CD Review: From the Heart of Nashville, by Mark209

Mark209 is Nathaniel Justice (tenor), Jym Howe (lead), Jimmy Reno (baritone), and Joe Armstrong (bass). For some of you, Mark 209 may be familiar as 3/4 of the Mystery Men Quartet (Jimmy Reno being the exception). Most of the songs on From the Heart of Nashville can be found on the Mystery Men’s Blue Collar Gospel project. I have not heard that project, but according to Aaron Swain, who has, most if not all the vocals have been re-recorded and re-mixed. Also, two new songs have been added: Christmas southern standard “Down in Bethlehem” and patriotic Diamond Rio favorite “In God We Still Trust.”

Mark209 has described their sound as a hybrid of country and gospel. Baritone Jimmy Reno and tenor Nathaniel Justice are the more countrified half, while Jym Howe and Joe Armstrong anchor the group in their southern gospel roots. The result doesn’t end up straying too far from the typical SG quartet sound (despite comparisons to Diamond Rio), but there’s somewhat more twang in the mix than usual. Jim Howe’s expansive, resonant tones recall the classic southern gospel lead sound. He’s like a somewhat subdued McCray Dove (personality-wise as well as vocally 😉 ). On the flip side, Justice’s charming “squeak” reminds the listener that this is a country gospel quartet. When all the voices come together, it’s a hearty, well-rounded blend that goes down easy.

All the songs fall squarely in the country/gospel genre, with a nice mix of up-tempos , mid-tempos and ballads. None of the members of Mark209 write, but they’ve chosen songs from various sources that fit their style well. The production quality is good, featuring studio musician extraordinaire David Johnson on pretty much every instrument except piano. Some of the tracks that stood out to me were:

“Get Up In Jesus’ Name” — This is a country favorite that’s been covered by Gordon Mote. Mark209 raises the key and puts a full quartet spin on it. Nathaniel Justice gets a chance to cut loose, and he really shines with some power notes, especially towards the end. Possibly my favorite up-tempo cut.

“You Even Made the Tree” — This new song, which recalls the Cathedrals’ “I Thirst,” is the best ballad on the album. It showcases Jimmy Reno’s soothing country baritone. There’s nothing flashy about the song or the performance. It’s just tender, sweet, and understated. Listen to the studio cut here.

“My Home in Heaven” — This is their current single, a catchy mid-tempo number by Woody Wright which allows each member to show off vocally. “You can take away x, y and z… but you can’t take away my home in heaven.” It’s a good piece of music, and the lyrics are meaningful. The only thing is, they’re almost too depressing in places, which sits oddly with the upbeat sound. Among other things, the singer says, “You can ruin what’s left of my reputation/And you can kick me, kick me, kick me when I’m down/You can say bad things about me to my family and friends and make them cry … all cry …” Those lines are such a downer that they really need some sad, worn-out music to accompany them. However, it ultimately emerges as a hopeful song. Watch a live performance here.

“Down in Bethlehem” — Even though a Christmas tune always feels a little awkward on a non-Christmas project, I can’t find much to complain about since it’s one of the best tracks on the album. There’s some great kickin’ production, and they sound very comfortable singing it.

“Who Prayed For Me?” — This mid-tempo story-song along the lines of “Somebody’s Prayin” pays tribute to the people who often pray for us without our ever knowing it. It’s touching and heartfelt. My only quibble is that there’s a piece of melody in the verses that directly rips off the hook from the Statler Brothers hit “Flowers On the Wall,” note for note. So that bugged me just a tad (particularly since “Flowers On the Wall” is a much less uplifting song!) but otherwise it’s a definite keeper. Watch the original Mystery Men’s music video here.

“Wine Into Water” — Joe Armstrong has a conversational tone to his voice that lends itself to carrying this moving T. Graham Brown cover, a prayer from a struggling alcoholic who wants to break his addiction. Very country in the best way.

This project contains quite a few story-song ballads. They are all sweet and contain great messages. Though I’m not sure I agree with “Tougher Than Nails,” which is about a little boy who regularly gets beat up on his way home from school and is talked out of planning to defend himself with a baseball bat by his father, because after all Jesus let himself be nailed to a cross, etc. As a student of philosophy, I question the strength of the parallel, and as a future mother in training, I question the wisdom of the advice. (Though I suppose these days the little boy would get in trouble even if he was in the right. But if nothing else, at least take the kid out of school so he won’t get beat up anymore!) Production-wise, a couple of the quiet songs (“That’s How Jesus Sees Me” and “Daddy”) suffer from an overly heavy drum track that would be more appropriate on a big ballad. The quick insertion of a child singing “Jesus Loves Me” at the end of “That’s How Jesus Sees Me” would also have worked much better if it had been in the same key and tempo as the song itself.

Other solid up-tempo cuts include “The Blood of One Man,” “Count Me In,” and “The Book Of Life.” Their cover of Ronnie Hinson ditty “He’s Already On the Phone” definitely falls into the “guilty pleasure” department. Yes, it’s cliched and hokey, but the guys have so much fun with it it’s hard not to groove along in spite of yourself.

I was prepared to love their cover of “In God We Still Trust,” since it has a terrific message that makes it one of my favorite country songs. However, Nathaniel Justice re-worked the melody and rhythm on the first verse too much, singing it with less variety than the original, and the vocals just generally left me wanting a bit more. (They also change one of the lyrics in the first verse, singing it as, “This is one great nation, but we’re one nation under Him” instead of “There’s no separation, we’re one nation under Him.”) It may work better for them live, but in the studio it came off somewhat stilted. Diamond Rio’s arrangement is simply richer. However, song-wise, it’s a great pick.

I encourage anyone who likes country/gospel in the vein of the Dove Brothers or the Oak Ridge Boys to check out Mark209. They’re easy to like in every way. Besides being very capable singers, they’re great guys with a truly wacky sense of humor (if you don’t believe me, check out the “Back of the Bus” videos on their Youtube channel). I have every confidence that their popularity will only grow as they continue to hone their sound and build a repertoire of songs to call their own. From the Heart of Nashville is a solid debut to send them on their way.

(Review copy provided.)

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