Moonshiner Magazine Japan

Mark Newton is featured in the March 2024 issue of Japan's Moonshiner Magazine!

Making His Mark as Told by Mark Newton

Mark Newton has been a household name in bluegrass music for over six decades. He now shares his journey in his own words. 

I was diagnosed with Cirrhosis of the Liver in 2002, but I was able to lead a productive life for a long time with the necessary medicine. However, my life completely changed in 2022 when I underwent two transplant surgeries. This is my story, and I believe the good Lord provided me an opportunity to be an inspiration to give hope to transplant patients. Even though it's been many years since I've played music, and the future is unclear, I'm at peace with my decision to return to playing music I love. I can use that as a platform to reach people one step at a time. I know there were many prayers from my friends in Japan and my friend Dr. Hiro Oda, who has supported me and all my bluegrass fans in Japan.

After I was first diagnosed, I realized I could no longer continue as a touring musician. So, I made the decision to get a day job. It was inevitable that my liver would eventually fail, and the liver disease and symptoms would take hold, leading to mental confusion and limiting the ability to walk, talk, text, and drive. There are so many procedures for each stage of liver failure, including being in and out of the hospital, where you just hang on and pray to live another day. It's a horrible disease where, every minute, you must mentally and physically fight for your life.

After many years of living with my disease, the day finally arrived; the doctors found me a liver, and I would be scheduled for transplant surgery. With the encouragement and support of my family and the staff at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville, my liver transplant took place on February 26, 2022. I continued to recover from the trauma to my body so I could heal both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, on October 31, 2022, my kidneys failed, and I had to have a kidney transplant. Those types of surgeries necessitate many trips back and forth to the hospital, causing mental and physical strain. There is so much that transplant patients, their families, and the medical staff can understand, so I count my blessings daily. While my story has a good ending, many do not make it. I realize that two people unfortunately had to pass on to give me life, and I am grateful.

After recovering from these two transplants, I've reflected on the physical trauma and emotional battle you have with surviving. The thing that kept me alive was the hope that one day, I would get to a place where I would turn the corner and go from the possibility of death to a second chance in life. That day came, I believe, because of many prayers from my family, friends, and the music community from around the world. And indeed, I am thankful for the care from the medical staff at Vanderbilt Hospital and their teams. While the medical side is critical, the emotional side is also vital in recovery. I want to thank my wife Tami, our daughter Carly, my sister Starr and family, and our many wonderful friends for being there in the dark times and giving me the strength to get through it. I've thought much about my purpose in life and am so thankful to have been given a second chance.

This has also been a time of reflection, especially on how I began my career. I was raised on bluegrass music, influenced by my father, and encouraged by my mother. Both urged me to follow my dreams. From my earliest memories, my family and relatives would have gatherings on the weekends where fiddles, banjos, and guitars were always around. That's when I first became aware of the Grand Ole Opry and heard names like Uncle Dave Macon and Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys like Jimmy Martin and the first-generation bluegrass artists. As I got older, I became aware of the Stanley Brothers and the mountain influence that comes out of coal country and how that music had such a spiritual effect on me. I became more interested in learning all about this style of music. My dad, Frog Newton, would take me to festivals in the early '60s, where you would see artists like Bill Monroe, Feron Young, The Stanley Brothers, George Jones, Jimmy Martin, and Buck Owens. This was before the term "Bluegrass Festival" was used because Bluegrass and Country acts were on the same bill. It was also before Carlton Haynie put on the first multi-day festival with multiple bluegrass acts.

I am saddened by the recent loss of my friend and mentor, Dave Freeman, the founder of Rebel Records. I remember him telling me that Bill Clifton put on a one-day festival in 1959 in Luray, Virginia, with multiple groups. To his knowledge, that may have been one of the first events with just bluegrass acts like Stanley Brothers, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, and others. Growing up, we had three festivals within a forty-mile radius of our home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, which included one at Culpeper American Legion Park in Culpeper, another at Watermelon Park in Berryville, and another at Lake Whippoorwill in Warrenton. All the music and groups coming out of my hometown of Fredericksburg and Washington D.C., which was 60 miles north, heavily influenced me. Those included acts like The Country Gentlemen, John Duffey, Porter Church, Smitty Irwin, Smiley Hobbs, Bill Emerson, Cliff Waldron, Buzz Busby, Leon Morris, Pete Kuykendall, later the Seldom Scene, and many others. I remember Bill Emerson telling me how Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine was started at his kitchen table.

I graduated high school in 1975, joined Cabin Hill, and recorded an album. That was my first experience with being in a studio. We cut that record at Track Studio in Silver Spring, Maryland, where artists like Seldom Scene, Tony Rice, Crowe, Southbound, and many others had recorded. From there, I joined a group called The Heights of Grass out of Richmond, Virginia, and performed with them from 1977 to 1978. I sang lead and tenor and played mandolin and guitar. That's where I learned that tenor singers were such an essential vocal part that greatly influenced a group's sound. We played many bluegrass festivals where I had the opportunity to meet and hear other talent, such as Marty Raybon, who was working with his family band and later was a founding member of the country group Shenandoah. I met people like George Wynn, James Bailey, and Sonny Meade and people like Charlie Moore, who lived in Richmond. What great memories.

From there, the opportunity presented itself to work with the Knoxville Grass from 1978 until 1980, replacing Paul Brewster, who left to join Sonny and Bobby Osborne. That was a steppingstone where I was with a group of young guys who grew up on traditional music but had a contemporary approach that garnered national attention. I recorded two records with Knoxville Grass, "Live at Buddy's Barbecue" and "Painted Lady," and continued to meet artists like Jerry Douglas, Bobby Hicks, and more. Buddy's Barbecue was our home base venue, and many bands performed there as they passed through. I heard all the mainstream acts like JD Crowe, Boone Creek, Bluegrass Cardinals, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver (Lou Ried, Terry Baucom, and Jimmy Haley). It was a very pivotal time in my life.

When I left Knoxville Grass, I moved back to Fredericksburg and worked at Pickers Supply store, owned by my friend Bran Dillard. I started freelancing as a musician and rejoined Heights of Grass in 1981. Donny Grubb had started the band in the mid-70s and had a lot of combinations of talent over the years. He had hired Sammy Shelor and Rickie Simpkins, and then Ronnie Simpkins and I joined at the same time. We recorded a live record titled "Heights of Grass Live at Flat Rock." Flat Rock was a local place where we played. After a year, Sammy, Rickie, Ronnie, and I decided to branch out and start our own group called The Virginia Squires (1982-1987). We recorded our first album, an independent release titled "Bluegrass With A Touch of Class," produced by Sonny Osborne. Sonny pitched us to Dave Freeman at Rebel, where we recorded four records. That was the beginning of a long friendship with Dave Freeman.

All the band members were raised on traditional music, but we liked all genres, so the term 'contemporary bluegrass" was born. New Grass Revival and Ricky Skaggs, who had crossed over to Country, influenced us. But we also enjoyed Rolling Stones, Beatles, Allman Brothers Band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and others. I have recently been reminded of how the bluegrass community comes together at times of need, and recalled Jerry Douglas calling to check on me. He then reached out to David Crosby, who had two liver transplant surgeries, so David called and encouraged me not to give up hope.

After The Virginia Squires disbanded, we all explored other opportunities. Sammy went with the Lonesome River Band, Rickie and Ronnie went with Tony Rice, and I recorded a "Live at Mr. B's with my childhood friend, Larry Stephenson, in 1988. We were joined by friends Bill Emerson, John Starling, David Parmley, The Virginia Squires, and Lou Reid. From there, I freelanced and worked with Tony Rice, and then I hooked up with my mentor, Bill Emerson. He and I recorded The Newton and Emerson "Foot In The Past and The Foot In the Future" album in 1997 on Pinecastle. I was also part of the 2000 Rebel Records' album, "Knee Deep In Bluegrass," featuring many talented artists. I also recorded a Jimmy Martin tune, "Home Run Man," with my friend Terry Baucom, who we lost this year.

In 1997, I launched a solo career and hooked up again with Dave Freeman at Rebel, who released my "Living A Dream" album. It featured my heroes like Tony Rice, Paul Williams, Mark Johnson, Virginia Squires, and Bill Emerson. John Starling, Jerry Douglas, Alan O'Bryant, Mike Aldridge, Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby, Dudley Connell, and Fred Travers. I then realized that album didn't include any women, so in 2001, I released "Follow Me Back To The Fold: A Tribute To Women In Bluegrass," where I was joined by The Whites, Gloria Belle, Gena Britt, Rhonda Vincent, Claire Lynch, Lynn Morris, Missy Raines, Salley Jones, Dale Ann Bradley, Kathy Chivola, Kim and Barb Fox, Valerie Smith, and Kristin Scott.

In 2002, I launched the Mark Newton Band and recorded "Charlie's Lawson's Still" and "No Boundaries," which led me to move to Nashville. I worked with producer Carl Jackson and, in 2006, released my "Hillbilly Hemingway" album, which received critical acclaim. Then Steve Thomas, my old Virginia mate, and I released an album on Pinecastle Records in 2006. 

Thinking again about my time with The Virginia Squires reminds me that it was undoubtedly a group that left its mark in our industry. We were just playing the music we loved. It's interesting to reflect on how far this music has come as it evolved, beginning with Bill Monroe, then Flatt and Scruggs, Sonny and Bobby Osborne, JD Crowe, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Hot Rise, Virginia Squires, Alison Krauss, and now to artists such Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings and so many more. Ultimately, it's as simple as making music, and it's up to the industry and fans to interpret it. I don't put restrictions on music. That's a debate with no right or wrong answer because music has no boundaries or limitations, in my opinion. 

During all those years, I worked and supported the International Bluegrass Music Association. I attended Leadership Bluegrass and produced the IBMA Fan Festival for two 4-year terms. I was also thrilled to be the talent buyer and event planner for the Graves Mountain Festival of Music for 30 years. Reflecting on my music career, I'm grateful for all those experiences.

So, it has been a long journey. I've thought long and hard about my life and hoped that one day I could return to what I love – music and being on stage to play and sing. That day is finally here, and I look forward to recording new music soon. I've had the good fortune to put a band together, which includes Clay Hess on vocals and guitar, John Wheat on banjo, Clay's son Brennan Hess on bass and vocals, Darrell Turnbull on vocals and mandolin, and Jim Thistle on percussion. All are talented and experienced pros. 

In closing, I'm very blessed to be able to play music. My voice is stronger, and my stamina and energy are returning. I don't know what's in my future, but I count my blessings every day. On Thursday, March 21, 2024, I’ll make my return to the stage and will perform at the historic Station Inn in Nashville, Tennessee. It will be a new beginning where I will celebrate my second chance in life. MAKING MY MARK!

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