Mark D. shares inspirations, muses, and moments that led to his "First Fast Car"
Last year I gathered together all the courage I could come up with and bought a BMW X3 xDrive 351. It goes fast, faster than any car I’d ever owned. In fact, it really is my first fast car. Ever.
I can’t really explain why I’ve always driven underpowered vehicles. Maybe Freud could have, but I can’t.
But I realized right away that my life had suddenly changed - for the better - and that if my anti-depressants ever stopped working I would probably wonder what the hell I was doing driving a, choke, Beamer.
I also realized that there was a song waiting to be written, though I wasn’t in a hurry to do so. A few months later my daughter Sophie and I undertook telling a big story in my life.
My best friend in high school and college was named Greg Wutschke. Greg came from a more secure family situation than mine. His dad sold State Farm insurance (in fact he wrote the insurance on my Hillman Minx), his mom was an interior decorator. Greg drove a souped-up Volkswagen bug, his family had a ski boat, life was pretty good at his house.
It wasn’t at mine. During my senior year, when I was supposed to be starring in basketball and earning a college scholarship, my family came apart. My dad’s drinking had taken over his life, and ours. He’d been arrested the summer before for public drunkenness, he hadn’t paid the rent on our apartment in months, the sheriff was knocking on our door. He missed the first game he’d ever missed in my three years with the Villa Park Spartans varsity basketball team.
Anyway, without going into the sordid details, my four older siblings and my mom and I told him he had to leave. My mom had already arranged for me to live with another family, which I did until she rented an apartment in June, after graduation, after I played in the Orange County All Star basketball game.
Greg was the only person I told about all the sorrows in my life, and I really didn’t tell him much. It took years and years for me to deal with all the turmoil.
We decided we’d just go to Fullerton Junior College. That’s where I played basketball for the next two years, where we hung out on the quad beneath a beautiful magnolia tree with a few other Villa Park grads.
I knew that this is where the song needed to start, my freshman year at Fullerton JC.
Five years ago I recorded a cd when my meds weren’t really working. It’s pretty depressing. Last summer seemed like a good time to try again, in a better mood, to get into some of the songs that really mean something to me. I got together with Steve Boynton in Steamboat Springs, CO, and started picking out songs.
The arc of being a commercial songwriter has been interesting. When I first started writing songs in college, and for about fifteen years, I was writing for myself, trying to get some of the discordant feelings out of me, to help me maybe handle life a little better. When I moved to Nashville in 1980 I kept working the same program, trying to get the angst out of me and into my songs.
After five years or so it began to dawn on me that those country artists didn’t want to saddle themselves to my angst. It wasn’t so much a light bulb going off; more like the dimly lit parking lot of a bar on Nolensville Road, a bar where Bobby Braddock was hanging out with his then sweetheart Sparky. Bobby knew what worked. He’d already had “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of the best country songs ever.
I listened to his songs, listened to the radio, went to the shows at Fan Fair. And started writing songs that didn’t have anything to do with me. Five years later I actually began to make a pretty good living writing country songs. Garth Brooks put one of our two songs on his “No Fences” cd. It sold 17 million copies. Trisha Yearwood, who’d sung countless demos for me, cut the same song and sold two million more cd’s. Cha-ching.
I got dang good at writing songs for other people, had a great career then a career song with “I Hope You Dance.” And then the music biz kind of spit me out, like a watermelon seed. It took years for me to land, to realize I was in a new phase of the arc of songwriting, but eventually it was okay to write about myself again.
My daughter Sophie and I wrote “First Fast Car” and “With One Without" last spring, before I left to spend the summer in Colorado. They seemed like two good songs to build a cd around. “With One Without” is a tribute to my family, me being the youngest of five kids, and writing it with my own daughter brought things full circle. It’s also an off-handed tribute to my songwriting hero John B. Sebastien, whose songs I worshipped in high school and college.
Maybe you’re familiar with “Heads Carolina, Tails California” from Jodi Messina’s mid-90’s hit. Tim Nichols and I came up with that one in my office at Starstruck Music, Reba McEntire’s publishing. Tim had read the follow-up book to “The Bridges of Madison County” and told me about Texas Jack flipping a coin and saying “Heads we go to California, tails we go to Texas.” That was all I needed.
“That Was Him” actually started when I was looking at my rhyming dictionary. Kate York and I hadn’t really found a good idea and thought we were gonna write a song about rain. When in doubt write a song about rain. As I was combing through the rain rhymes there sat Kurt Cobain. I looked at Kate and said “This is probably a different song, but what about saying “shootin’ up hurt with Kurt Cobain?” And then it turned into a song about Jesus, more of a historical Jesus than the Evangelical representation.
I’ve written a bunch of songs with my friends Billy Montana and Sean Locke. they’ve even come to Colorado in the winter and holed up with me on writer retreats. “One Wave” is special to me because I spent my 20’s riding waves. Leaving the ocean behind when I moved to Nashville was just a little less hard than leaving my family.
Alice Randall and I wrote “Visions of My Mortality” THIRTY years ago. There’s a famous poem by William Wordsworth called “Intimations of Immortality” that I was familiar with when I came up with this title, and my mom had told me about her last trip to see relatives in Kansas and about the pictures on the wall of people who looked like me. Only they were involved in gospel music. I thanked her for letting me grow up in Southern California.
My pal Joshua Ragsdale died of leukemia in 2011. We met in the late 90’s when he was just a green kid from Mississippi, wrote some great songs together, lived through a deal he and his sister had and lost with Lyric Street records, beat our heads against this wall and another trying to write a hit, and then lived through his sickness. He was like the younger brother I’d never had, and that’s how I miss him, like a brother. “Stuck on My Baby” was one of the last songs we ever wrote, and it has some pure Joshua wit in it.
One of my favorite songs ever is “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian, and “Come From a Woman” tips its hat to that masterpiece. Tommy Lee James and I put “a stranger on the bus” in the second verse, “one who ain’t one of us.” I hope Eric doesn’t mind. This may be my wife Cindy’s favorite song on the cd, except for the second of half of “my heaven and my hell.”
Travis Meadows is one interesting guy: a former evangelist turned stumbling drunk turned upright recovering songwriter. I had this title, suggested it to him, watched him think about it for a while, then heard him sing that first verse. Blew me away. Then I ended up taking the project home and working on it for maybe six months, until I felt like it was ready to run past him. I believe I might’ve knocked him off his chair. We kicked it back and forth a little and came up with a cool song that Wynona recorded in 2016.
Martin County, Kentucky is a dry county and where Angeleena Presley grew up. Her daddy was a coal miner. She’s the real thing. We wrote a cool song called “Knocked Up” after she got knocked up by one of my other co-writers on this project (I’m not gonna say WHO). It’s a small town, Nashville is. And we wrote “Dry County Blues” about her hometown. It’s an even smaller town.
I’m just gonna say it: I like to write with women. Sarah Siskind grew up playing bluegrass music, married a bluegrass bass player, and now has two beautiful kids who will no doubt be bluegrrassers too. She sings on of the most beautiful harmony parts I’ve ever heard on “Feel Your Love.”
In 2004, the year Sally Barris and I wrote “My Outlook on Life,” I wasn’t a happy camper. My soul was tortured, like it says in the song, and what I really needed to do was stand in the Yampa River in Steamboat Springs, CO, and fish. And that’s what I do now, every summer from the end of May to the beginning of October. Between fishing and anti-depressants I’m doing much better. Again, there’s a beautiful harmony part by sweet songwriter, my friend Sally Barris.
When the second “Babe” movie was being made in the late 90’s my publisher asked me to write a song for it. They forgot to mention that Randy Newman was also writing a song for it. His was in the movie and was nominated for an Oscar. Mine is called “In the Arms of Innocence.” I was proud to have a “snout” in the first and even prouder to write the second verse about my mom, Dorothy Fleeman Sanders. She’s the one I got the perseverance from, that same perseverance that has helped me so much in Music City.
Steve Boynton and I tried to set up recording sessions in Boulder last September, but that didn’t work out, so he came to Nashville in November, we went to my favorite demo studio, County Q, with my favorite demo studio owner, Paul Scholten, and made us a record. Steve Hinson came in on the first day, along with Paul’s son Kyle on bass. The second day we had my old friends Glenn Duncan and Dave Pomeroy. I played and sang everything live, with no overdubs, warts and all. Steve, Paul, Kyle, Steve H, Glenn, and Dave surrounded me with the comfort of instruments well-played.
Some of my co-writers sang harmony parts on their songs, my pals Megan Mullins and Sarah Majors rendered on a bunch others, and I sent three songs out to California for John and Peggy Corzine to put their lovely voices on. I might never have become a Nashville songwriter without them; they encouraged me way back in the late 70’s, let me open shows for them even though I was as unpolished as my old Gibson Country and Western guitar, and played and sang on the demos that I brought here with me when my mom fronted the money for an exploratory visit. So I extend a special thank you and love to Peggy and John.
That’s all I have to say about that, hopefully! Hope you enjoy this labor of love!
Mark D Sanders