Making a Scene talks with Indie Blues Artist Mark Wenner
Mark was born and raised in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs. At age ten, a budding rebel and biker-to-be, he was already listening to the amazing ferment of blues-based music that was coming out of the Washington-Southern Maryland music scene. In his words, “Most people don’t realize what a cultural crossroad Washington was back then. It was like Memphis with a mixture of music – doo-wop, country, rockabilly, and blues. I’d just as soon tune in George Jones as Joe Turner.”
The late fifties saw commercialism eclipsing Mark’s gritty rock and roll favorites: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard. That turned young Mark more and more towards R&B and the blues. By the beginning of high school, he was snatching up all the Ray Charles, James Brown, and Muddy Waters records he could lay his hands on – and tuning his radio mostly to the six or so black music stations in the area. And, of course, almost every Saturday afternoon, he’d sneak down to D.C.’s now-legendary Howard Theater to catch the “Chitlin’ Circuit” tours of national R&B, soul, and jazz groups. “We’d tell our parents we were going to the movies in Bethesda and then catch a bus at the District line… In practically no time and for a mere seventy-five cents we’d be enjoying the likes of Motown Revue, James Brown, and Billy Stewart (Marvin Gaye’s mentor),” recounts Mark.
By the end of tenth grade, Mark was already collecting hard core, then-obscure harmonica bluesmen like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, and Lightnin’ Slim. Mark recounts, “I found that type of raw, stark and simple blues was very compatible with the sparse playing of, say, a Jimmy Reed with whom I was already very conversant.” About this time, quite naturally, Mark began “noodling around” with the blues harmonica. Paul Butterfield’s 1965 recording of “Born in Chicago” really inspired him to get serious about the blues harp; then listening to Charlie Musselwhite expanded Mark’s style. In 1966, Mark entered New York’s Columbia University, falling directly into a college music scene where almost everybody played. Soon he was spending almost all his time practicing Butterfield licks, sitting in with groups like Sha Na Na, or hanging out in Greenwich Village, listening to visiting blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, and Buddy Guy. At Columbia, he formed his first band, B-Town Slim and His Rhythm Review, doing soul, R&B, and funky blues – with Mark, for the first time, singing lead. During summer breaks back home in D.C., Mark would play the local blues scene, often sitting in with Bobby Ratcliff, Washington’s blues icon back then.
Graduating from Columbia in 1972, Mark immediately headed for D.C. to start a blues band. Continuing to sit in with his old friend Bobby Ratcliff, soon Mark found a nineteen-year-old guitar phenomenon, Jimmy Thackeray, then playing with the Crawling Kingsnake Blues. Out of their almost-instant compatibility sprang the great Nighthawks, the nationally known blues band that Mark has been leading for an astonishing 35 years.
But Mark’s signature harp sound, playing electric with the Nighthawks, has not prevented him from developing as a virtuoso acoustic harmonica player, often seen on stage with all kinds of acoustic blues greats. I first saw him at a mid-eighties blues festival in D.C. in a head-to-head cutting contest with one of the greatest acoustic harmonica players in the country, Phil Wiggins (of Cephas and Wiggins fame). To this day, that half-hour exchange remains the most exciting blues harp playing I’ve heard in my life. Around this time, Mark was having a lot of fun sitting in regularly with Ben Andrews at Ben’s weekly solo gig at Madam’s Organ in the heart of Washington’s jumping Adams Morgan music scene. Fans loved their collaboration; out of that grew the Blue Rider Trio.
In addition to his two Blue Rider Trio albums and 20 albums as leader of the Nighthawks, Mark has also recorded six solo discs.