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 third 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.
Listen to samples from Magnolia Mountain's Beloved (and other releases) below; click the player to purchase.
“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 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.”
MARK UTLEY and MAGNOLIA MOUNTAIN celebrate their new releases Saturday at Southgate House Revival with Bulletville, The Perfect Children and Veronica Grim & The Blue Ribbon Boys. Find and hear more from Magnolia Mountain here.