The Utley Truth

Cincinnati’s Mark Utley releases his second solo effort, Bulletville, and resurrects Magnolia Mountain


olific singer/songwriter Mark Utley has released a single album’s worth of songs. And that’s all.

Bulletville, Utley’s excellent sophomore solo album, is not a double-set on a single CD or accompanied by a new release from his band Magnolia Mountain or another musical vessel for the songs that pour endlessly from his head, heart and hands. Is this Utley’s version of writer’s block?

“No, no, I’ve just been focused on this one,” Utley says with a laugh. “We’ve done a few Magnolia Mountain shows recently. And we have practices as Magnolia Mountain every other week, but it’s all just stuff in its early forms where we’re trying to figure out what it’s going to be and what it’s not. It’s percolating. Everything is OK.”

The fact is everything is OK now. Last year, Magnolia Mountain, Utley’s Blues/Roots Rock vehicle, was collapsing while Bulletville, Utley’s traditional Country side project with Magnolia Mountain’s Renee Frye and Jeff Vanover, was thriving. After the simultaneous 2013 releases of Utley’s solo debut, Four Chords and a Lie, and the last Magnolia Mountain album, Beloved, Utley began compartmentalizing his creative outlets.

“There were several (new Bulletville songs) we were performing live in the final version of Magnolia Mountain, until we put that on ice,” Utley says. “I was really just trying to figure out where things fit and what bands would do what best.”

As Utley assigned material by genre to his dual projects, three Magnolia Mountain members split, critically hobbling the band. Singer Mellisa English departed a week before Beloved’s recording and bassist Victor Strunk left soon after. But it was drummer Todd Drake’s departure that robbed Magnolia Mountain of its heartbeat.

“I couldn’t imagine the band without him,” Utley says. “He’d been around for years, he could play anything and I had gotten to depend on him so much. I said, ‘The writing’s on the wall, let’s put this to bed.’ ”

With Magnolia Mountain sidelined, Utley’s creative vacuum was quickly filled by Bulletville. His Country project’s profile rose exponentially with each new gig, naturally leading to more songs and ultimately the recording of Bulletville, produced, like every Magnolia Mountain album to date, by Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley. The difference this time is that Bulletville was largely recorded live in the studio.

“Everybody could be playing the same notes they’d play if they were overdubbing, but there’s just that thing about playing in the same room at the same time,” Utley says. “It breathes and moves a little different. We had to do some overdubs, but probably 80 percent of my vocals are scratch tracks of singing along with the band (playing live). As much as possible, I want to do that on any future recording.”

As on Beloved and Four Chords, Frye takes the lead on several Bulletville tracks. It’s not at all unexpected, given the incredibly positive fan feedback and Utley’s own feelings about her increasingly invaluable contributions.

“She’s just such a great, soulful singer, she deserves to have some spotlight on her,” Utley says. “Singing with her is sometimes like a borderline spiritual experience. I specifically wrote that duet (‘Only in Our Minds’) to be that thing where we were singing back and forth to and with each other. I’m so happy with how it turned out.

“One of the coolest things I hear from people who are in other bands or well versed in these touchstones is, ‘You hear a male/female duo and you think they’re great, they sound like George (Jones) and Tammy (Wynette) or Gram Parsons and Emmylou (Harris) or Gillian (Welch) and Dave (Rawlings). You guys are great and you don’t sound like anybody else.’ I hear that too and I think she does as well.”

One of Bulletville’s high points is the evocative string arrangement on “The Only Thing,” provided by resident Cincinnati genius Paul Patterson. An off-the-cuff remark by Curley during playback resulted in local piano legend Ricky Nye taking a crack at a digital string arrangement, which led to the longtime Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra violinist’s brilliant cameo.

“We got to that point in the song and John kind of jokingly said, ‘This is where the strings come in.’ And I said, ‘You motherfucker. It is where the strings come in,’ ” Utley says. “We were pretty much out of money and time. Ricky said, ‘I know Paul Patterson, maybe I could ask him if might be interested.’ Bless his heart, Paul was right on it. It was one of my favorite days in the studio ever. He had the arrangement written out for four violins, four violas and three cellos. He had John set up four separate mics and he would do a violin track on one mic, then do another track on another mic. I think he did eight violin tracks, because he had a German violin and maybe an Italian violin and they have different voices. It was insane in the best possible way.”

As Bulletville rolled on, Magnolia Mountain rumbled back to life eight months after Utley shuttered it. Drake attended a Bulletville gig last summer and Utley reiterated his parting offer to his drummer, namely to revive Magnolia Mountain whenever Drake was ready.

“I got a call at 12:30 in the morning three days later,” Utley says. “He was like, ‘I just watched the Muscle Shoals documentary on Netflix. Let’s put the band back together.’ ”

At that point, Bulletville drummer Brian Aylor left to concentrate on his duties with local Blues phenom Noah Wotherspoon, so Utley offered the drum chair to Drake. The new Magnolia Mountain and new Bulletville were almost identical, leaving Utley to decide if the material should be reintegrated or if the bands should maintain separate identities.

“We decided on the latter,” Utley says. “I think that was smart.”

At present, Utley is immersed in Bulletville but carves out time for Magnolia Mountain. Regardless of the percentage balance, all of his disparate stylistic passion goes into both projects.

“I look at those four (Magnolia Mountain) albums and they’re all so different,” Utley says. “The first two were closer, the third was the whole we-can-do-everything, from stripped-down string band to full-on Blues to horn-driven Muscle Shoals/Stax stuff, and Beloved went more in that direction. If we did a record tomorrow, I wouldn’t know what it would be. It confuses the hell out of people but I can’t help it. I’m restless as a songwriter. I like so many different things.”

MARK UTLEY AND BULLETVILLE celebrate their new album release Saturday at MOTR Pub. More info: Click here for details on Bulletville and all of Utley's projects.

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