Singer/Songwriter Mark Browning
Born into a military family, I have traveled all my life. Must have gotten into my blood. Never cared much for routine. I started out in biology, collecting reptiles for zoos and museums, but then just traveled. I pruned apple trees in NY, farmed wheat in Washington state, painted houses in Key West, drove truck in New York City, published articles in magazines, wrote scientific papers, hiked the Amazon and Andes, even ended up training sea lions for a few years.
You might say I worked my way through the alphabet, but I was more of a songwriter moonlighting as a zookeeper than the other way around. I think the album cover really tells the story… walking in from nowhere into the Modern City that looks a lot like Oz. That journey gives a different perspective and that perspective is imbued in the songs.
My musical development actually began with poetry-- I read Whitman, Frost, Service, Sandburg... then naturally gravitated toward songwriters who wrote meaningful lyrics, artists such as Hank Williams, Bruce Cockburn, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Bob Dylan. There are plenty of others.
Writers like this who spin songs that tell a story, reveal something true in a new way, or give insight into where humans find themselves in the times create a different level of art. They write their songs from inside, not worried about what is commercial, but instead what is authentic. Because of this, their songs are far more interesting. Hopefully they further our understanding of ourselves. Seems like we could use a bit more of that.
I ended up living in Woodstock NY for a while and the town at the time was a mecca for well-known musicians. I saw a great benefit concert played by John Herald (John was a member of the Greenbrier Boys from the Village and a friend of Bob Dylan’s). That same concert I accidentally knocked a guy to the ground outside the hall when we bumped shoulders--when I helped him up I realized it was Paul Butterfield At least I recognized HIM. Then later that week I got picked up hitchhiking by John Sebastian from the Lovin Spoonful on a country road. Seemed like music was calling to me in a rather whimsical way. At that time I probably knew all of three chords.
A few months later I got invited to Key West by a great psychologist I knew and who was hanging out in the living room but John Herald. So I started playing harmonica with him and his bluegrass-country tunes. We used to play for tips when the cruise ships came in at sunset, then we would go blow it all on seafood and beer.
John and I left Key West together. I took him to New York and then I headed back to Pittsburgh. The very first night I got back, I went out to a club near the University of Pittsburgh and these straight looking dudes were up on stage playing the Grateful Dead, Steely Dan, Little Feat, etc. and they were good. Really good. So I hopped up on stage and started playing harp and the guys turned and smiled and the music seemed to go up a notch.
We formed a band called Sandoz, became very popular around Pittsburgh, and a year or so later produced an independent album, which found its way into the hands of Relix Records in New York. They offered us a recording contract so we recorded a second album of originals, Unfamiliar Territory. A third one soon followed.
Sandoz was asked to open up for a number of national acts. One of these was Levon Helm and the Allstars from the Band. Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, and Ricky Danko were great musical heroes of mine and so when I ended up hanging with them after the show playing guitar all night long, it was a magical evening. Around that time I began doing solo work, and the local promoter would call me up to do the opening act whenever any of the guys would come back. One time Ricky showed up with Paul Butterfield and I got the chance to ask him if he remembered me knocking him on his ass. He didn’t, but it seemed like all of those earlier musical hints from the universe had come full circle.
Songwriting isn't so much about trying to find some catchy words and tunes on the guitar or piano to impress some music gatekeeper a thousand miles away. It's about traveling, meeting all kinds of people, learning things, reading things, taking risks, expanding your boundaries. In short, it's about living. For the short period of time I write a song, behind it are hundreds of hours of living, many miles of road, many familiar faces, lots of tears, storms, rain, and maybe a little light.