Singer and songwriter Mark Huff had been plying his craft for many years when he received a most unexpected and unusual email.
“About 10 years ago,” he recalls, “I got this email that said, ‘My name is Mark Huff. I’m a singer, and I live in San Diego. I’m in a band called 5150; we’re a Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen tribute band. I was wondering if you’d like to sell your domain name, markhuff.com.’ I Googled a couple of videos of him and I thought, ‘Really?’I was feeling like a smart ass that day, so I wrote him back and said I’d sell it to him for $20,000. He wrote back all sad, and I replied to say I was just joking and that I wished him all the best.
“Fast forward a decade,” Huff continues, “and I’m at my folks’ house in Las Vegas, and there’s this documentary on TV about the ’80s metal band Quiet Riot. The band had reunited. This other Mark Huff had become the lead singer, and then he got fired. The documentary was just brutal. Every time the name Mark Huff came up and the other band members were bitching about him, I felt like drinking. Later, I was telling my manager this story and he said, ‘Man, you’re the real Mark Huff,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right!’ ”
Although that moment of comic and unwanted notoriety through association might have seemed like an identity crisis, the real Mark Huff had been making his presence known to the world for quite some time — through live performances, a series of critically acclaimed albums, and as a fixture of the Nashville music scene. His latest statement of self, the EP Down River, features six examples of Huff’s songwriting performed with some of Music City’s finest musicians. But the road to Huff’s self-actualization began 1,800 miles away, on the brightly lit streets of Vegas.
“I was born in Miami,” Huff says, “but we moved to Las Vegas when I was 1 month old, so that’s where I grew up. My dad was a golf pro, and he gave lessons to all the celebrities. When we were teenagers, my brother and I would caddy for Bob Hope, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. We’d get a hundred bucks just for driving their golf carts around for an hour or so.”
Although Huff grew up in close proximity to Vegas pop music royalty, when it came to his own music, he was a rock & roller. In the early ’80s, he began building his musical reputation in the alternative rock bands Smart Bomb and Big Wow and made his solo debut with the album Happy Judgement Day in 1989.
Over the next 10 years, he built a following in the Las Vegas scene, and his 1999 album, Skeleton Faith, was chosen as “Best Album” in the annual Las Vegas City Life music poll. He made the jump from the smaller Vegas clubs to opening for such artists as Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Al Green, and Chris Isaak and garnering regular gigs at the House of Blues and the Hard Rock Hotel. With steady bookings and a good income, some musicians might have been satisfied, but Huff knew something was missing.
“I was signed to Bug Music’s Los Angeles office,” Huff recalls. “The guy that signed me, Eddie Gomez, told me I should check out Nashville since I was doing the whole rootsy singer-songwriter thing. First time I came out was in 1995; a friend of mine in Vegas had hooked me up with (singer-songwriter) Bill Lloyd, who was like the ‘mayor of Nashville.’ We had a three-hour breakfast one morning, and Bill introduced me to several people around town. I started coming back and forth, and every time I came to town, Bill would introduce me to more people.
“In September 2002, I was in Nashville with my band, and the next day while we were flying back to Vegas, I decided I was going to move. Two nights later, I told the band, and anybody was welcome to come with me. Everybody thought I was crazy except our guitar player who was from Austin. He said, ‘I hate to see you go, but it will be the best thing for you.’ ”
Recently divorced and with no firm prospects in Nashville, Huff sold his house, filled a U-Haul trailer with his guitars and amps, corralled his dogs into his van, and hit the road to Nashville. Before he reached the city limits, he had a gig, thanks to the network of friends he had built.
“I was about three hours away from Nashville when I called Daniel Tashian to let him know I was on the way,” Huff says. “He asked me if I wanted to play a songwriters showcase at 12th & Porter that night and I said, ‘Sure.’ When I got to town, I unloaded all my stuff into a weekly motel in Bellevue, and I had to kennel my dogs because they couldn’t stay at the motel. Even though I had a gig that night, I was feeling pretty down and asking myself, ‘What did I just do?’ I called Bill Lloyd, and he said to meet him at the Exit/In after my gig. He took me around and introduced me to more people, including Allison Moorer. Three months later, I was on tour with Allison, opening for her.” Huff soon found that Nashville’s community of musicians wasn’t just a path to good live gigs, but also made a big difference in the studio.
“The first album I cut in Nashville, Gravity , was recorded at Bucky Baxter’s studio with Bucky, Dan Baird, and Brad Pemberton,” he says. “I had been a fan of Dan Baird, but I had never met him before. Right then, I realized that Nashville is the greatest place in the world because of the deep well of talent here. You have these great musicians who have played with so many people, and they’re all approachable. They’ll play on your records and really give you their best, whether you’re a star or just starting out.”
That well of talent has proved especially rich for Huff. He returned to it for his 2010 album, Feels Like California, which he cut with producer Adam Landry at Landry’s Playground Sound Studio, with Fred Eltringham on drums, James Haggerty on bass, and Stuart Mathis on guitar. Working with a changing cast of top players has been a perfect match for his impressionistic, image-driven style of songwriting.
“I look at my songs in terms of colors and shapes, and the people you pick to work with is like an artist picking different colors for his canvas,” Huff says. “When I cut a record, I pretty much have the concept for it in mind, but not the details. I like to hire musicians for what I know they can do, rather than hiring them to play a specific thing.”
For his newest release, Down River, Huff returned to the Nashville well for another cool, clear dipper of inspiration, working with producer Mark Robinson and another first class lineup of Music City stalwarts that included Audley Freed on guitar, Paul Griffith on drums, Jen Gunderman on keyboards, Mike Vargo on bass, and Lisa Oliver-Gray on backing vocals.
“The record has a special meaning for me because it came together so fast” Huff says. “Mark Robinson approached me about recording, but we could only get Paul Griffith for a day. About 10 days before the recording date, I bore down and wrote all the songs.”
Down River moves through six image-filled compositions, creating sonic montages of words, emotions, and music that capture the passion of a group of ace musicians playing in the moment. It’s the kind of record based on one artist’s vision, but could only be made with the right group of collaborators.
“We recorded the songs in the sequence I wanted them on the record so they would have the right feel to me,” Huff says. “It was very spontaneous. We only took two or three passes at each song, and no two of them were ever the same. I didn’t want to play them the way I wrote them, exactly. I wanted the band to play by instinct. Sometimes, you can catch real magic that way.”
Having the ability and resources to capture magic is what Huff found when he moved to Nashville. And ironically, finding the real Mark Huff was a not a process of self-reflection, but rather a discovery of what he could achieve through camaraderie and collaboration. It’s an essence that isn’t found in a website name or in repeated mentions on cable channel documentaries, but can be found in the nightclubs and studios of Music City.
“I moved to Nashville because I wanted to be an artist, not just a musician,” Huff says. “I couldn’t really be one in Vegas. I had no visions of grandeur about becoming famous or rich. I came to grow as an artist, and being around all the great players and songwriters made me want to be better than I was.”