As a native Texan, Mark Willenborg draws inspiration from the legacy country artists that came before him. The songs he writes pay homage to names like Nelson, Strait, Jennings and Jones and continue to breathe new life into a genre that the mainstream seems to have forgotten. So much so that he has jokingly coined his own genre “NeoRetroAmeriCountry.”
“Country music isn’t a dead language,” said Willenborg. “I believe it's alive and still one of the best ways to communicate the human experience.”
Willenborg is a songwriter and traditional country music performer based in Austin who is set to release his debut album, “Cold Beer And Country Music” in late 2020. Although he may be dropping his very first full-length album, Willenborg has been playing and singing this music as long as he can remember.
“One of my very first memories is being held up on my grandfather’s shoulders so that I could get a glimpse of Johnny Cash at a concert in Waco,” said Willenborg. “I always wanted to learn to play music, but I never really had the chance until I went off to college. Living in the dorms at Stephen F. Austin State University I got to know as many guitar players as I could and I bugged them until I had learned enough to play a few tunes. From there my friends and I would play backyard parties and the occasional gig in Nacogdoches. Then after graduation I started a career and a family and I put music aside. It wasn’t until I moved to Austin in 2004 that I started playing my guitar again and jamming with friends. But I never thought that I could actually write a song until one of my friends challenged our group to write a country tune. So I did. And then I wrote another one. And I just never stopped. I don’t know why I waited almost 50 years to start writing songs. I guess I just wasn’t ready yet.”
Willenborg’s first EP, “Song Worth Singing,” in 2019 had a decidedly bluegrass feel. But he admits that the full-on honky-tonk sound of his upcoming debut album is much more of his natural sound. It’s the kind of music you hear in those good ol’ Texas beer joints and makes you want to roll down your windows and drive on a hot summer day.
“I guess I just naturally write the type of music that I grew up listening to in the 70’s – Paycheck, Jones, Tom T. Hall and since I’m a native Texan, Willie of course.”
Willenborg wrote all of the songs on the upcoming record. At times, the songs speak about love, hope and vulnerability, and at other times the songs echo classic country music themes and are “just a good old crying in your beer song,” said Willenborg. “Every honky-tonk record needs one of those.”
As for the title track of the album, “Cold Beer and Country Music,” Willenborg recalls playing his Tuesday night residency at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas. The regulars were always good to him, but he wanted to see if they were actually paying attention to the music.
“So, I threw every country song cliché’ I could think of in this one to see if they were actually listening,” said Willenborg. “It was meant to be kind of a joke, but they loved it. I guess the joke backfired. I chose it for the title because it is clear and direct, and it sets the intention of the record.”
“Cold Beer and Country Music” was recorded over the course of a year at FetSounds Recording Studios in Kyle, Texas and then finished later in a 100-year-old church building in San Marcos. The album was produced by Marty Muse, former steel guitarist for Robert Earl Keen.
“Marty brought in his connections to great players in Austin and things really started to gel. Marty has so much knowledge of how to arrange and construct this type of music it took these songs to a place I could have never gotten on my own.” Nathan Parnell was the engineer and one of the main catalysts for getting the record completed. “Nathan is a master at working with vintage gear, so he was perfect for this project, because I really wanted to get the sound of records that were made decades ago,” said Willenborg.
The album was recorded in two phases: phase one included recording the tracks “Cold Beer And Country Music,” “Somebody Else’s Heart” and “Interesting Old Man” with Basil McJagger (The Derailers) on piano, Bracken Hale (The Derailers) on bass, Marc Redix (Eric Tessmer Band) on drums and Beth Chrisman (The Carper Family) on fiddle. Phase two was when producer Marty Muse got involved and brought in a second batch of great players: three of them were from Robert Earl Keen’s band including Marty on steel guitar, Brian Beken on fiddle, Tom Van Shaik on drums, Kevin Smith (Willie Nelson’s band) on bass, Bryce Clarke (Roger Creager’s band) on guitars and the legendary Floyd Domino (Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and Asleep At The Wheel) playing piano. This second round of recording produced the tracks “Tear In My Eye,” “Honky-Tonk Hallelujah,” “Someday” and “Never Knew A Love.”
When he’s not recording music and playing gigs around San Marcos and Austin, Willenborg works at The Wittliff Collections on the campus of Texas State University. The Wittliff is a special research archive and museum that is focused on preserving the creative legacy of literary figures, photographers and musicians in Texas and The Southwest. Through his work, Willenborg is able to observe and admire large archives from Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Benson, Cindy Walker and more. It serves as a source of inspiration for Willenborg in his day to day life and through his music.