There’s a road on the outskirts of Tucson in serious need of repair called Old Spanish Trail. To the east of the road is Saguaro National Park, home of America’s largest cacti - a beautiful, yet harsh landscape. To the west is a maze of sand and gravel roads that get narrower and ruttier the further in you dare to venture. This is where Mark Insley hangs his hat. He’s been hanging it there for the last 16 years. He hasn’t made any new music in the last 15 of those years.
Mark Insley might be the best-kept secret in Americana music. After three critically acclaimed CDs around the turn of the century, Insley seemed to vanish. In terms of musical output, he went mute.
Insley’s first release, Good Country Junk, was the result of his well-received stage act at the Palomino in Los Angeles. He enlisted members of Dwight Yoakam’s band (Scott Joss, Taras Prodaniuk, Pete Anderson), among others, and if there is one minor complaint about Good Country Junk, it’s that it was, stylistically, a bit too close to Yoakam. That’s not a bad thing as far as making a record, but it really didn’t offer anything fresh. That would change drastically with Insley’s sophomore album, Tucson.
Tucson featured another great support cast of players – Dave Alvin, Albert Lee, Tony Gilkyson, and some jaw-dropping organ contributions by Danny McGough. But the thing that makes Tucson a solid five-star record is not the players, it’s the songs. To borrow a phrase from Willie Nelson, these are the kind of songs that keep the jukeboxes playing - songs written by a man that feels things deeply, songs that cut to the bone and are delivered in a voice that reflects every note of that.
Insley’s third and final CD, Supermodel, carries that forward, including a remake of “The Devil’s Knocking” from Good Country Junk that is stunning in its transformation. These are the sounds of a man on the verge of breaking. And they are the last sounds the world has heard from Mark Insley.
So what happened? Insley’s pretty open about the last 15 years.
“Oh man, it’s not a pretty story. I had a couple of failed marriages. I had a good little run for a couple of years. I was hosting this thing downtown called ‘Arizona’s Most Wanted.’ I had bands coming in from all over the country – very few from Arizona. That didn’t really endear me to the local vox populi. That went away.
“You know, I fell in with a group of guys that were on the unsavory side. I was doing more drugs and alcohol than any man should live to tell about. I had this little run-in with the police for possession with intent to distribute and illegal possession of an automatic firearm. I ended up selling everything I had to hire the best criminal attorney in the state. And we beat all of that.
“You’d think I’d have learned my lesson but I just kept at it. So finally, a couple of years ago I got drunk and decided to go out for a motorcycle ride. I ended up in the hospital with a motorcycle handlebar puncture wound in my small intestine and third degree burns all over my legs.
“I kind of took stock of my life. Asked myself, ‘Do you want to die like this or live a little bit longer?’ I quit most of my bad habits and started working on my craft – my writing.
“I was doing a weekly gig at a BBQ joint and then that went away [a place on Old Spanish Road outside of the city, which went out of business]. I had another slow period and then in the last year I started sticking my toe in the water and seeing how it felt. And audiences seemed to respond. They like it. I like it.
“That’s what I do. So that’s what I want to do. I have enough songs to make an album. My plan is to go out to LA and record with some of my old cohorts. Some won’t talk to me anymore, but the ones that will – they seem interested.”
At 61 years of age, Insley has a different approach to his songwriting. Rather than in-the-moment songs of heartache, songs he refers to as “written under duress,” Insley is both reflective and forward-looking with some of his new material.
“About once a month I come into town and play this little joint called the Royal Sun. The gal that runs it is the one who actually coaxed me out of - I don’t know what you call it – semi-retirement? I went in there one time and she asked ‘You want to play here, don’t you?’ I thought, ‘Fuck no.’ But that started it. She just wouldn’t leave me alone until I said yes. And I’m glad she did. She’s a nice gal.
“Damon Barnaby – I’ve been playing with him for years. We like to do this duo thing there.”
It’s in these acoustic settings that Insley performs some of his recent tunes.
“My younger brother (Austin-based songwriter Dave Insley) has written songs about parents and family for years and I always thought, well, nobody really gives a shit about that stuff. But it’s just been within the last few years that I’ve begun to embrace these aspects of life. You realize you’re not immortal.”
But being reflective doesn’t have to mean losing your edge. Insley pulls a guitar out of its case and, in an interview setting, gives me an example of a new song from his days growing up in the farming community of Chapman, Kansas.
Called “My First Car,” it begins with a description of one of the ugliest and coolest (in a funky sort of way) cars Dodge has ever produced. Slant Six motor. Push-button automatic. By the time the song is over it’s a back-door murder ballad (the previous owner had murdered her husband and put the body pieces in the trunk).
And Insley describes the song as “absolutely true”. This is a new twist for Insley. It’s dark but it’s dark humor. It’s a great story delivered in a talking folk/blues style. It’s the kind of song that will go a long way in entertaining an audience, but not one that’s going to knock them off their bar stools.
“Now I’ll play you a song about the future.”
The future Insley is talking about is the same one we all face - death. And this one will knock you off your barstool. Lyrically it’s one of the most provocative songs Insley has ever written. Called “10-Cent Redemption”, Insley delivers with conviction. This isn’t just story telling. It’s confessional story telling with a vengeance. Pollyanna doesn’t live here.
I’m over-churched but I keep on sinnin’
I claim the good lord’s work but the devil’s winnin’
Insley still prefers the isolation of where he lives. “Nobody ever finds it. That’s why I live out there.” And there are tolls to be paid to travel out of those sand and gravel roads. Mark Isley is paying them a little at a time, but he’s paying them. And that gives fans of his old records something to hope for.
[This article appeared first in the BigO e-zine, Singapore's largest independent music publication.]