One recent Friday morning I drove to Donita’s Café in Smiths Grove, which, I would advise, is a really nice place to eat breakfast. As my wife and I sat down, the waitress noticed my notepad and tape recorder and asked me about it. When I replied that I was meeting Mark Whitley to interview him for an article, she exclaimed, “Oh yes, we all know Mark, he is a great guy and so talented!”
She was, of course, correct in every way and Mark is truly a modern renaissance man. Webster’s dictionary defines the word renaissance as “a or period of vigorous artistic and intellectual activity” and that description fits in every sense.
Born in 1975, Mark grew up on a farm and his father, Charles Whitley, ran a local hardware store in the charming, historic community of Smiths Grove, surrounded by friends and family. His father had a cabinet/woodworking shop on the farm, which he found fascinating as a boy. When Mark was around 8 years old, his father quit the shop but left the tools, so “that is where I spent my high school afternoons and summertime. I was in the shop all the time. I always had a project.”
He eventually attended Chapman University in Orange, Calif., on a church-affiliated scholarship and majored in peace and religious studies. Mark initially wanted to be a college professor in early Christian studies, but his poor eyesight made the extensive required reading for such a degree nearly impossible.
After college, Mark returned to Kentucky and opened a furniture shop in the back room of his father’s hardware store in Smiths Grove. As he described it, he “stayed in that tiny little room for four years and bought a little nine-acre piece of land in Merry Oaks and built myself a house. I have been in that studio since the end of 2004.” Mark is probably most widely known for his exquisite furniture art and though he has no formal art training, itwelve years he has literally built an international reputation for innovative design combined with traditional craftsmanship.
In 2011, the Kentucky Arts Council awarded him a $7,500 Al Smith Fellowship in recognition of his work in limited edition furniture and he was the council’s featured artist for May 2012. His work has been featured in “Kentucky Homes and Gardens,” “Arts Across Kentucky” and “Fine Woodworking Magazine,” as well as many local and regional newspapers. He has had showings and won awards in art fairs all over the United States.
Mark is a member and former president of the Artworks visual art coalition in Bowling Green and a member of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen and the Kentucky Craft Marketing Program. In short, Mark is a rising star in the world of furniture art and sculpture.
Much of Mark’s lucrative art business is from commissions he has received from clients in places like Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Mark credits his father with teaching him how to set up and run a business as well as the training he received from the Kentucky Arts Council. As a craftsman, he likes to take his time and focus on excellence and as a result, he may only make an average of 10 pieces a year, selling for them for as much as $10,000 each.
The second aspect of Mark’s life and art was and still is his music. He helped found the well-known, much-loved local band Dry Land Fish in 2000 and for the next six years, they toured and had a reputation for dynamic shows and innovative music. Mark, the main songwriter, described their sound as “hillbilly rock and roll.” Fame and recognition, as any musician knows, comes with a price in terms of one’s time, relationships and just the immense physical and emotional strain. Dry Land Fish was no exception to this experience, like many other professional bands, had many trials and tribulations. When the end came in 2006, they “were tired and I think we had gotten a little bit burned out.”
Mark then took five years off to focus on his songwriting while playing little “backyard festivals and then about a year and a half ago, I was approached a couple of fellows who wanted to do a new project and so the Mark Whitley Band was born in November of 2011.” Mark remains the principal songwriter for the band and wants to eventually work on a CD but, like with his art, wants to take his time to create “the absolute best possible product we can create. These songs are not simple songs and there is a lot going on with them as well as a whole lot of production to make them the way we want them.”
The Mark Whitley Band consists of Mark on guitar and harmonica, innovative bassist and California native Kurt Joachimstaler and the legendary, local percussionist Webb Hendrix. Others have described their sound as being Americana, alt-country and alt-rock, but I will leave it to the listener to decide what, if any, category to place them. They are according to Mark “waiting for serendipity to take over, everything falls into place, we don’t push anything, we let it sit, we let it wait and it has somehow kept moving up and up ... so who knows?” Mark does say that being a semi-professional musician has created a “balancing act” with regard to musical commitments and his studio work to complete his furniture commissions.
When I asked Mark about his vision for the band, he replied, “We are going to ride the train as long as it will go. We set out from the beginning not to be like a gigging bar band; we are not a cover band. When we do covers we want to show people how we can interpret a great song of someone else and not just fill space.”
In a very short time, the band has already had an impressive roster of performances, including The Roxy Theater in Franklin, The Music Room Café at George J's On The Square in Glasgow, as well as the Brickyard Café and the Warehouse at Mt Victor in Bowling Green. This month they will be at the Grateful Gathering at WhaBah’s on the 4th, Pelly's Farm Fresh Market in Smiths Grove on the 11th and at the Plaza Theatre in Glasgow on the 24th with the Songfarmers, another excellent local band.
You seriously need to see the Mark Whitley Band to understand how special they really are. Check them out on Facebook, Reverbnation and a host of other sites on the Internet.
On top of all this, Mark is a dedicated family man – he married his wife Melissa, who works at Hope Harbor, in 2005. They are the proud parents of a four-year-old son, Briar, who is already showing musical aptitude. Mark is also committed to the people in Smiths Grove and is currently creating decorative sculptures for the Smiths Grove Branch Library.
It is for all these things and more that Mark is so fondly regarded by his community. Mark Whitley remains a dynamic, creative force behind the visual arts and music in southcentral Kentucky, as well as a shining example of a man of personal integrity and family values. As Mark himself says, “Everything just keeps looking up. It is so great to be almost 37 and to really feel like every day is such a gift.”
It was an honor to interview Mark and I am sure we all wish him well in what appears to be an ever-expanding, bright future.
About the author: Jack Montgomery is a librarian, author and associate professor at Western Kentucky University, where he handles bookings for musical acts in University Libraries, Java City coffeehouse. Jack has also been a professional musician since 1969 and performs with a celtic quartet called Watersprite. Visit him on Facebook.