Singer, songwriter and guitarist Mark Huff’s new EP Down River is a creative breakthrough for the globe-trotting performer, blending his best songwriting to date with arrangements that perfectly frame the emotional depth of his lyrics and the soulful burn of his vocal performances. The result is a collection with an epic, cinematic sweep that ranges from the urban demimonde to the Gothic South to the back pages of Huff’s own childhood.
“These songs represent important parts of my journey, from growing up as a kid captivated by music, experiencing the heartbreak and the happiness that’s all part of becoming an adult, and the musical growth that being in Nashville has inspired in me,” Huff explains. “These songs are real and alive.”
Down River was produced by Huff and Mark Robinson (David Olney, Davis Raines) and recorded at Guido’s Studio South and Studio G in Nashville, with additional engineering by Drake Wise and Grammy Award-winner Chad Brown, who also mixed the album. The EP features a line-up of great Music City players: guitarist Audley Freed (Black Crowes, Jakob Dylan, Peter Frampton), keyboardist Jen Gunderman (Sheryl Crow, The Jayhawks), drummer Paul Griffith (Emmylou Harris, John Prine), bassist Mike Vargo (The Shazam, Allison Moorer) and vocalist Lisa Oliver Gray with additional guitar by Robinson and Huff.
The vibrancy of Huff’s eighth solo release — which ranges from full-tilt roots rock to gospel-fueled allegory — is apparent from the first elegant, gliding guitar notes of “Just Before the Fade,” Down River’s opener. The song is a romance noir — brimming with sad-eyed obsession as it plumbs the empty spaces of the heart. A haunting minor-key instrumental coda with flashes of Pink Floyd-style six-string reinforces the tune’s emotional core.
“That song had been following me around for a while,” says Huff. “I wanted it to be big and almost cinematic, so you could see the story playing itself out.”
The EP’s other tunes were written in a 10-day creative flash. “I’m constantly carrying around lyrics and whole songs in my head,” Huff explains, “and with the sessions coming up these particular songs began to gel and were finished in a wave of inspiration. I moved to Nashville 12 years ago, and the quality of the songwriters and musicians in the city really encouraged me to raise my own bar, and these songs represent a new high-water mark for me.”
That’s evident, whether in the rock ‘n’ roll charge of “Sweeter Then” or the gentle balladry of “New Day Light,” which both explore the loss of innocence. Although all of Down River’s songs are personal, “Teardrop In Your Drink” is especially important to Huff. His late brother, Rick, inspired the song. “We both started playing music together — me on drums and Rick on guitar, and he encouraged me to become a singer and a frontman,” Huff recounts. But Rick carried the pain and confusion both boys felt after their parents’ divorce into adulthood, and it took a toll on him. “It wasn’t an easy song for me to write on an emotional level,” Huff continues, “but I think songs need to be honest.”
The album ends with another epic — the Delta-set, gospel-infused character study “Down River,” a song that Huff wrote specifically to showcase Robinson’s straight-to-the-heart style of slide guitar and his own smoke and velvet singing.
Huff’s voice, guitar, and songs have taken him on a rich musical journey. Inspired by a mix of music brought into the house by his mother and his older siblings that ran the gamut from the Rolling Stones to Neil Diamond to the Doors to bluesmen Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, he and Rick started a band in their garage while still in their teens.
When Huff and his brother parted musical company, Huff formed his first original band, the punk- and British Invasion-inspired Smart Bomb. Soon they were drawing as many as a thousand fans to frat parties and outdoor shows around their native Las Vegas. Huff’s powers as a singer, songwriter, and charismatic frontman grew, and so did his regional reputation. In 1989, he released his first solo album, Happy Judgment Day, and through the ’90s he made a string of heralded discs including 1999’s Skeleton Faith, which won the Best Album and Best Artist awards, as well as the Best Single category for “White Trash Town,” in the annual Las Vegas City Life music poll. He also played to increasingly larger audiences at local venues like the Hard Rock Hotel and the House of Blues, opening for Chris Isaak, Al Green, and Peter Frampton. Huff has also performed in arenas as an opener for Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan.
In 2003, Huff moved to Music City. “When I told my band I was moving to Nashville, they said I was crazy,” he recounts. “We were really successful in Las Vegas, but I decided that I needed to go somewhere where I didn’t know anybody and the artistic bar for songwriters was set high, so I could see if I was any good.”
Almost immediately upon arriving in Music City he met Americana star Allison Moorer, who was so taken with Huff’s songs that she invited him to open for her U.S. tour. In 2005, he recorded his first Nashville studio album, Gravity, and in 2010 he released his previous recording, Feels Like California. The success of both albums, the admiration of fans on both sides of the Atlantic, and the respect he’s earned from other notable songwriters have kept Huff on the road – as a solo performer and headliner, as well as an opener for household names like Steve Forbert and Dylan.
I love being on the road and entertaining people,” Huff says. “I love being in a new place every night playing for a different audience. I thrive on it and want to perform as much as possible. I love the cycle of making records and touring.”
His travels have led him to cross paths with many luminaries of the songwriting world, including Leonard Cohen, who gave Huff some indispensable advice.
“I was dealing with a serious case of writer’s block at the time,” Huff confides. “I just didn’t feel like I could get anything good down on paper. So I told him, and he said, ‘Hey, sometimes you’ve got to write some shitty songs just to get the good ones flowing again.’ He also told me something that I really took to heart. He said, ‘A song is never finished.’
“That’s very true,” Huff continues. “A song is the only form of art you can do differently every night. A book is done when it’s written. A painting is finished with the last brush stroke. But a song can be played with different chords or a different melody, or an emphasis that comes from how you’re feeling the moment you perform it. Sometimes I sing new words to songs I’ve written and performed dozens or hundreds of times. That freedom is a big part of the thrill of making music and why I love what I do so much.”
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