Mark Wills’ tour promo video
Mark Wills — who released some of the most enduring countrymusic hits of the last 25 years — performs Saturday Aug. 19 at The Mint Event Center at The Mint Gaming Hall Kentucky Downs. A member of the Grand Ole Opry, Wills has recorded 19 Billboard-charting singles across seven albums, including Gold and Platinum. Kentucky Downs publicity director Jennie Rees interviewed the country artist by phone recently.
Speaking of your hit song “Places I’ve Never Been,” have you ever been to Franklin, Ky.?
I certainly have. My first time to Franklin, Ky., was to shoot the video “19 Somethin’” in the (Franklin) Drive-In. We were going back to my hometown of Blue Ridge, Ga., to record the video because we have a drive-in. It turned out to be one of those deals where Franklin was really close and Blue Ridge was about four hours. So they decided to shoot the video in Franklin, Ky., instead of going back to Blue Ridge. That’s how that whole thing happened.
You grew up in Blue Ridge and live there now. How did that environment shape your musical journey?
I don’t really know that it did. I grew up singing in a church, but there wasn’t a music scene, to my knowledge, in Blue Ridge, Ga. It wasn’t until my family moved to Atlanta and I started singing down there at about 13, 14 years old in chorus and stuff like that in junior high and started going to what would be like open-mic nights. That was one of those deals that really piqued my interest in the live-performance aspect. I mean, I always wanted to record. But being able to do it from the level of getting on a stage and singing with a band, that’s what got me really interested in the music industry.
Has your genre always been country music?
No. Well, yes. But as a 14-year-old kid, it was hard to find guys to play country music. That was the big-hair ’80s rock days. So I played drums in some rock bands and would sing some of that kind of music. But when it really came to singing, country music was what I loved. I loved the story-telling aspect. I loved the ability to relate to the music and the stories. That’s where I dove in head first.
Your hit song “I Do (Cherish You)” has become an anthem for so many couples. What inspired you to record that song, and did you ever imagine it would have such a lasting impact?
It was written by Keith Stegall and Dan Hill. We always went into projects looking for the best songs we could find. When that song came to us, we just felt it was going to be a great wedding song. It was in the era where you had a big wedding song every year, like “I Swear” and “Keeper of the Stars.” It was one of those deals like, “Dude, this is a great song.” I kind of felt the same way about “19 Somethin’”, about “Wish You Were Here” and “Don’t Laugh At Me.” You just had a gut feeling this was going to be a big one.
Have you been working on new material that the fans might hear at The Mint Event Center?
We have. We have recorded some new music that we’re just trying to figure out what is our best avenue to get it out there. In today’s world, you can direct market. Back when my career started, you had one avenue for fans to find music, and that was direct through radio. In today’s world, there’s so many ways for people to find it. We’re looking at getting some of that new music out there hopefully in the very near future. And we do play a couple of those songs in our live show.
How has country music evolved throughout your career? You mentioned that now you can direct market. Where do you see yourself in this ever-changing landscape?
I don’t think that’s just country music. I think that’s entertainment in general. You look at movies, where you used to have to go to the movie theater when a movie was released. Now you have Netflix. Now you have Hulu, all these different options to consume. And I think it’s the same way with music. When I was recording the first record in 1995 and releasing the first record in 1996, Walmart had the biggest share, Walmart and Target, of album sales. Now you go to the music department in Walmart and it’s one aisle, half an aisle. It’s such a different world. I really don’t think it’s all about the record companies anymore. There are so many people being very successful with getting their music out directly to fans, whether that be in Reels or Instagram or TikTok, whatever. There’s something to be said to direct market to the fans. It kind of keeps the gate-keepers out of the way.
How important is that fan interaction to you?
Throughout my career we have tried our very best to remain accessible to the fans. We’ve made some great relationships over the years, and I think that’s important. When the fans feel they have a connection to you, they’re very loyal, they will travel to come see you. Like last weekend we had a (50th) birthday party for me in Nashville. Some people who started out as fans made the trip from California, made the trip from Texas, from Louisiana to come hang out with us. That means a lot.
Speaking of Nashville, you became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 2019, and Vince Gill in a live performance invited you to join. What was that whole experience like?
Kind of a dream come true. At the same time it was an out-of-body experience — to be on that stage, the Ryman Auditorium, getting to honor your friends, on the Friday night Opry honoring Jimmy Capps, who had been the guitar player in the house band for 60s years. To always have that evening — the evening the Opry opened its door to me and invited me to be a member of the family, and Vince being a part of that, and Jimmy Capps being a part of that — that was tremendous.
Touring can be both rewarding and challenging. Do you have any rituals or habits that help you stay grounded on the road?
No, not really. Even though a lot of times it’s the same songs you’re playing, the music we’ve had on the records, it’s always a new adventure. Because every stage is different. Every crowd is different. We just go into it that we’re ready to have a good time. We’re ready to play the songs they came to hear.
Which artists or experiences continue to inspire you today?
I’m still influenced by the music I grew up listening to. I still love Alabama. I still love Ronnie Milsap. I still love Conway (Twitty). I still love Keith Whitley. That’s the music I still aspire to make music like. It’s always going to change, always going to evolve. But I feel if you continue to draw from the same place, then maybe you have a little more consistency. I started my career wanting to sing great songs. And I feel like I’ve done that.
Do you feel Mark Wills has another No. 1, top 10 song out there?
I feel like I sing better today than I did when I recorded most of those songs. So yeah, I still feel like I could very much compete in the music with the new people out there. The one thing about Nashville that I’ve always loved, you can always find great songs.
Is there a message or legacy you hope to leave with your music?
No. Well, OK, yes. Prime example: “Don’t Close Your Eyes” or “Dixieland Delight” or any of those songs I grew up listening to, they’re still great songs today. That’s what I’ve always tried to do; I’ve always tried to record timeless music.
Final question. Being in Kentucky, as you will be, is there anything specific about Kentucky and its musical heritage that resonates with you or influences your show?
Two of my favorite people, two of my favorite artists, come from Kentucky. I’ve already mentioned Keith Whitley (from Ashland). I’m a huge, huge Whitley fan, have everything he recorded. Kind of feel the same way about Ricky Skaggs (from Cordell, in Lawrence County). Of course they were both bluegrass musicians. I don’t play a lot of bluegrass, but I love my time that I get to spend with Ricky at the Opry and the musical influence of Whitley. You can’t have two guys who come from that state and not have an appreciation for that state.