In just a short amount of time, MARK209 has garnered the interest of an industry. Tagged the “best group you probably have never heard” by industry leaders, MARK209 has certainly made a mark for themselves. The 2011 National Quartet Convention in Louisville, KY was no exception as they revealed their new name; which is a reference to Mile Marker 209 in Nashville, TN (the location of Music Row … and considered the Heart of Nashville).
SGM- For those who may be unfamiliar with Mark209 and what you guys do both stylistically and ministry wise, can you tell us about the group?
NJ- MARK209 started out a little over four years ago with the main goal of seeing souls won for God and for Christians to stand up in their community. We understood that there was a need to bring great Christian music to a wider audience. You see, we had met so many people who enjoy great country music but didn’t have an alternative to listen to when it came to Christian music. We decided to try and fill that void by giving them real country music with a message of Jesus. That is why we call ourselves “Country Music with a Jesus Kick”. In four years, we have gone everywhere the doors have been opened. We have sung at everything from fairs, to churches, to public/city events, private events, and even casinos and prisons. Last year, we sang in front of over 10,000 at a contemporary worship festival in California with Danny Gokey, Colton Dixon, and Tenth Avenue North … then a month later, we were at a little country church singing to 12. No matter the size nor the place, MARK209’s goal does not change– to reach anyone and everyone we can for God. Our style, sound, and ministry might be rooted in mainstream country with a radio ready sound… but, true to our roots, we are and always will be Southern Gospel… “Country Music with a Jesus Kick”
SGM- Often times when interviewing or talking to artists getting them to speak about a former group is almost impossible. When I saw you guys live with the Florida Boys, I witnessed a couple of fans pull older Mark209 CD’s out their purse for a former member, Jimmy Reno, to sign. Not only did he sign them but the high remarks on you guys individually he gave told me you guys are more like a family than business associates. Even when someone leaves. I was really impressed by that. Do you guys strive to cultivate a family atmosphere and do you find that makes what you do better?
NJ- This one is simple … in one word “YES”. We have always been about family. We have tried since the beginning to make sure that everyone who has been a part of MARK209 understands that we are not just 4 guys who travel together and sing music. Instead, we are a brotherhood of guys who have been called to let the world know about God. That is why when we have auditioned people in the past, we have always wanted to meet with their families. When Ray joined, in many ways, so did his family. This is why, when his daughter became a NFL cheerleader with the Jacksonville Jaguars, we celebrated with he and his wife, Sherri. We celebrated again when she got married. The same went for Jym, when he and his wife, Christina, had the opportunity to open up a restaurant in Missouri. It is a place where quality time can enjoyed by families and also great music can be presented to the public. When my son, Grayson, was born, two of the first people to hold him were Jym and Christina. There have been individuals who have been a part of MARK209 that have gone on to do other things but, we always try to continue the support and feeling of family, if possible. That is why, when we got the opportunity to hang out with Jimmy and Joe, it was like old times; telling stories over and over and just smiling and enjoying their company. When we hired Dustin, we took the time to get to know his family; specifically his son, Damion. We got the chance to take him out on the road with us for a weekend. What a great way for him to see his Dad in action and for us to get to know him. Not to mention, it was great to have a young back on hand to help with the load-in and load-out! I cannot imagine traveling this country, coast to coast, like we and so many other groups like us do, and not enjoy the people we are traveling with.
SGM- The groups sound has evolved since your inception to more and more of a modern country style. Do you see this as the direction the industry is going if southern gospel is to draw interest from younger listeners?
NJ- You know, I cannot speak for the industry but, what I can tell you is this–when we started MARK209, we strove to find a way to bring in new fans to what is, in my opinion, the best style of music in the world. I have had the opportunity to sing at many youth events and worship conferences, and what I find is that the younger generation just wants good music with a great message. Something that we have been very mindful of is that we wanted to package our music in a way that was different; something to set MARK209 apart, in order for people to get to know exactly who MARK209 is and what we wanted to do. Maybe there are some people out there who think we are just a bit outside of the box–everything from our Yellow Bus, to the Red mic stands, to the way we dress and act on stage … we wanted it to be completely unique to what MARK209 is. And let’s face it … subtlety is just overrated.
SGM- Many artists cite traveling all the time as the biggest challenge to singing professionally. As a family man, how do you balance life on the road and family time?
NJ- Traveling is always hard to do especially when you have a small one at home. Currently my amazing wife Elizabeth and I have our first son Grayson, he turns 3 in June. The concept of leaving them every week for days, or weeks, sometimes months on end is hard. I’ll put it to you the same way it was once told to me and I couldn’t agree more. I have friends who have been called to be foreign missionaries. The idea of spending weeks, days, months, and even years in places where sometimes they’re extremely hostile to Christians is mind blowing to me. I cannot begin to express my respect for what they do. Yet I also have friends who look at what I do and tell me “There’s no way I could spend days at a time away from my family sleeping in a bed that’s not mine. I want my bed and my pillow my space.” You see just like the missionaries who are called to the foreign land, I am called to travel these roads and tell everyone I can about Jesus. So I don’t get excited and skip to the bus every week when I leave my family, but I also don’t do it with a heavy heart. I do this because I’m called by God to spread this message this is my ministry it’s what I’m called to do it’s more than a choice it’s a God-given desire. And that makes it easier.
SGM- Who inspired you or influenced you growing up musically?
NJ- I can remember growing up as a kid and riding in my father’s truck; it was a pretty cool place to learn about music. You see, my dad had his favorites … ZZ TOP, Garth Brooks, and either the Gaithers or Cathedrals. So I grew up with a great appreciation for a wide variety of music including many genres. As I got older, my musical taste varied drastically. I would have to say my musical inspiration came from Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Jason Mraz. But as to my inspiration to be a music minister, that I would have to say came from Gloria Gaither and her ability to connect with people. I feel that this desire to love ALL music has allowed me the ability create my own sound.
SGM- Was singing southern or country gospel something you aspired to do from an early age?
NJ- Not necessarily. I was a part of a vocal jazz group, I danced and sang in a hip-hop group, and I performed on cruise lines and at theme parks. Yet, in the back of my mind something was missing … that true four part harmony. I think this was God’s design to lead me into what He wanted me to do with my life. Being a part of this ministry is what I was called to do.
SGM- What does the future hold for Mark209? Your newest addition in my opinion has a more traditional style in singing. Does this indicate a shift back to a more traditional style or will Mark209 continue with the sound you guys have created in the past with the more progressive country singers you have had?
NJ- I am totally excited for what the future holds for MARK209. With Dustin coming on board it is an exciting time for us. For the last few years, Dustin has sung very traditional Southern Gospel music. Which is why his first weekend out with us he assumed he was singing “Baritone” for us … he quickly learned that term is fairly wide spread for MARK209. After our first show I’ll never forget Dustin looking at me and saying “I thought I was singing baritone….” I said “Yea”. “Well on that last song I am pretty sure I started out singing lead, then baritone, and then even sang an alto note for a second before going back to somewhere else…” to which I responded, “Yep that sounds about right!” But the more we traveled with and got to know Dustin and about his past, we began to hear the ability that he had to place himself into so many different genres like southern rock, country, or even a very traditional Southern Gospel sound. One of the things that I feel makes MARK209 different is our ability to adapt to who is in front of us. When we step on stage, we never have a set list of songs to perform. Instead, we have an open plan for what the people in front of us want to hear. So, if they want hymns, then we do hymns. If they want more contemporary, then we will lean that way; country, well then, hold on to your hat because here it comes. This is why when you saw us last month, we were in front of an audience that loved tradition, so we leaned our show and vocals that direction and introduced some of our more country songs along the way. And that is why I believe we have such a varied age of people who are fans, follow us on Facebook, or who will go out of their way to make sure they can be a part of what MARK209 is doing. It comes down to something you brought up earlier– “the family aspect”. It is not only between each guy, but also, we don’t want just fans… we want them to feel that they are a part of the family!
SGM- The industry in the past hasnt been accepting of country gospel artists as much. Why do you feel the industry has shunned groups who try to appeal to a wider audience with a more modern sound?
NJ- We as humans, are creatures of habit. We try everything we can to find something comfortable and stay there. But if you look back over the history of southern gospel, what amazes me is we (Southern Gospel) were once the trendsetters. We have a recording of Elvis early in his career, talking in an interview with CBS about how he stole his moves and stage antics from some of gospel’s biggest acts that he had seen growing up. Here is the King of Rock N Roll saying he copied Southern Gospel. So the idea that Southern Gospel is four guys in plain black or navy suits just standing behind mics is just mind blowing. Looking back at another gospel hero, Bill Gaither, he was once considered contemporary or new-age, but certainly not southern gospel. But he focused on the fans … the people in front of him. That is exactly what MARK209 is going to do. First, we focus on God and doing what He wants us to do; second, we focus on telling EVERYONE we can who He is and making sure they feel like they are a part of us; and third, we want to be an encouragement to Christians. We will let the industry take care of itself. And who knows, maybe someday they’ll even mention MARK209 right along with the groups of old and new that have done and are doing all they can to build up and support Southern Gospel, to keep it going for years and years to come. We love and respect our Southern Gospel history and are excited for our future.
SGM- For those interested in bringing Mark209 to their venue or church, who do they contact?
NJ- If anybody would like to bring MARK209 to their event, they can find us on Facebook, email us through our website (Mark209 Website), or call the office at 615-246-2667. We do all of our own in-house booking, so no middleman just MARK209 making relationships with YOU.
For more information on Mark209: