Ever since he released his self-titled debut at 24, Mark Erelli has exhibited an uncommon musical maturity. From twangy roots rock through fingerpicked folk, rollicking blues, western swing, rockabilly, nineteenth century ballads, lullabies and songs of social and political commentary, Mark has produced an assured and varied catalog over the last decade. Now 34, with well over 1000 concerts under his belt, multiple awards and growing notoriety as an accompanist,he has one of the most impressive and varied reputations in modern roots music.
Since being "discovered" while still enrolled in graduate school, at an impromptu 3 am music conference showcase in a hotel room. In 1999, he both finished his studies and released his self-titled debut on Signature Sounds. Following his win of the prestigious Kerrville New Folk contest, his fledgling career was heralded as "the beginning of a promising new road" (Acoustic Guitar).
His second release, Compass & Companion (2001), featuring the title track duet with Kelly Willis, was widely lauded as an "expertly crafted, beautifully produced collection" (Washington Post). Mark embarked on a non-stop touring schedule, visiting prestigious venues and festivals nationwide, and sharing the stage with the likes of Dave Alvin, John Hiatt, Nanci Griffith and Gillian Welch. The album spent nine weeks in the Top Ten of the Americana charts, garnered two Boston Music Award nominations, and prompted the Boston Herald to announce that "Mark Erelli has truly arrived."
Just one year later, Mark followed with a celebration of his New England roots on the stunningly ambitious The Memorial Hall Recordings. The bold mix of originals, covers and new arrangements of traditional songs was declared "timeless and seamless perfection...chock full of those moments that you've just got to hear-over and over again" (Folkwax). After touring for over a year to support the album, Mark continued to stay busy. The making of the record was captured on film, and the ensuing documentary was broadcast on PBS stations nationwide.
In 2004, Mark teamed up with Boston country band The Spurs to record Hillbilly Pilgrim, an entire album of western swing originals. Much like Lyle Lovett, Mark immersed himself in vintage twang without abandoning his contemporary sensibility and the heartfelt, thoughtful lyrics more commonly associated with folk music. The result was some of the most enthusiastic response at radio and press in his career to date--"Hillbilly Pilgrim does western swing proud, as it's brimming over with wry, heartfelt songcraft, invigorating tempos, and pedal-steel guitar dazzling as an Arizona sunset...Erelli has crafted a near-perfect album" (Paste Magazine). By year's end, the album spent 11 weeks on the Americana radio charts, and garnered two Boston Music Award nominations.
On 2006's Hope & Other Casualties, Mark raised the bar with an unapologetic and timeless collection of deeply personal and affecting songs the Boston Globe labeled "a sturdy, winsome album, fueled by politics and emotion...a compelling addition to this young tunesmith's already impressive catalog." Recorded slowly during a year of rough-spun basement sessions with producer Lorne Entress (Erelli played eleven instruments, Entress seven) Hope has Erelli's fingerprints all over it. Effortlessly balancing songs of resignation and redemption, the record "addresses tough issues with the grit of John Hiatt and the melancholy beauty of Ron Sexsmith (Washington Post)." Hope was Folk Radio WUMB's #1 record of the year, and featured several songs co-written with folk-pop artist Catie Curtis. One such collaboration not included on Mark's record, "People Look Around," bested 15,000 entries to win the grand prize in the International Song Contest (judged by Tom Waits, among others).
In late 2006, Mark released Innocent When You Dream, his first all-acoustic record, a collection of lullabies and love songs. This homespun release, originally intended as a gift for friends and family, featured tender, hushed renditions of songs by Wilco, Townes VanZandt, and James Taylor, among others. The Northeast Performer raved that the record was "starkly beautiful...will surely appeal to any fan of stripped-down, genuinely heart-felt folk music." Though the album remains available only at performances and online, it remains one of Erelli's biggest sellers.
While in between studio releases, Erelli fashioned himself into an in-demand sideman and multi-instrumentalist, touring with Warner Brothers Recording Artist and long-time friend Lori McKenna as part of her band. He was by McKenna's side when she opened for 15,000 each night as part of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill's Soul2Soul tour in 2007, in addition to televised appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and Good Morning America. By year's end, Erelli had accompanied McKenna on guitar, mandolin and lap steel for over eighty shows, and she was jokingly dubbed him "my Buddy Miller."
In September 2008, Erelli will release Delivered, his seventh album on Signature Sounds. The making of the record was funded by a novel "barn-raising" plan, where fans and supporters contributed to the studio budget in advance of the project's release, in exchange for exclusive gifts and advance copies of the record. Produced by Zack Hickman and featuring members of Josh Ritter's touring band, Delivered is a new high watermark for Erelli. The record's 11 new originals explore modern times and matters of the heart with equal parts courage and compassion. Advance reviews are calling this Erelli's "desert island disc," and songs like "Volunteers," "Hope Dies Last" and "Once" are already resonating deeply with audiences. Erelli will be on tour throughout the US and the UK in 2008 and 2009.
When Marjorie Thompson takes the stage, tiny and blonde and bearing a smile that carries just a hint of shyness, her demeanor scarcely prepares her audience for what comes next. The audience can be forgiven for wondering almost at once how so much power -- in guitar playing, in singing, in the songs themselves -- could erupt from such a small package.
But Marjorie Thompson is quite a surprise.
"It's a joy to discover an artist like this," enthused Nancy Montgomery in Music News Nashville, echoing the discovery made by numerous happy audiences in the U.S. and abroad during Marjorie's relatively brief recording and live performance career.
Which isn't to say she's new to music. The word "joy" clearly comes to mind when one sees the old family picture of a 10-year-old Marjorie in her room in New York City, proudly holding her first guitar. In a busy and accomplished life, she has sometimes put down the guitar, but not for long.
Marjorie got that first guitar during the waning years of the "folk threat," when county, blues, and bluegrass were all the rage at places in New York like Gerde's Folk City. Though she was too young to go to those now-legendary performances, the influence was inescapable and she was swept up in it. She worked hard and soon Marjorie could pick a solid alternating thumb groove with a detailed melody line, no mean feat even for older, more experienced players. And she loved it.
At the same time, she discovered a strong attraction for science, borne of a precollege program in 1969 that galvanized her passion for biology by the age of 15. As she headed for college at an early age, her passion for music never waned. Sometimes it would take a back seat to studies that led to her doctorate in Biology and a variety of other degrees and certifications.
"I'm in to self-improvement," she laughs.
All the while, though, she played guitar. She was especially interested in the blues licks that were "revealed" to and by the Rev. Gary Davis, the playing of the newly popular Mississippi John Hurt, and the acoustic blues stylings of Jorma Kaukonen, then of Hot Tuna.
In 1999, she saw an advertisement for Kaukonen's "Fur Peace Ranch" guitar workshops in rural Ohio and immediately signed up. Though perfectly comfortable lecturing to students at Brown University where she was and is Dean of Undergraduate Biology, she was not accustomed to playing guitar for strangers. But her guitar work over the years had paid off -- she could more than hold her own in the demanding advanced classes taught by Kaukonen himself.
Her own teaching skills proved more than helpful -- soon other students were turning to her for tablature and other fruits of her methodical style of study. She kept returning to Fur Peace Ranch (and noted workshops and private studies with such notables as Woody Mann, Mark Hanson, Little Toby Walker, Mike Dowling, Ernie Hawkins, and others). Before many years had passed, she was assisting Kaukonen in many of his classes, then conducting classes of her own at the ranch. She is now also its academic advisor, helping prospective students determine which workshops would be of greatest value to them.
Meanwhile, though happy to learn the music of the blues and country blues masters, she was driven to write her own songs. People who heard them loved them. She was encouraged to perform them -- to actually go on tour! Musical venues agreed. She recorded a demo CD and sent it out; the result was 90 bookings the first year.
She has kept up that pace ever since. She has also recorded four studio albums with Michael Falzarano (of Hot Tuna and New Riders of the Purple Sage fame) producing and with some top-level musicians playing to the side. Of her latest, 2007's Right By Me, the great Chris Smither said, "I'm tempted to say that I taught her everything she knows, but she's gone so far beyond anything I showed her I'm afraid I might get called on it." The album was released to universal critical acclaim.
Touring has taken her around the U.S., as well as Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Though she usually headlines her own performances, she has shared the stage with Acoustic Hot Tuna, Chris Smither, Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks, David Jacobs-Strain, Geoff Muldaur, Guy Davis, Happy Traum, Jack Casady with Box Set, Jorma Kaukonen, Lori McKenna, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Paul Geremia, Richard Shindell, Richie Havens, and numerous others.
She has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, perhaps most notably being featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and her CDs have found an audience on scores of radio stations.
Much has been made of the fact that in addition to her musical accomplishments, Marjorie Thompson has her academic career and is the mother of seven children. But with a modest smile she downplays those things.
"People don't come to see the singing dean, or the mother who writes songs," she says. "They come to hear -- and I owe them -- good music. The music has to succeed or fail on its own. I think it's succeeding."
The critics, and audiences here and abroad, enthusiastically agree.