Like a sturdy Texas cypress, Mark Nesler endures. In his life and in his music, the lanky singer-songwriter embodies perseverance and a quiet knowing. Born of personal tragedy and professional struggle, the theme that emerges from his music again and again is resilience.
That straight-ahead strength was forged on the winding road from tiny Buna, north of Beaumont, through honky-tonks in every corner of the country and finally to Music Row. Hailing from the same cradle of country stardom as George Jones, Tracy Byrd, Mark Chesnutt and Clay Walker, Nesler now takes his turn.
Despite heartache and disappointment, the soft-spoken singer has found reward in each day well-lived and learning to accept who he is. And through his songs, he hopes listeners can come a little closer to that same place and know theyre not alone.
“I want people to know that what theyre buying is real,” he says. “I want them to really connect and feel like ‘Hey, theres somebody whos been through the same thing.’ That’s what its all about.”
Radio has already made that connection, and in a big way. Nesler’s “Just To See You Smile” stayed at No. 1 for six weeks in early 1998 for superstar Tim McGraw. Has it changed his life? You bet. “I’m going to pay off my house,” he says with a big laugh.
Although that song was a career maker, it was far from Nesler’s first success as a writer. He’s had cuts by platinum artists Chesnutt and Trace Adkins, as well as Rhett Akins, Lee Greenwood, Ed Bruce and the legendary Tammy Wynette.
His most consistent outlet for his writing has been one of those other sons of southeast Texas, his buddy, former boss and sometime co-writer, Tracy Byrd. Nesler credits Byrd with putting him on the map as a songwriter, after renewing their hometown acquaintance in the early 90s in Nashville. The inclusion of his “You Never Know How Good You Got It” on Byrd’s platinum “No Ordinary Man” album was a turning point in Neslers career.
Thats when things really started changing, he says. The song led to a publishing deal with MCA Music Publishing.
Nesler has written or co-written nine songs for Byrds albums including “Old One Better” as well as the crowd-favorite “Honky-Tonk Dancing Machine”, the haunting “Down On The Bottom”, and the beautiful Marty Robbins-esque Heaven “In My Woman’s Eyes”.
But Nesler managed to save more than a few gems for himself. He wrote or co-wrote every cut on his Asylum Records debut. Working with acclaimed producers Jerry Crutchfield and Kyle Lehning, Nesler has pulled together a wide-ranging collection of slice-of-life ballads and a couple of rockers. Its the soundtrack of a real life, coming not from a wide-eyed innocent, but from a savvy observer of the human condition. Someone who has felt his share of lifes hurts but who also has learned times healing power.
Nesler had his hands in music his whole life. My mom says when I was about two years I used to bring records to church to play with while other kids brought toys, he says. It was stuff like Dont Worry About Me by Marty Robbins, Big Bad John by Jimmy Dean and “Flowers On The Wall” by the Statler Brothers. Those are a few of the ones I loved when I was little.
He learned that love of song from his mom and dad. His father, a Kentucky native, played guitar and bass, sang and wrote songs and even made an independent record. His mom, Charlsie, also sang and played guitar.
Neslers first big musical moment — the one that he says changed his life — came at age 9 at a Buna Elementary PTA talent show. The song was Folsom Prison Blues. His father accompanied him on acoustic guitar while he played electric and when he finished singing, he got his first standing ovation.
I remember it plain as yesterday, Nesler recalls. That was the moment I realized, This is special, and I knew right then it would be my life from now on. Influenced by his dads love for bluegrass music, he also learned to pick banjo and attended area bluegrass festivals.
Nesler formed his first band when he was 16. After high school he started out playing around the Beaumont area, and in 1982 hit all 50 states in a three-month span as part of the band backing up contestants in the national Wrangler Star Search. Back in the Lone Star State, his regular gigs throughout the 80s included such legendary stages as The Palace and Yvonnes on his home turf, and Cowboys in Dallas. He also found himself in Nashville a couple of times, but he always seemed to end up back home.
In 1991, he decided it was do or die. He knew that to get noticed, hed have to hit the road hard. Working as Mark Nesler and the $2 Pistols, he and his band played all over the country and found a following on the circuit that included Toolies, Grizzly Rose, Tulsa City Limits and Cowboys. He also toured Canada as well as having played numerous casinos in Las Vegas.
I had success in every way, except for a record deal, he says. Every now and then a record company would become interested in me, but nothing ever panned out.
Then, Nesler says he was rescued by Nashville power Jerry Crutchfield. The two had become acquainted through a former manager of Neslers back home and kept in touch off and on.
Jerry called me up and said it was time to get off the road, Nesler says. He said Id gone as far as I could go without a record deal, and suggested that I move to Nashville and focus on songwriting.
The producer also remembered some of Neslers earlier efforts, including “If It Ain’t Love”, which charted for Ed Bruce and he knew Nesler had a hometown friendship with a new singer Crutchfield was working with, Tracy Byrd. Crutchfield had a hunch the two would click artistically, and in 1994, he offered Nesler a staff writing deal with MCA Music Publishing.
Nesler eagerly accepted, looking forward to a break from the constant travel and trying to make ends meet. But that wouldnt last long. A couple of months after he got the publishing deal, Byrd, who by this time had become a fan, asked him to join his band. Tracy told me, There wont be any responsibilities. All you have to do is play your guitar and write me some hit songs. After years of struggling on the road, I thought, This sounds like fun.
As he worked the road, he continued to write and pitch songs. As time passed, his demos drew increasing attention on Music Row. And now, it wasnt only for the writing.
Finally, the day arrived. Then Asylum co-president Kyle Lehning had me come over one day and sit in his room, just me and my guitar, and sing for an hour. They liked what they heard, and thats how it happened, Nesler says. He had his deal.
What Lehning heard was unique and authentic. Much as Randy Travis was a completely new sound in his time, Neslers voice is like none other on radio today. It conjures up fleeting images of an early Waylon, with the sensitivity of a great Country troubadour like Marty Robbins thrown in. Add to that a spectrum of influences, from Country pioneers Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Mel Tillis, to the pop icons of the late 70s and 80s, including the Eagles, Michael McDonald, Lionel Richie, Steve Winwood and Bruce Hornsby, and you have Mark Nesler — a man of the 90s who tells stories the real way.
His work is spare, conveying emotions with a matter-of-factness that is poignant, but never maudlin. His strength is in the capturing of profound truths in seemingly mundane life events.
The autobiographical “I’m Just That Way”, speaks of being comfortable in your own skin. “Not As Simple As That” offers clear-eyed acceptance of life’s complexities. “Used To The Pain” evokes a sense of resignation and trying to get on with life despite hurt. Again and again, Nesler puts human emotion in universal terms.
“The album is a true reflection of his creative process,” he says, and he gives a lot of the credit for that to Lehning and Crutchfield.
“They really listened to me as an artist and I think it took somebody like them to produce me. They really critiqued the music, the way I delivered the songs with just me and my guitar. Then when they had me go in and play for the musicians, it made me a part of their creative process and gave the musicians something to build the music around. The thing that shines through is the heart and soul of where it evolved from — just me and a guitar, sitting down and singing my songs.”
Nesler prides himself on capturing lifes ironies in his music, but these days hes reflecting on a recent sad irony of his own. Just as he saw his first No. 1 as a writer in early 1998, he lost his father, the man who not only taught him to play guitar but also taught him the steadfastness that rings so true in his songs.