Omaha's Mark T. Nelson does something that's quite unique in
today's music world. He writes songs.
Mark T. Nelson: Free Range Songwriter
by Tim McMahan
era of techno and jungle music, glaring neon gothic and hammer-to-the-head hardcore thrash
rock, Omaha performer Mark T. Nelson is a throwback of sorts.
He does something that's
quite unique in today's music world. Nelson writes songs. Real songs, like the ones you
remember from a few years ago, back when bands wrote things called "standards"
that people sang along with while driving in their cars or whose melodies they whistled
mindlessly, annoying everyone in their office. When was the last time you whistled an
electronica track or sang along with Korn?
Nelson's new CD, Home Grown on the Range, is chock full o' memorable tunes,
simple, acoustic songs with lyrics about love and longing, the kind that, once heard, are
impossible to get out of your head.
"That's a measure of success," Nelson said from his Rubber Room recording
studio in the basement of his midtown home. "If you can't get it out of your head,
for better or worse, there's something there that's seminal, whether it's something you
hate, like a jingle, or on the other end of the spectrum, something orchestral. The melody
At 46, Nelson has had a lot of time to hone his song-writing skills. If you've spent
any time listening to live music in Omaha, you've probably heard and seen him play. The
son of a Lutheran minister from Newton, Iowa, a 6-year-old, hyperactive Nelson got his
first instrument for Christmas -- a ukulele. He says playing the simple 4-string ax was a
relatively painless way to learn chord theory. By the time he was 19, he was playing
electric guitar with a small country band in his hometown before he hit the road for four
years, playing Holiday Inns in a lounge outfit called Action Faction.
"If you can't get it out of your head, for
better or worse, there's something there that's seminal..."
at 25, he landed in Omaha and took a gig playing keyboards for Jonesin', a hot local band
that played original southern rock. During their heyday, Jonesin' shared the stage with
such stars as Marshall Tucker and Elvin Bishop in long-lost Omaha venues like the Music
Box and the Liftticket.
"Jonesin' started playing at the Saddle Creek in '77, I came in '79 and the band
ran its course over five years," Nelson said. "They were very popular. Brent
Warford, the band's central figure, was a great songwriter."
But by '84, Jonesin' began to lose steam as the band was forced to play more and more
mainstream top-40 covers instead of their original songs. The crowd that had followed them
in the late '70s had grown up and quit going to bars. Nelson started jamming with the Hut
Suts, a fun-loving bunch headed by Dan Prescher that played ska tunes by the likes of The
English Beat and The Specials. They eventually morphed into the Linoma Mashers, Omaha's
quintessential good-time band that "plays all kinds of sleazy party music,"
Nelson said. He's been jamming with them ever since.
His first solo effort, Home Grown on the Range, is a nine-track collection
featuring some songs written through the years, others brand spankin' new. They range in
style from pre-Graceland-era Paul Simon to Daniel Lanois to very laidback blues. All have
solid hook-laden, sunshine-filled melodies. "Might Like to See You" is a quiet
showstopper that features a simple-Simon guitar laced with some wonderful blues lines and
Nelson's innocent, undecorated voice. "Campfire in My Soul" sounds like a
children's song, probably because it is. On "Take Your Time," Nelson sounds like
Traffic-era Steve Winwood; while the understated opener, "Yer On My Mind," is
earthy Guthrie-style folk.
Nelson plays all the instruments -- drums, guitar, keys, vocals -- and recorded the
entire CD in his 8-track basement studio. It's no high-tech affair. Walking downstairs in
his house is like walking back into an era of Beaver Cleaver and Ozzie and Harriett --
black-and-white tile floor, lacquered wood paneling, cinderblock walls painted with some
sort of rubber paint (hence the name, Rubber Room studios). Crammed into one corner is
Nelson's studio set-up -- pieces of well-used percussion equipment, keyboards and a mixing
board, all surrounding a couple beat-up chairs and music stands. The rest of the space
looks like a typical Midwestern rec room, with assorted children's toys, bookshelves,
mismatched furniture and bric-a-brac. Regardless of the studio's furnishings, Nelson's CD
sounds anything but homemade.
Nelson pounding the keys in his Jonesin' days. Image
from the Jonesin' website.
During their heyday, Jonesin' shared the stage
with such stars as Marshall Tucker and Elvin Bishop in long-lost Omaha venues like the
Music Box and the Liftticket.
|"I'm 46. I'll go out on the road if the
money gets good and the accommodations are in place, but I can't see myself sleeping in
the back of my car."
to look for songs that fit together one after the other that would uplift people," he
said sitting behind the sound board, wearing his weekend T-shirt and jeans, while his
daughter, Maria, sat quietly watching a kid-video nearby. His wife, Christina, was outside
hanging laundry on the line. "It seems like there's so much available to bring people
down. Home Grown on the Range points to our potential on the land. Can we grow
our own energy, our own future; or are we dependent on fossil fuels and atomic
Here, Nelson spoke philosophically about his view of a world under siege by the
corporations and the lawmakers who would box everyone into a life of consuming without
giving back. "I want to bring something to the art that's pointing to the iceberg of
human success that is frozen underneath the landscape of corporate ineptitude."
Whew! Nelson said he pressed 1,000 of the self-released CD, has given half away and
hopes to recoup enough from sales at gigs to put out another collection of material
selected from 30 years' worth of cassettes recorded since his teens. He regularly plays
acoustic sets at local health-food stores and restaurants, as well as Borders bookstores.
What are his dreams of landing a record deal? "I'm holding out for Sony," he
says, laughing. "Actually, I'd consider Rounder Records or Warner Bros, labels whose
artists I admire, but I'm also interested in the whole Internet thing. I'm kind of
modeling this after the cottage industry idea, at least to start with. I'm not in a
position to take my family all over the country. I play in churches. I do the Zebra Jam
every Sunday night at the Saddle Creek Bar. I'm 46. I'll go out on the road if the money
gets good and the accommodations are in place, but I can't see myself sleeping in the back
of my car."
He's managed to make a living doing nothing but music most of his life, either playing
with other bands, such as the Mashers or pick-up jazz gigs with the likes of Matt Wallace
and Spike Nelson, or in the country western trio, Little Red and the Loess Hills Ramblers.
Not to mention a regular gig with The Trim Kings at the 40th St. Bar.
At this point in his life, getting a day job seems a rather remote possibility.
"I'll continue to run my little 8-track studio, teach lessons, and do some logo
artwork," he said. "Luckily, we have low overhead."
Printed in The Reader September 16, 1999.
Copyright © 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.