Mark Collie – Hello, I’m Mark Collie

Sept. 02

Mark Collie is in the middle of a deep conversation. We are backstage after Collie’s performance in front of an enthusiastic San Antonio crowd. His dressing room is strewn with books, food and guitars and Mark is still feeling the rush of the concert. “Think about it for a minute,” he explains. “If Johnny Cash hadn’t performed his show in San Quentin, country music wouldn’t have had Merle Haggard.” This is a powerful statement, but one based entirely on fact. In his autobiography, Haggard clearly says he was on the road to being a full time criminal until he saw Cash play a show there. Merle was an inmate at San Quentin and Cash’s performance inspired him to turn his life around and choose music over a life of crime.

Collie is at the end of a tour with pals Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw and has some lofty plans once they are done. In October he will travel to the Brushy Mountain State Prison in Tennessee to record a live album for MCA Records. Collie is very passionate about this project and continues his story. “If Haggard were not a part of country music, think of the impact it would have had on our music. Look at all the people that were influenced by Merle, singers like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Clint Black. All the hat acts of the 1980’s. When I do my show at Brushy Mountain Prison, maybe I can inspire just one person to turn their life around and do something positive instead of something negative.

His career started in the 80’s as well, just without the hat. He signed with MCA Records and released his debut album, “Hardin County Line.” Though it never broke any sales records, it introduced Collie to an audience hungry for something other than the normal hash coming out of Nashville. As Mark said, “I was a square peg in a world of round holes and they didn’t quite know what to do with my music. I didn’t own a hat, I wasn’t a pretty boy and I wrote most of my own songs. The label and radio stations weren’t sure where to stick me.”

His first two albums for MCA earned him a comparison to Bruce Springsteen, since both often wrote and sang about their love of cars. Mark’s first record even featured a photo of a hotrod on the cover and his second album contained a cover version of the Robert Mitchum song, “Ballad of Thunder Road.” By the time he released his third album, he’d written a hit that both the label and the radio programmers embraced. “Even The Man In The Moon Is Crying” came along just in time to give his career a much-needed boost and keep him at MCA for one more album.

By his fourth album, “Unleashed,” Collie was miserable and MCA released him from his contract. He shifted to Giant Records for one album, “Tennessee Plates,” before taking a brief hiatus from the music business to pursue other interests. He started the Mark Collie Celebrity Race for Diabetes Cure, held annually in Nashville and has raised several million dollars for the Vanderbilt Research Hospital. He also took on several acting roles, appearing in such TV shows as “Jag,” “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” He worked as a stuntman on the Paul Newman movie “Twilight” and appeared with Steven Seagal in “Fire Down Below.”

In preparation for the upcoming live album, Collie took a small film crew to the Brushy Mountain Prison to discuss the project. He shot about twenty minutes of footage inside the prison and he agreed to let me have a peek at it. The film captures Mark walking from cell to cell with his guitar, performing songs for the inmates. We had moved from his dressing room to his bus to watch the raw footage and I sat riveted to the screen as Collie narrated the scenes shot deep in the bowels of the maximum-security prison.

It sent chills up my spine as I watched him singing a duet with an inmate on death row. Later, in the prison chapel, he and a ragged band comprised completely of inmates ran through a brief set of classic country and gospel songs. One of the inmates had actually built his own guitar and then taught himself to play it. Mark is amazed as he tells me the story. “It is incredible. Here’s a guy that’s in one of the toughest prisons in America. Yet he read enough books to learn how to build a guitar and then he taught himself to play it. Wouldn’t it be great if we could keep that guy focused on positive things? When he gets out, who knows, he might be the next Merle Haggard.”

Not long ago, Collie learned that his idol, Johnny Cash, would soon be the subject of a major motion picture. He spoke with Cash and expressed his desire to portray him in the movie. Once Johnny gave his blessing, Collie began to actively pursue the role. The powers that be in Hollywood want a major star to play the lead role, but Collie is persistent. He gathered a group of family and friends and filmed his own screen test. The 18 minute short film is titled “I Still Miss Someone” and is being hailed a small masterpiece. Filmed entirely in black & white, it is a hauntingly accurate portrayal of Cash circa 1964.

After viewing the film, I asked if Cash had seen it and what were his comments? “At first I was afraid to let him see it,” explains Collie. “Johnny is such a huge influence on my life, I wanted to do the best I could on the film. We shot it in two days and I mainly focused on the dark side of his life. His life is full of highs and lows. I knew I could do the good times; it would be the bad times that would present the biggest challenge. Johnny thought it was great and very accurate.” The film cuts close to the bone but is a very truthful look at Cash’s life during his dark days of pills and alcohol.

Though music is his main focus, Collie has another film project in the planning stages. Filming starts in Texas later this year. “It’s being called a romantic comedy,” Mark explains. “I play a washed up bull rider. I’m not sure why it’s called a romantic comedy, I guess at the end I get to kiss the girl and everybody laughs.” When I inquire about him usually playing the bad guy in his past acting roles, he just laughs. “That’s me showing off my white trash lifestyle.”  He has a fantastic sense of humor and has learned not to take the business side of things too serious.

Once the current tour wraps up, Mark will have a chance to get some much-needed rest. He has dealt with his own diabetes since his teen years and it is hard enough to keep it under control in normal situations and nearly impossible while on tour. In fact, he hadn’t planned to tour at all but decided to after a personal invitation from McGraw, a friend of Mark’s for years. Collie quickly assembled a hot rockabilly band and hit the road. Their set begins with several of Cash’s biggest hits before touching on a few of Mark’s signature tunes. In San Antonio, he jokingly dedicates a new song titled “Shackles and Chains” to friend Kenny Chesney. They closed the set with a blistering version of the old Bobby Fuller hit “I Fought The Law.”

Mark Collie represents all that’s good about music today. His level of integrity is extremely high and above all else; he is one of the nicest human beings you will ever meet. He hopes the upcoming live album will help at least a few inmates. “Let’s face it,” he says. “90% of the convicts in America will be out of prison in the next decade. Over 50% of them will return to prison within a few years of their release. What does this tell us? Simply locking them up is not enough; we must do something to change their attitude. Give them something positive to work on. If I can inspire just one prisoner to turn his life around then I’ve done my part.” If I know Mark, he will always do more than just his part.

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