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Omaha's Mark T. Nelson does something that's quite unique in today's music world. He writes songs.


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Mark T. Nelson: Free Range Songwriter

by Tim McMahan

In an 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 is everything."

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..."


 

Finally, 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.

 

 

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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."

 

"I tried 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 energy?"

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."


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Printed in The Reader September 16, 1999.

Copyright 1999 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.