ... they played what I would consider the best of the '60s and '70s stuff."
Think of The Who and The Clash.
Perhaps Utley is most well known for his work with Stop the Car, an amazing, progressive "graveyard" Garage band that introduced Alternative music to the scene before the label "Alternative" even existed. Ahead of its time, STC was a largely successful '80s band with a cult following still alive today.
But the rowdy, artistic drive behind STC was something that Utley reconsidered over time.
"Stop the Car was informed by Goth bands and Alternative bands, and there was a certain pretense to it," he says. "That, combined with the theatrics of it, created a divide between us and the audience."
In 1992, Utley moved to Cincinnati, bringing with him the desire for musical change.
"Basically I wanted more of an outlet for songwriting," he says.
By 1994, Utley formed Pale Halo, a band with influences as diverse as early Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and Portishead, while still joining STC for yearly reunion gigs.
After the 2005 reunion, Utley says, "I got the bug again. But when I came back, there was no outlet for me to play that loud, electric, amplified music." Through time, he was "struck by the warmth and the human element in acoustic music ... communal thing where people can join in and be a part of it."
His Dad was heavily into Country and Utley absorbed the sound by default. Early on, he disliked the style but later revisited songwriters like Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams Sr. and Johnny Cash. Embracing Roots, Utley studied Celtic, African-American and a stew of historical, culture-thick music.
"In that old music, there's a real humanity, a warmth and the heart that is missing so much from today's music," he says. "It comes from a time when there wasn't a music industry -- it was more of a cultural community or family thing. Songs would mutate over generations; it was the way people kept their stories alive. When you can tap into that, it's pretty exciting."
With that in mind, Magnolia Mountain formed in 2006, including Utley on vocals and acoustic guitar, Rockne Riddlebarger (lap steel), Bob Lese (mandolin, harmonica), Jordan Neff (electric guitar, accordion, piano), Bob Donisi (upright bass) and Matt Frazer (drums, percussion). Creating a sound mix of Folk, Americana and Country, Utley says, "It all came together kind of organically."
He pauses. Peacefully, directly, he says, "It's a big confidence boost as a songwriter that guys that have these kinda chops are interested in playing my songs. It makes me feel like I'm on the right track. It's fun, we enjoy it and it's a great outlet. With that attitude, it grows on its own."
From Alternative Rock to heart, Utley continues his career, and when his oldest daughter enters the room, he leans back on the couch, listening to her voice, tuning in.