Just beyond the etched windows of Robert’s Western World, cars eased along Broadway en route to unforeseen destinations in the tracks of legends long gone. The sun peeked through and said hello. Mark Newton sat on a barstool at Robert’s days before Christmas and an hour before opening time. His friend and new music collaborator, Steve Thomas, sat nearby. Newton held his guitar like a newborn babe; Thomas’s mandolin cradled in his hands. Each wore a grin and a glow that far exceeded the neon cast across the boot-heels-scarred wood floors of Robert’s. Johnny Cash rumbled on a radio.
Newton and Thomas came to talk about their new music, sounds that inspired the title of their new album on Pinecastle Records, Reborn. Speak to them, hear them, mine their album, and compare it to that which they’ve recorded for decades prior and the men indeed bear marks of renewal. “This is new,” Thomas said. “It has the excitement of being new and young and fresh, yet with all of our experiences to show. This is who we are.”
Newton and Thomas sound like musicians who have found what they’re looking for. “I think we are kindred spirits in many ways,” Newton said. “With Steve, there’s good vibes. There’s good mojo going on. He has his strong points. I have my strong points. Collectively, we’re stronger.”
Meticulous applies to Mark Newton. Rather, Mark Newton is meticulous about his daily goings on, and that absolutely includes music. By the time his music hits the marketplace and thus to the public for their consumption his songs will have by then been well thought out, picked over, played and produced. Thanks to music-rich parents and his early precociousness, strains of country and bluegrass music were tugging at his ear. Many were the events that Newton and his father attended at renowned Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va. “As far back as I can remember, we’d go to my grandparents’ house and they’d break out the instruments,” Newton said. “That doesn’t ever leave you. It’s a part of the culture. Then back in the late ’60s, my dad would take me to festivals. I saw all of the legends at Watermelon Park. I’d run to the stage and just stare at them. I could actually see it. It was the coolest thing for me. I would see Buck Owens and Webb Pierce and Bill Monroe. That’s when it started, when I wanted to play the music.”
Newton first stepped on stage at about age 14. Desire whetted, Newton wove his way into such bands as Heights of Grass, Cabin Hill, and ahead-of-their-time Knoxville Grass. Five albums resulted with Knoxville Grass from their eponymous debut in 1977 through 1981’s seminal Painted Lady. In 1979, he also appeared on the Heights of Grass album Louisiana Saturday Night and then in 1982 on the Live At The Flatrock album among a strong lineup that included Sammy Shelor, Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins, and Don Grubb.
Newton co-founded, sang lead, and played lead guitar in the Virginia Squires in 1983. Five albums later, he found himself with the Tony Rice Unit and then the Seldom Scene for a whisper of time. An album with Larry Stephenson, Live at Mr. B’s, followed, which preceded a several years stint and album, A Foot In The Past A Foot In The Future, alongside Bill Emerson as Newton & Emerson.
Newton ventured solo in 1998 with a Rebel Records release Living A Dream. Three years later, Newton won IBMA’s Recorded Event of the Year Award for his guests-laden album Follow Me Back To The Fold: A Tribute To Women In Bluegrass. Carl Jackson produced Newton’s most recent solo album in 2006, Hillbilly Hemingway. The album earned an IBMA nomination for Album of the Year.
“After so many years in music, I had lost that creative drive,” Newton said. “Now, I’m playing for the fun of the music again. I was longing for that place where I can be like a little kid with the music. It’s a cleansing of my soul.”
Newton sat on a couch in Thomas’ home studio an hour after having attended a taping of The Marty Stuart Show. He was antsy then, wanting to get back to Thomas’ studio and work a bit more on their record. A cold rain tapped at the window just behind Newton’s head. A fiddle graced a wall to the left, a guitar as still as a grave occupied a wall to the right.
Newton said to his new cohort, “Steve, remember back when we played music and just couldn’t get enough of it?” Wide as the world stretched Thomas’ smile. “Oh yeah,” he answered. “It was like, ‘Schoolwork be damned!’”
Musicians know Steve Thomas. His long and winding road weaves throughout Nashville’s inner circles of pickers in the bluegrass and country fields. He’s toured with Grammy-winning country and bluegrass artists alike, including Barbara Mandrell and Del McCoury. He’s played the Grand Ole Opry with Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers. “I played with Del in 1982,” Thomas said. “Ronnie McCoury was only about 14 and really tearing it up.”
The 1981 Virginia State Fiddle Champion’s stint with McCoury followed a short spell with another bluegrass act of note, the Lonesome River Band. “In 1981, I came up with the name, Lonesome River Band,” Thomas said. “I got the name from the Stanley Brothers song ‘Lonesome River.’ Plus, I was a fan of the (pop-rock) band, Little River Band, so I just put that together. It was definitely me and Tim Austin who co-founded the Lonesome River Band.” Two years later, Thomas aligned with Jim & Jesse. To this day, he still performs periodically with Jesse McReynolds, typically on the Opry.
“The first record I played on was the Homeland Harmony record in 1983 with Jim & Jesse,” Thomas said. “That was so exciting to work with them on that record and then to be on the Opry. Then in 1985, I was on the Lost & Found album The Sun’s Gonna Shine. My version of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ (from Hillbilly Fever) was nominated for a Grammy. I was with Barbara Mandrell for about five years,” he said. “Then I went to work with Brooks & Dunn. I was with Lee Ann Womack’s first band. I ended up working with Kenny Chesney until he got signed with RCA. I worked with John Michael Montgomery, and I did about three years with Lorrie Morgan. Then I settled into doing this studio thing full-time.”
That brought Thomas to Mark Newton last March. They met, they talked, they played music, tested it on the road, returned home, and decided they were onto something. They were in the midst of being reborn. “Now,” Thomas said, excitedly, “I’m getting to do everything I dreamed about.”
Newton & Thomas
Formation of Newton & Thomas did not materialize from some grand plan. The good-natured duo just happened by suggestion from Newton’s wife, Tami. The date, early March of 2012. “The next conversation we had, it was right into it,” Thomas said while seated in his recording studio. “Once you agree to do something with him, man, he was right in. I felt like a guy with a team of horses just trying to hold on.”
“Back when we first got together, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Newton said. “I had to find that creative drive in me again. That seed was planted and it started to grow. Then we started to play some dates.” Within a month, the newly-minted duo played their first personal appearance. Audience response quickly followed. “People were right there with us all the way,” Newton said about a show in Jonesborough, Tenn. “We got a standing ovation and we weren’t even on the bill,” Steve said, excitedly. “Driving home in the car afterwards, Mark said, ‘I get it.’”
“Steve is the ultimate musician’s musician,” Newton said. “I’m sort of the businessman’s approach. He’s the musician’s approach. It’s that Oscar and Felix thing, but music is the most important part of it all. Sometimes I have to draw the line and say we have to move along. I think it’s a good combination. It’s a strong point. You have someone dedicated to the art, and I am too, but when our talents are combined, there’s something special.” They are an odd couple. Yet what’s important is that they get along and gel on stage and off, and they do marvelously. “That’s the key,” Newton said. “You have two strong Alpha males here.” Sit in a studio with them and opinions fly like birds speeding south for the winter.
Yet they fly differently. “When you have strong personalities, you have to take deep breaths and not think emotionally,” Newton said. “You have to work through this process. It’s not easy at times. With me, I’m old enough now and would like to think that I try not to make decisions on emotion. I go back to my Virginia Squires days. We were in our twenties. I think I can honestly say, looking back at it, and I think the guys would agree, the strong part and the popularity of the group at that time was all of us collectively, the sum of all parts. It was magic. We were young enough at the time where we didn’t know it. Now that I’m in my fifties, I’m trying to be more mature. I want to take what I learned and move it forward. Steve and I are able to manage that area. So far, so good. We’re enjoying what we’re doing.”
Proof emerges on the duo’s new 12-track album Reborn. The disc’s mix of old with new, traditional bluegrass with progressive bluegrass, and even a dip or two into pre-bluegrass highlights the breadth of variety attempted by Newton and Thomas. It’s as fresh as a warm spring Southern morning. “It’s got a natural flow to it,” Thomas said of the album. “It doesn’t sound one bit contrived. With Mark, I was asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ It’s gotten me off the couch to be creative again. We’re really proud of it. This has brought the kid out in me.”
The album opens with “Old McDonald Sold The Farm,” a new and clever twist on the children’s song. “That’s our first single,” Newton said. “Steve really captured the spirit of it.” They’ve also captured a number one single with the song. “The song is just brilliant,” Thomas said. “Old McDonald has fallen on hard times and he’s selling his farm. The subject material is sad, but believe it or not it’s a little fun, too. We wanted to bring a little bit of Hee Haw! back with the album, and this song is just a lot of fun.”
That tune is followed with a spiritual bow with Mike Ward’s “The Key.” “That’s the only gospel song to speak of on the album,” Newton said. “I recorded three songs that Mike Ward wrote for my Hillbilly Hemingway album, including the title track. ‘The Key’ has a great message. I do feel it,” Newton said. “It was the right moment to do it. I love the whole record, but this is a special track. The older I get, the more I pay attention to the message, what it’s saying.”
The pair looked back into Newton’s history for another special song, Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Painted Lady.” Says Mark, “I recorded it back in the late ’70s with the Knoxville Grass. It was a popular song back in the day, and I’ve always had it in the back of my mind to re-cut it. Between Steve’s talent and his playing the mandolin with a sort of rockabilly feel, we gave it a good shot.” Steve adds, “It rocks and it rolls. There are no drums on it. It’s all acoustic. We didn’t make it into anything other than what it was. Mark sure sang the fire out of it.”
Next is their cover of “Blue Railroad Train ” by the Delmore Brothers. “That song is powerful for me,” Thomas said. “I don’t know the Delmore Brothers’ original. I heard Tony Rice doing that song, and I loved it. We thought, ‘This is a blues song,’ and put a little bit of a blues thing on it.” Newton comments, “It’s a duet, like theirs. It sort of pays homage to those old brothers duos like the Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the Wilburn Brothers, too.”
Plaintive “Pineywood Hills” eases in on the strength of Newton’s from-the-heart rendered line: I’m a rambler and rover/I’ve traveled all over, searching after my dreams. Newton sings as if he’ll never sing again. It’s as if he’s tapped into that search for his dreams, wrenched a lifetime of emotion from therein and applied it to Buffy Saint Marie’s poignant lyrics. “I first cut it on the Painted Lady record,” Newton said. “People started asking for it. It’s a pretty song. The key is in D and feature’s Steve’s fiddle. When I originally recorded it, we did it with a long break, but Steve and I shortened it.”
The duo then dips into Thomas’ bag of tunes for “Far Far Cry.” Thomas sings lead and plays some fret-fiery leads on guitar. Newton supplies pinpoint harmony vocals and rhythm guitar, Matt Wallace thumps the bass while Scott Vestal blazes on the banjo. “It’s got my Jerry Reed influence,” Thomas said. “The whole thing is a venue for some hot guitar picking. Scott absolutely wore it out.”
The pair’s scaled-to-the-essence style applies to the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Missing Me.” Recorded as a duet, the vocal harmonies roll out in front of the mix with the ease of a soft Southern accent. “It’s one of the first songs we cut, along with ‘The Key,’” according to Thomas. “It’s like the Louvin Brothers meet Jim & Jesse. There’s a sweetness to it. Mark plays a beautiful guitar solo on it. It’s like a time-warp tune.”
The tandem reels back to today with “Country Song.” Newton sings lead, Thomas chops in on mandolin and fiddle, while Vestal applies his banjo to the mid-tempo tune. “I’m a fan of Pure Prairie League from the 1970s,” Newton said. “I bought most of their records. This is a song off one of their records (1972’s Pure Prairie League). I always thought it would make for a cool bluegrass song.”
While modern in context, Reborn recalls bandstand days of old when entertainers were showmen. Like conductors aboard an emotion-packed rollercoaster, they’d bring crowds up and ease them back down, hit ’em hard and to the heart, then soothe the soul before lighting into another lickety-split tune. “We wanted depth on this record and we wanted a lightness, too,” Thomas said. “We want to be another branch off the roots of the tree.”
I Believe in That Title
Perhaps thanks to providence, Steve met Mark just when he needed it most. Newton hadn’t been feeling well. Something just beyond his grasp of personal diagnosis gnawed at him, whittled away such that he knew that something was wrong. “I have hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver,” Newton said. “I was officially diagnosed on the 31st of May in 2012.”
Without going into detail, Newton’s days of too much excess—living the stereotypical musician’s life—caught up with him. However, and thanks to early detection and strict adherence to doctor’s orders, he appears the picture of good health.“Even though I’ve experienced this, it has no bearing whatsoever on our quality of music,” Newton said. “I feel great. I’m energized. I’m excited. I’ve realized, when I look back on the diagnosis, all of a sudden it opened my eyes. Life is a gift. It’s valuable. Spiritually, when you have a life-changing experience, you see life from a whole different perspective. Here’s an opportunity. I have life. Here’s a gift.”
Newton readily embraced that reality, applied it to his music and daily life. “It’s a life-changing moment,” he said of the diagnosis. “There are many people out there who have the same disease that I have. It’s up to you to make a change. Move forward with it. It’s about getting up every day and applying yourself. So, my music, this record with Steve, the partnership with Pinecastle Records, it’s an opportunity. It’s directly related to my getting up enthusiastically every day.”
Back to Nashville, just inside Robert’s Western World, from the corner stares the figure of Marty Robbins, smiling. The cardboard figure doesn’t move and yet he’s a reminder that all that moves shall pass. Someday, we all will join those misty figures as part of the past. So don’t wait. Live and love while you can, which seems to be the ultimate message that hugs the new album with the apt title. “I feel like I was given a second chance,” Newton said. “I’ve been playing music for 39 years. Now, I’m about like a little boy. I feel reborn.”