The past few years have seen veteran Memphis musician Mark Edgar Stuart evolve from a trusted sideman with groups like the Pawtuckets and John Paul Keith and the One Four Fives to a bona fide headliner in his own right as a singer-songwriter and bandleader. Both 2013's Blues for Lou and last year's Trinity My Dear were revelatory declarations of his deft touch with simple, yet catchy melodies and heart-on-the-sleeve subject matter. But even with all his recent success, Stuart remains relatively humble.
"I still pinch myself," he says. "How did I get here? I still think of myself as a bass player. My personality is still that of a bass player. I owe a lot to all the crazy-talented folks I used to play behind. Lots of wonderful people have come into my life.
"It's been great seeing somebody discover a whole new world, a new part of himself," says Stuart's longtime friend and bandmate John Whittemore. "He'd been one of the best bass players in town for years, and then all of the sudden there he was with a guitar with a bunch of cool songs. He has such an interesting viewpoint and expresses such great sardonic wit. It's inspiring to me."
Last week, Stuart unveiled his newest recordings, a two-sided single for the songs "Don't Blame Jesus" and "Jihadi John." (Both songs are available on the 7" vinyl single, but only "Don't Blame Jesus" is being distributed digitally.) While the sound of the new material is roughly in the same vein as Stuart's previous output — John Prine-ish folk with sparse, airy accompaniment — the lyrical content skews more toward the realms of socio-political commentary and satire rather than personal confession.
"I'm just moving on, I guess" Stuart says. "I said what I needed to say with those other songs. It was good therapy, cheaper than a shrink. Now I can turn the page. I'm not much for soapboxes, and I'm not smart enough to be a torchbearer for anything. If there's a message, it's, 'What the hell is happening?'"
Indeed, as this interview was being conducted, news of the recent shootings in Dallas was just breaking — a coincidence that was not lost on Stuart, given the inspiration behind his new single.
"I wrote them last year back to back, both inspired by the news unfortunately," he says. "Later that year, as I was watching the Paris attacks unfold on TV, I decided to book studio time and record them the very next day. I must have called every studio in town looking for a last-second opening. I just felt a strong urgency to capture a moment while tension was high. I also wanted to inject a little bit of humor into a messed-up situation, not take it so seriously."
In late December 2015, Stuart and his A-list band cut the single at acclaimed local producer/musician (the Bo-Keys, Impala) Scott Bomar's Electraphonic Recording studio, with all the players recording live, in one room — thus producing an end result that comes across as both loose and refined. Both sides especially benefit from the highly skilled pedal-steel playing of Whittemore, whose understated and dynamic licks elevate the proceedings in a way few others could.
"We've worked together a lot over the years," Whittemore says. "It was super-comfortable with [drummer John] Argroves there. We're all good friends. I'm happy with how it all turned out."
In the short time since its release, the single is already turning heads with the local media and two well-known and influential national music websites, PopMatters and Paste. But, as is his wont, Stuart downplays his achievements.
"It's probably a fluke," he says. "Elizabeth [Cawein, Stuart's publicist] threw a hail-Mary, and it somehow worked out. I can't complain. The attention is great — even though it's unexpected. She's really hustling for me."
But Cawein isn't the only one hustling out there. Stuart is booking more and more gigs both in and out of town as a solo act ("My bass phone doesn't ring as much, but that is okay," he says) and is already plotting a course toward a new full-length album, for which he is writing every single day.
"It's an obsession," he says. "I write a lot of fluff, but even those songs eventually help me write that one keeper. I want to start record number three. I've been rehearsing with a band, which is very new to me. I want the next record to be more lighthearted, upbeat, and fun. A new direction, nothing like the first two records. Something folks want to turn up, not down."