Photo courtesy of Mark Bray
Let’s start this off in the most elementary of ways. Mark Bray is a country music artist. He writes songs, he sings and he plays guitar. That’s thrilling, right? Mark Bray and thousands of his best friends in Nashville right this very minute. I get it, but here’s the thing, Mark Bray really is different and before I jump into our formal interview and all of the interesting things there are to say about that, I want to make a personal plea on Mark Bray’s behalf, for you to go find his music and give it a listen. I’m going to tell you why and I think I have a decent argument as to why you should, or I wouldn’t be wasting my time.
His voice. Plain and simple. Mark Bray’s voice is exceptional. Don’t go crazy on me by comparing him to people like Josh Groban or Luciano Pavarotti or even Randy Houser, who many consider country music’s greatest male voice. Bray has his own distinct voice, but it’s a GREAT one. When he sings, you don’t have to think about what he just said. His vocals are crisp and clear, yet smooth as that whiskey they age for a long, long time just a little bit south of Nashville. For a guy that I had never heard of up until very recently, this is a voice that country radio is more than ready for. He’s been compared to Garth Brooks. If I had a mic, I’d drop it. I don’t know if that’s who I would have compared him to, but if others want to go there, I’ll gladly go along with it. All I know is, he is extremely easy on the ears. I had the chance to listen to a couple of his new songs being recorded in the studio last week and I can’t wait for them to be released. Top of the line musicians playing along to Bray’s vocals (scratch vocals on the day I was there) left me in awe and wondering where the Hell Mark Bray has been all this time. You’ll be wondering the same thing. That’s a promise.
“Time is both common and rare; we either have too much or too little. None of us believe we use it as well as we should. But like all the other ingredients in life, some time is for flavor and some time is just to give support to all the other ingredients we mix in. Time’s importance is measured from where we sit when we do the measuring. Unfortunately, we frequently think to measure it after it is used rather than before. Then we realize that time is not a common luxury at all—but a rare and valuable gem.” – Henry O. Dormann
When I began my conversation with Mark Bray, we went right back to his childhood. I asked him to start by telling me what kinds of things he was doing as a kid. An “Army Brat”, he jumped right to a five-year period where he lived in Germany on post with his family while his father served over there. He said he didn’t do many of the things that kids here in America were doing because he simply didn’t have that option. Things like TV and video games were scarce, so he and his friends, who were all other American kids living on post, had to use their imaginations and actually PLAY OUTSIDE. Yes. These children had to play sports, make up games, play army and otherwise get dirty. They were outdoors from sunrise to sunset and they LIVED! He looks back at this time very fondly and said he can’t think of a better place to have spent those formative years. In addition to playing with other kids and “doing kid things”, his parents took advantage of everything living in Europe had to offer. They traveled to Italy and France and made sure their children were able to experience the culture of those countries.
When Bray’s family was ready to return to the United States they settled in South Florida. This is where our story continues and where music started to grab hold of Bray, one seemingly small, yet in retrospect, quite a bit larger, piece at a time.
Music was always in Bray’s life. His parents, although not musicians or singers themselves, were very big music fans, listening to artists like James Taylor, Harry Chapin, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers or even Beethoven, so the music was there. It also wasn’t being lost on young Bray either. Despite the fact that he may have been listening to DMX or other rap and hip-hop artists with his friends, he may have had a secret affinity for other kinds of music as well. Like most young kids, however, he wasn’t going to let his peers know about that. Hip-hop was in and that’s what you listened to, at least when your friends were around. Bray was no different. Until that one day he saw some guy named Garth Brooks on TV.
Photo courtesy of Think Country and 90 East Photography
It was 1998’s Garth Brooks: Ireland and Back. “It just FLOORED me. I don’t know what it was, if it was the way he interacted with the crowd or the way the crowd interacted with him. It just pulled me. I don’t know what it was. I just knew that was it. He was a rock star in a cowboy hat”, said Bray. At this time, we need to remember, Bray was not yet playing guitar or singing. He was just a regular kid who happened to like listening to music and happened upon a country star named Garth Brooks on TV. This TV show didn’t yet turn Bray into a musician or a singer, in fact, it didn’t even really generate the idea that he might one day want to be in the music business. He only knew he loved Garth Brooks and what he was all about. Brooks gained a new fan that day. That was what was accomplished if we were to gauge exactly how the worlds of Garth Brooks and Mark Bray collided on that day in history. In the larger scheme of things, it wasn’t all that much, but don’t let it fall out of your head either. It’s what’s next in Bray’s story that matters more.
“I was about 16 and I went on a camping trip with a friend named Katrina and her family, and we were driving back and I had Garth Brooks on and I was singing along, and she was sitting in the passenger seat, and I remember her kind of staring at me. Finally, I was like, ‘What are you staring at?’ She said, ‘You sound just like him. You sound really good.’ I just remember thinking that I liked singing, it feels good and I’ve always been kind of a dreamer so I guess maybe it’s the first time that I thought maybe I could do this. Instead of singing rock and roll like everyone else, maybe I could do this. I like this better anyway.” I asked if he and Katrina are still friends and he said that through “the wonders of Facebook” they are still connected. I thought it was just a little more than amazing that they haven’t lost touch completely because I pointed out to him that she was actually a catalyst in bringing him to where he is today. He had to agree.
He revealed that, “I always think back to that moment, and prior to that moment, there was another catalyst moment. This is going to sound really silly, but I was in the high school youth group at church, and I will never forget this moment, and it’s hard to explain, but we were broken up into groups and we were all given a song from a different genre. We had to take our song and change the lyrics into a bible-related song. Our group got the Garth Brooks song “Longneck Bottle” and we changed the lyrics to ‘great big bible get into my hands’ or something like that. I remember we had to all sing it in front of everybody, and we were all up there singing it (he sang it for me, but since I can’t actually “sing” it in print, you’ll have to ask him to sing it for you if you meet him in person, it’s something to hear, I can assure you), and after singing that scoop, I remember feeling really good and thinking, ‘I like that! I like doing that!’ As weird as that sounds, that was probably another monumental moment for me. That made me go, ‘That felt good. Whatever THAT was, that felt right.’ It seems silly, but it sticks in my mind.”
Moving forward, when Bray was about 17, his parents bought him a $200.00 guitar which he taught himself to play. Looking back, he wishes he’d took the time to get lessons, but overall, he thinks he did a pretty good job of learning on his own via the internet. There was no YouTube back then, but the internet provided guitar tabs that served as a guide. Today, if he needs to quickly learn a cover song, YouTube is Bray’s best friend.
Having a guitar to play at home wasn’t enough for Bray, so he formed “a little ragtag band” and when he was about 19-years old, they played a church carnival at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in his South Florida neighborhood. “I had my big cowboy hat on, my starched, pressed, red, Garth Brooks awful lookin’ shirt and these black jeans. It was like, 87 degrees because we were in the bottom part of Florida. I have it on VHS and I’ve always wanted to convert it before it degrades. I remember doing it and thinking, “That was the greatest performance by ANYONE in the HISTORY OF MUSIC! Freddie Mercury ain’t got nothin’ on me! Then watching it back, I’m like, ‘Well, yikes!’ It wasn’t as good as I thought it was.”
Photo courtesy of Mark Bray
Bray watched that VHS tape with his wife again a couple of years ago and she remarked that he looked so happy, and part of the reason he really was so happy is he recalled seeing his parents standing there watching him perform and seeing them smiling, especially his normally stoic father. This was probably the final catalyst moment that totally triggered his desire to become a professional musician. “I thought, ‘This is where I belong. This is what I want to do. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it, I don’t know how I’m gonna make it work, but this is what I’m gonna do.”
One thing that Mark Bray made sure I understood, because he repeated it several times during our discussion, was the fact that he considers himself “a dreamer”. In the last paragraph, we left Bray bound and determined to make it as a professional musician. The dream seemed to be firmly intact. Sometimes the best dreams become interrupted. What happened next for Bray? “I stopped. I kind of got lost.”
Bray’s parents moved to Maryland. He moved out to California to go to school and ended up dropping out, feeling it wasn’t for him. He wound up back in Florida, rather than going back to live with his parents in Maryland, because, “of course there was a girlfriend involved”, and a week before he actually got back to Florida, she broke up with him.
The next few years Bray found himself in and out of school again, bartending, deejaying and bouncing at clubs and generally getting caught up in the nightlife of South Florida. “When you work in that industry, where there’s always a bar open, you end up making money in the bar, but turning around and giving it right back. From about 2004 to 2009, that’s what I did. Here’s the thing though, I don’t regret it. In that span of a few years, I honestly didn’t accomplish anything that you can use for your future, but I did learn who I was, and I guess you can say I lived my life. I got a lot of material for some good songs I’ve written over the years from that time frame. I learned what it’s like to be at the rock bottom.”
This led us to talk about one of Bray’s songs that I absolutely love. He brought it up first, but as soon as he mentioned the title, “Broken”, I told him it was my favorite and I had been dying to hear the backstory on it. I was about to get my wish.
“Broken” was inspired by that five-year span from 2004 to 2009 when Bray was drifting and lost. Sitting alone on an air mattress in a friend’s condo that was in the process of being renovated, Bray was in a bad spot. Sitting among piles of sawdust, he’d finally hit his breaking point. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘You had a good life. You were given everything. What are you doing? What the Hell are you doing?’ This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Years later, when I wrote “Broken”, I looked back on that day. That’s what “Broken” is about. I put myself back in that day. It’s real.”
Never let it be said that Mark Bray isn’t a generous guy and being that it’s the holiday season, he’s offering our Think Country fans a present. If you go to giftfrommark.com or you text Mark at 38470, you will get “Broken” for FREE. Yes, that’s FREE, as in, no dollars spent on your part. How’s that for a bargain? The song is excellent. Go grab it!!!
“The decision to get out of that situation was watching everyone around me progressing. All my friends getting the house, the career and all that. I didn’t want to be the one guy that doesn’t do anything and gets lost in a bottle somewhere.” That was the point where Bray packed up his life and went to live with his parents in Maryland. He went back to school and did well with it this time around. Oddly enough, one of Bray’s teachers had a friend at his church who needed someone to sing on a country music album he was producing. The teacher knew that Bray had sung in the past and asked if he was interested and he was. On the very day that Bray was to interview for a job in West Virginia, one that was related to what he went to school for, he was offered the chance to sing on a full-length album. Much to his parents’ dismay, Bray accepted the offer to do the album and gave up on the job interview, because he knew music was his true calling. That was yet another catalyst. As Bray put it, “The decision to go left rather than go right made a major difference in how things turned out. If I’d gone left, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
How then, did that one country album, made by a church, get Bray to where he is now? “The internet is a beautiful place.” Those are Bray’s words. It was actually Facebook that helped launch Bray’s career. He would make videos and post them on certain Facebook groups and he started to meet people virtually, many from Nashville and one from Texas who worked in the music industry and insisted that he attend the next Country Radio Seminar (CRS) in Nashville. Bray was unfamiliar with CRS, but quickly learned that it was a perfect way to network with people in the country music industry, so off to CRS they went.
Buying a ticket to CRS that year proved to be a very worthwhile purchase. That’s where Bray met Randy Barber, who was with Curb Records at that time. Barber now runs Bar Frog Music, the label that Bray is currently signed to. Bray and Barber met at Margaritaville at a CRS cocktail hour and it was a casual meeting, but they eventually struck up a friendship that lasted for several years before Bray signed on with Bar Frog. Bray admits when he first met Barber, he wasn’t even ready to be a signed artist. He had a lot to learn before he could take that step. “I wasn’t the artist, or more importantly, the person I needed to be at that point. I just wasn’t ready.” He’s been with Bar Frog for about two years now.
Photo courtesy of Mark Bray
Since being with Bar Frog Music, Bray has released two singles. “For Love” was the first and it went to number 36 on the Music Row Country Breakout Chart. His latest single, “I Just Need a Drink” hit number 32 on that same chart. The next single will be coming off his new project in early 2019. As I said earlier, I was in the recording studio with Bray and heard some of what will be on the new record and it’s definitely something to look forward to.
For the time being, Bray and his family are still living in Baltimore, and eventually a move to Nashville is in the cards. The travel costs alone are expensive, and the more that’s happening with his music, the more often Bray finds himself having to commute back and forth, but for now, Baltimore is where the home fires are burning. Bray emphasizes how supportive his wife is when it comes to his career. “My wife is super supportive. She has to make a lot of adjustments.”
This will be their daughter, Charlotte Ann’s first Christmas. She’s nine-months old right now and Bray is realistic about how the holiday will affect her this year. “Christmas is so important to my wife, and I told her, you know, Charlotte’s only going to be 10-months old on Christmas, so she’s not going to really care how many presents she gets, and we’re not going to have many opportunities where we can get her, like, two things and let her play with the wrapping paper. Maybe this year and next year. We don’t have to start goin’ all out until she’s like, three. Then she’s gonna figure it out, so let’s be smart this year and get her like two or three things, but it’s exciting. It’s her first Christmas and the pictures and everything. It’s all about the pictures.” So, we talked about the ups and downs of being an artist and how it’s not a 9 to 5 job and how being careful with finances is so important, especially around the holidays. In the Bray house, they’re being smart. Most babies will play with the empty box over the toy every time. Take a picture of them doing that and it will last for years. The toy will probably break long before the photo will fade. As for Charlotte’s first visit with Santa? She handled it like a boss. No crying at all. “Charlotte’s a trouper. She’s as cool as a cucumber”, said Bray.
Who would Mark Bray love to collaborate with some day? Garth Brooks for sure. “Even just to thank him. To thank him for me being where I am today. Jimmy Buffett. If you’re from where I’m from, Jimmy Buffett is a part of who you are.” Bray absolutely considers himself to be a “Parrothead”, which is what followers of Buffett call themselves.
Image courtesy of Trop Rockin Magazine
I had a perfect lead-in when I asked Bray about celebrity bars in Nashville. Having the single, “I Just Need a Drink”, I thought he would come up with a quick answer as to what he would call his own bar should he ever decide to open one in Nashville. I was wrong. He didn’t have a name right away, but he did have a theme, and it was brilliant.
“You know what that town needs? A good video game bar. I’ve been to places like that and they were great, but the one thing they were always missing were VIP tables. At my bar, the VIP tables would be set up like a living room with couches and a coffee table. There would be a console with a Nintendo or a PlayStation and you’re sitting there with your friends like you’re in a living room or a basement playing. Oh, and there would be separate areas for different games from different eras and the décor and the furniture would match the time period of the game. So, if it’s the Atari one, it’s got to be like 80’s, if it’s Nintendo it’s got to be like 90’s and so on. The furniture, the TV’s, everything in that section has to match the time period.” I think he has a winner here. It just needs a good name. I think he’s working on that.
Since it’s the Christmas season, I decided to go ahead and ask a Christmas-themed question. If the Ghost of Christmas Past were to visit Mark Bray (and me, since I’m kind of along for the ride), what would he show us? “The Christmas Market in Nuremberg, Germany, somewhere around 1991 or 1992, it makes me think of Christmas”, Bray responded.
Photo courtesy of cedmagic.com
If the Ghost of Christmas Present were to come by, what might happen then? Bray replied, “We would be going to Christmas Eve at my parents’ house in Baltimore.”
Finally, if the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come happened to show up, what does Bray think he would have us take a look at? “Hopefully a place where my kids are happy and they’re sitting there by the tree, and my wife and I are able to provide them with the kind of Christmas I had growing up.” I told him I was impressed at how quickly he came up with that answer and how I thought he might struggle with that question, but he didn’t. “No, because it’s all about them now. My drive used to be glory and fame, and that’s kind of everybody in the beginning, but you get older and now that I have a daughter and a wife your perspective changes. My goal isn’t to be a big, massive star, I mean it might be nice, but I just want my family not to have to struggle. I want them to be able to have the life that I was given. The life, that for a lack of a better term, I squandered for a period in my youth. My drive is success for them.”
Last but not least, when Mark Bray “Thinks Country”, what does he think? “A cry of the pedal steel. The rich history. George Jones. Emotion. I don’t think mudding and beer drinking, that’s all fair and good, but I think of songs about heartache. I think of a genre that can convey emotion better than any other. Country can be a lot of styles, but because I’m a musician, my mind goes to the music, the emotion behind it. Our genre does that better than anybody and its history is rich at doing that. The first line of George Jones’s most iconic song is, He said, ‘I’ll love you till I die’, are you kidding me?! How do you top that? The way it was delivered, you believed it, and that’s what I think when I think country.
Photo courtesy of TripAdvisor
There you have it. I hope you’ll quickly revisit the quote about time in the beginning of this interview and maybe you’ll understand better why I put it there. If anyone truly cherishes time, I think it’s Mark Bray. I think he’s learned a lot about it. From himself.
Mark Bray can be found: