Mark Newton’s career in bluegrass has spanned over 35 years. The guitar and mandolin player honed his chops during the 1970s and ‘80s in a number of groups including Knoxville Grass and the Heights of Grass, but it was as a member of the Virginia Squires (1984-1989), a group that included Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins and Sammy Shelor, that Mark landed at Rebel Records. It was the start of a 20-year association that went on to include a host of excellent solo albums and discs featuring his Mark Newton Band. In addition to his performing work, Mark is a co-founder of the long-running Graves Mountain Bluegrass Festival and is a co-producer of IBMA’s annual Fan Fest.
Living a Dream (Reb-1744) was Mark’s first solo recording. Released in 1998, it paired him with a number of his early musical influences including Ralph Stanley, Bill Emerson, Paul Williams, Tony Rice, John Starling, and Mike Auldridge. It also put Mark in a studio setting with some of his most talented contemporaries, including Dudley Connell, Jerry Douglas, Alan O’Bryant, Don Rigsby, IIIrd Tyme Out, Sammy Shelor, and Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins.
Mark’s next solo outing – if it could actually be called such – was Follow Me Back to the Fold, A Tribute to Women in Bluegrass (Reb-1764). As the title implied, the recording featured Mark with a host of bluegrass’ leading ladies: Gloria Belle, Dale Ann Bradley, Louisa Branscomb, Gena Britt, Kathy Chiavola, Kim & Barb Fox, Sally Jones, Laurie Lewis, Claire Lynch, Lynn Morris, Missy Raines, Kristin Scott, Valerie Smith, Rhonda Vincent, and Sharon and Cheryl White. The closing track, which was also the album’s title, was written in honor of one of the first ladies of country music, Maybelle Carter. The disc went on to win the IBMA award for Recorded Event of the Year in 2001.
Three projects credited to the Mark Newton Band soon followed. Charlie Lawson’s Still (Reb-1773) highlighted a set of mostly newer songs by contemporary songwriters (Becky Buller, Tim Stafford, Troy and Amanda Engle) and esteemed songsmiths Tom T. and Dixie Hall. A few bluegrass classics were also included for good measure, notably Buzz Busby’s “Lost” and the Morris Brothers’ “Somebody Loves You, Darling.” Providing expert musical backing were Mike Munford on banjo, Troy Engle on mandolin, and Bob Goff on bass.
The Mark Newton Band’s second release was called No Boundaries (Reb-1795). The album was touted as a “marvelous collection of contemporary bluegrass” that kept a mindful eye towards tradition. As before, songwriters Becky Buller and Tom T. and Dixie Hall contributed fresh, vibrant material for the project. Other great songs also came from Tim O’Brien and Randall Hylton.
By the time of the release of the third Mark Newton Band CD, Hillbilly Hemingway (Reb-1819), the group had gone through a wholesale overhaul. New members included Clay Hess on guitar, Andy Ball on mandolin, Beth Lawrence on bass, and John Wheat on banjo. Producer Carl Jackson called in a few extra players such as fiddler Stuart Duncan, Rob Ickes and Randy Kohrs on resonator guitar, and Tony Creasman on percussion. Jackson was a co-writer of the album’s title song, which is a tribute to country music legend Hank Williams, as well as two other pieces on the disc. The album was nominated for IBMA’s Album of Year in 2007 and took home the prize for Best Graphic Design.