Mark Bumgarner’s musical journey was never a chase, but rather an omnipresent force in his life that needed no tampering with. From the first chord on, the Western North Carolina-based songwriter has approached his performance style with an intuitive, DIY spirit.
Though not a product of a musical family, there was always an unspoken appreciation that was awakened when his father came home one day with an LP of The Beatles’ US breakout “Meet The Beatles.” As a young child in what was once the “Furniture Capital of the World,” 1960's Lenoir, North Carolina provided an idealistic, working class southern town setting that continues to have an influence on Mark. It was also where his ear was drawn to many forms of music of the era. From just-budding west coast rock outfits like The Byrds and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Motown and the Monkees. “Not just sonically, The Beatles and The Monkees made the first visual impressions on me,” he reminisces.
It wasn't until after his father, who worked for the regional Rural Electric Coop, was transferred to Boone, NC, located in the mountains of Watauga County, that Mark, now a teen, came into what he calls his “musical contentiousness.” It was there while attending the company’s annual members’ meeting where he discovered fellow Watauga locals and Appalachian icons Doc and Merle Watson, who were there to provide the day’s entertainment - a happenstance that would come full-circle decades down the line.
This introduction to roots music added a new flavor to Mark’s palate, laying the foundation for what would be the centerpiece of his performance style since his first encounter with a guitar at age 14. He started learning basic chords on a classical guitar belonging to his next door neighbor, though Mark would soon go on to trade his trombone from the high school band for the cheapest steel string Yamaha his local music store had in stock. “My band instructor wasn’t too pleased about that,” he laughs.
Jamming with friends was a staple source of entertainment - even before they really knew what they were doing. “The way we learned was just by listening, and playing along with the record.” notes Bumgarner when asked if he’d had any formal lessons. Early Eagles, Poco, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and other country rock groups of the day provided the core of his early learning experience. But it wasn't until he discovered Emmylou Harris that it all came together. “Not only did Emmylou turn me on to so many artists that I wasn't even aware of, she showed me how to take all of these influences and put them together to make it my own.”
Mark's mind was always on music. After a brief attempt at a post high school education, he spent his early adult years traveling in a county cover band playing all over the country in the post Urban Cowboy era dance halls. This cover band phase would last through the rest of his 20s before the changing landscape spelled the end of many of the large scale honky tonks. He had also grown tired of the confines of the cover band and knew it was time to make a change.
Although Mark had dabbled in songwriting and creating his own music, it wasn't until he settled in Nashville in 1994 that he began to find himself musically, refining his songwriting talents and starting to write what he calls “keepers.” Once in Nashville, Mark began reconnecting with some of his fellow North Carolinians that had already made the trek to Music City. One of the first was his old bandmate Mark W. Winchester with whom he began playing around town. The two would also write frequently at Winchester’s house that included a unique rehearsal space. “It was the coolest little hideaway in the rear of an old garage. It had Christmas lights strung around the room, a velvet Elvis, old posters and a Marilyn Monroe cutout, just to name a few of the appointments. It was so well insulated that very little sound could be heard from the outside. If it weren't for the cars, you'd never know anything was going on in there.”
In 1999 Mark moved into that very house, while the Winchesters moved south of town. One of the perks was that the rehearsal space stayed intact. It was during this time Mark (on acoustic guitar and vocals) and fellow Carolina transplants Milan Miller (guitar, vocals), and Jeff Smith (drums), along with Winchester (upright bass) formed Jubal Foster. The final piece of the puzzle was the addition of Buddy Melton (fiddle, vocals), who remained a NC resident. During that summer, the quintet camped out at the Winchester house to record and produce what would be their only album release.
“The rehearsal space just wasn't big enough to record in, so we moved into the house. Drums in a bedroom, bass in another. I'm in the living room playing acoustic, and Milan was playing electric guitar and manning the Roland 1680 digital workstation in the dining room, while his guitar amp was back in the kitchen. Buddy would come in later and put down his vocals and overdub fiddle.”
With their 2000 self released debut, Jubal Foster created a buzz around Nashville, and had regional success back in their home turf of Western North Carolina. A second record had begun to take shape, but by 2004 the music industry was dramatically shape-shifting. “Looking back now, no one could have foreseen just how much the industry was about to change. There were inquiries; there were meetings; there were showcases, but after a few false starts and dead ends we made the decision to go our separate ways.”
Reflecting on the influence the band had on him, Marks sees his time in Jubal Foster as the course-correction that has led him to where he is today. “It took me from the cover band world I had been in as a younger man and the Nashville ‘songwriting mill’ mentality that I had used to better learn the craft, and provided a vehicle for me to begin expressing myself and allowed me to write and perform songs that served me as an artist. Songs that I continue to play to this day.”
Shortly after the break up of Jubal Foster, Mark made the decision to return to Western North Carolina. “It wasn't so much that I didn't think I had anything left for Nashville, but I didn't think Nashville had anything left for me. I just needed a change both musically and personally.” So in December of 2004 he moved to Asheville, NC. Once there, he began to perform as a solo artist for the first time. He began building not only on the foundation that he had been a part of in Nashville, but also on those early influences he had as a teen. After a year back in the mountains, Mark met and ultimately married his wife Aimee. They began married life in a small humble cabin located just north of Asheville. It was there that Mark would put together his Two Chairs Music studio where he continues to work out of today.
Mark has now recorded three full length album projects for himself at the cabin. The first was an acoustic album “On My Way Back Home,” which reflects the Appalachian influences of his youth and his more recent exposure to acoustic music after returning to Western NC. The second was “When Love Comes Around,” a duo record that he recorded with his wife Aimee under the name Calico Moon. This record is a lush combination of modern Americana and old school country.
With his latest release “Just Above the Waterline,” Mark makes his debut on former MerleFest artistic director Steve Johnsons’ SJ21 Records & Tapes label, a musical partnership years in the making. Johnson had been a longtime fan of Jubal Foster, and when MerleFest started expanding their side stage acts in 2013, Mark was one of the first people he called. Over time, Mark’s involvement in the annual event - one of the premier music festivals in the country - grew from performer to collaborator. With the festival’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest already taking off, the team decided it was time to introduce a band competition to round things out, so with its 2015 launch, Mark assumed the role of host. The following year he began ablely assisting Music Row legend Jim Lauderdale - who leads the charge with the Chris Austin contest - with emcee and hosting duties.
The current batch of tracks span the last twenty years of Mark’s life, though the production and lyrical substance are nothing short of fresh. A collection of musings on the human experience, the album is a homecoming for Mark, threading together all of the seasons of his life. Equal parts inquisitive and wise, the new release proves that even veteran artists still bear the same curiosity as their newly blooming counterparts. Earnest yet refined, “Just Above The Waterline” is a mature followup to Mark’s previous projects, though the material is wholly relatable. In true “songwriter’s songwriter” fashion, Mark has managed to tap into universal sentiments and create a mirror in which listeners can see themselves in his work. At its core, “Just Above the Waterline” is the story of an artist that never quite feels finished, and proves that the term “work in progress” is a badge one should wear proudly - especially when it leads to musical triumphs like this.