Even before his recent solo turn, journeyman Mark Edgar Stuart had earned his place as an elite Memphis musician and, perhaps, the go-to bass player in town through years of service to countless local bands. But with the release of his excellent debut album, Blues for Lou, Stuart shows that he is also a force to be reckoned with as a guitarist and singer-songwriter.
Stuart's career in music began in his hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, when his father — "Big Lou" — insisted he take up the upright bass instead of sports.
"He told me from the get-go that I would not be playing sports like he and my brother did. I was going to play music — period," Stuart says. "He said all he and my brother had to show for their time playing sports were broken bones that still hurt." There were also more practical reasons for his father's demand.
"The only way he could afford to send me to college is if I stuck with that upright bass and got a scholarship," Stuart says.
And he did stick with it and earn that scholarship — at what was then Memphis State University. Once in town, Stuart quickly fell in with a group of like-minded musicians who would eventually become known as the alt-country outfit the Pawtuckets.
"The Pawtuckets changed everything for me," Stuart says. "One day out of the blue, I saw an ad in the Flyer for a 'bass player wanted.' It changed my life. Those guys wound up being my best friends to this day. Before I knew it, I was in a 'real' band playing 'real' clubs. For the first time, I felt like I was a somebody. I had an identity. I was officially a musician, a Memphis musician. My dad was proud."
The Pawtuckets had a good run. Over the course of roughly five years, the band produced three solid albums and toured extensively. But the project lost steam by 2001.
"I thought the band was going to be my ticket, and we all know how that story goes ... implosion," Stuart says. "Being in a band for the first time with two songwriters definitely had an influence, maybe not then but 15 years later. Back then, I made fun of their sensitive heart-on-the-sleeve BS. I just wanted to rock and play bass through an [Ampeg] SVT cabinet."
After the Pawtuckets' demise, Stuart spent the next several years making the rounds. He toured for a year with Alvin Youngblood Hart. He recorded two albums with Cory Branan and played with Branan on Late Night with David Letterman. He played guitar in Vending Machine. He recorded and toured with the Secret Service, John Paul Keith, and Jack Oblivian. And, in 2009, he released a CD of original instrumental rock songs under the name M. Edgar S. and the Slightly Possessed.
Everything changed for Stuart, however, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2010.
"I felt a bump in my chest. Four different doctors said it was heartburn or an allergy to alcohol. You have to be aggressive when diagnosing yourself. I knew something wasn't right," he says.
Eventually, the doctors at a local minor-medical center did get it right. Stuart began undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment almost immediately, which both opened and closed doors for him, creatively speaking.
"I stopped playing gigs for the most part," he says. "I spent a lot of time at home bored and sick, and that's how this whole reinvention started. I would just sit around with my acoustic guitar and finger pick. That led into trying to sing and dabbling with songwriting."
But while Stuart's health improved, the news in his personal life only got worse.
"Shortly after my last treatment, my dad got sick and died and then my dog," he says. "It affected me immensely. 2011 sucked. But now I had something to write about."
And so Stuart began to write songs and record demos at home, which he shared with musician friends along the way. At the urging of several of those friends — including Branan, Keith, Jimmy Davis, and his former Pawtuckets bandmate Mark McKinney — he started performing his new songs live.
Last year, one of Stuart's demos found its way to local producer/engineer Jeff Powell, who encouraged him to make a full-fledged album.
"He called and left me this long inspiring message. I still have the message to this day. I won't erase it," Stuart says.
Stuart and Powell recorded most of the album over the course of several weekends at Ardent Studios and Powell's home studio, but a few of Stuart's original demos also found their way onto Blues for Lou.
"I loved the fact that Jeff encouraged me to use some of the demos," Stuart says. "A lot of recording geeks would have insisted they be re-recorded using their fancy gadgets and toys."
Mark Edgar Stuart's solo debut will finally be available to the public this week, officially released by McKinney's imprint, MADJACK Records. For his part, Stuart will perform at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Saturday. Later that night, he will celebrate the album's release with a show at Earnestine & Hazel's. After that, he'll be hitting the road in support of more established road acts like Star & Micey and (hopefully) Branan, as well as collaborating with up-and-coming singer-songwriter Kait Lawson.
But even with so much going on, thoughts of his father are never far from Stuart's mind.
"Everything I do is for my pop. He was the man," Stuart says.
Mark Edgar Stuart
The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Saturday, March 9th, 5 p.m., free
Mark Edgar Stuart
Blues for Lou Release Show with Kait Lawson and Jed Zimmerman
Earnestine & Hazel's Saturday, March 9th, 7 p.m., free