Mark Insley – Tucson

Mark Insley

Mark Insley’s singing voice is one of those rare instruments that sounds perfectly at ease with every note passing through it. Whether Insley is growling or crooning, you get the relaxing impression that he could have just told you everything he’s singing, but it’s just easier for him to sing them all to you. Whatever it is in country music singing that evokes cliché images of beer-matted sawdust covering honky-tonk floors and hot, highway asphalt mixing with the dry smells of Southwestern dust, Insley’s voice has got it. It halts and sways in personable, western twang, never too much of it to sound maudlin but not too skimpy on it to sound like frat band, country rock. It’s simply understood – not showing any pretension but still able to convey different emotions in mere inflections. And it feels as comfortable as a frayed T-shirt and worn out jeans. Even though his new album Tucson is filled with gritty and skilled music by seasoned, country-western session musicians, it’s Insley’s voice that makes this music fit snugly into a room just as easily as a favorite chair.
Full-length recordings for Insley have been few and far between. His last effort, the warmly received Good Country Junk, was released in 1996. While this lapse in time may have faded his name from the memories of dilettante country critics, he’s always been respected by his fellow “Americana” musicians. On Good Country Junk, several members of Dwight Yoakam’s band backed him up. On Tucson, he’s surrounded himself with another formidable collection of players. Their collective resume is as diverse as it is impressive. Guitarist Tony Gulkyson (X, Lone Justice), drummer David Raven (Jim Lauderdale, Butthole Surfers), keyboardist Danny McGough (Tom Waits), and multi-instumentalist Greg Leisz (Beck, KD Lang, Smashing Pumpkins) lay down foundations of first-rate cowboy boogies, greasy, country rock and “hillbillified” soul. If I hadn’t already spent the first paragraph discussing his voice, I’d probably try to convince you that their playing stole the show.
Insley’s Tucson follows a long tradition of hard-luck country music that subscribes to the theory that no matter how tough life is, it’s never bad enough or embarrassing enough not to sing about. And there’s always room in this type of music for clever/cheesy one-liners that make a listener smile and groan simultaneously. Tucson is something like a countrified storyboard for a man who’s old enough to have been given many chances for a normal, sedate life but somehow never quite gets what he’s after. Whether it’s his fault, her fault, or just fate, he’s tired of messing up and having to move on. And now he just wants to talk about it.
Insley sings his parts with relish, almost daring you not to take him seriously. His lyrics aren’t odd, impressionistic pieces like those favored by bands like Son Volt. Yeah, they might sound like budding truisms. They may even sound weirdly unbelievable, but they always get to the point sooner or later. Oxymorons like “I went out to Mojave, to get out of the heat,” presented in the beginning of “Ice Machine” make perfect sense to him, and you’re caught by his voice, belief suspended. When you realize it’s a song about a frustrated and tormented love, that line comes back to you, making a little more sense. And if only my friends knew how to discuss their relationship problems like Insley does in the Wayne Carson cover, “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” I might try listening to them more.
Mark Insley’s Tucson has been one of the nicest surprises I’ve heard this year. A late-bloomer in this alt-country/Americana music scene, I’ve remained in the safety of a few bands that I know well, always thinking that there were no other contemporary artists that could add to my understanding of this style. Tucson knocked that idea out of my head. His western-seeped, country-rock can only prove that this music is as vibrant and real as the dusty roads and desert cities that inspired it.