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On the Mountain with Mark Bishop

After listening and reviewing Mark Bishop’s newest project, “Some Distant Mountain”, a wonderful musical tribute to our gospel music roots, I reached out to him to ask a few questions.  Mark was gracious enough to take the time from his busy schedule to answer them.  

DA    Having just reviewed your latest project, I want to ask, how did you come up with the inspiration for Some Distant Mountain?

Mark:   Growing up here in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I’ve been around mountain music all of my life. I love the history of it and hearing echoes of past generations in some songs. I started talking to Greg Bentley and Roger Talley (from Crossroads Music) on different occasions about the old music. One thing led to another and suddenly I had the green light to record the album that we had been talking about. The direction that fascinated me the most was not to revisit bluegrass music, or even just mountain music, but to zero in on a certain sound when the old Celtic and European music made its way across the oceans and started to migrate through the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. It gave us the chance to make some very interesting music that is both familiar and new at the same time.

DA  —     Continuing about your project, with all the thousands of songs you could choose, how did choose the songs for the album.

Mark:    First I had to pitch the idea to my co-producers Jeff Collins and Mark Fain. After I had that “brain-trust” where all of us knew what we were going for, it got easier. I already had a great pool of songs to choose from that I had been collecting. The album is really fun to listen to. It is not an academic accounting of old music. We were just going for a certain feeling and sound. There are some very old songs and there are also some new songs that sound old. There are some songs that lean more “mountain” and there are others that lean more “Celtic”. Some are a mix of both. The old hymns really resonate in this style. We sang “Shall We Gather at the River” with an old clawhammer banjo and that song takes me back to when I was baptized in a cold mountain creek here in the hills of Kentucky.

DA  —     I really liked the cover that you used.  Looked like you were walking along a Scottish hillside.  Where was it photographed?

Mark:    We took the pictures for the album just outside of Asheville, NC not too far from where we actually recorded the album. I think what you are seeing on the cover is a place called Black Balsam Knob in the Pisgah National Forest. On the inside of the CD we have some pictures that show the mountain life from over a hundred years ago. I love the art design on this album. When you open the CD jacket up, you know what it’s going to sound like just by the design.

DA —     Switching gears,  is it difficult to be a soloist today?

Mark:   That question comes with a few assumptions about Southern Gospel music, the main one being “Southern Gospel is about singing in a group”. That is probably true to a degree. But as it is in all aspects of life, everything has its pros and cons. I sang with my family in a band, living on a bus four days a week for most of seventeen years. We had tremendous success, but I gotta tell you… that was hard. We all missed a lot of things with our wives and children back home. God greatly blessed our ministry (The Bishops), but we sacrificed a lot too. I will say that chapter of my life was rewarding and demanding at the same time. Where I am now as a soloist feels to me like I am where God wants me for this chapter of my life.  I can write and sing whatever I feel the Lord leading me to write and sing. I can travel when I want. Being a soloist is different for sure, but it’s no better or worse.

DA —    Who has been the greatest influence for you as a singer?

Mark:    I guess all of us are the product of our influences regardless of what we do. You can be a singer, a chef, a teacher, whatever, and your influences don’t necessarily have to be another singer, chef, or teacher. I feel like my own dad has been the greatest influence on the kind of person that I would like to be. He is the most compassionate person I know. His default position is to trust and love people. It really does come from God. He’s patient. He’s kind to a fault. Also, my wife Carolyn is a lot like that too. She is constantly doing for others and thinking of others beyond her own needs. I admire her more every day. You may be thinking, “what does that have to do with musical influences?” Well… I am also the writer of my music and the traits that I admire are the aspirations that I strive for in my lyrics. It’s all connected I’m telling you. As far as singers, I admire so many… I admire those people who go out there and sound like themselves.

DA —    If you could sing a duet with anyone living or dead in Southern Gospel, who would it be and why?

Mark:  Oh wow… that is a tough one. I’ve been able to sing a few duets that were fun. I’ve recorded some cool stuff with my friend Lauren Talley. Sang a duet with Chris Freeman a couple years back. Got to finally record something with my long-time friend Sonya Isaacs-Yeary on the new album. And was blown away by the duets on this album with Ally Griggs of Endless Highway. All of those have been great. I can’t say that I have ever looked backwards and said, “wow… wish I sang with so-and-so”. I will tell you that there are a ton of people in “our music” that I have admired. I am a huge fan of The Rambos and their music. I am a huge Hinsons fan and I loved The Paynes throughout the 1980’s. One of my all-time favorite groups was a quartet called The Swanee River Boys.  I LOVE their sound and cadence. I guess that would have been a dream come true, to get to sing with them somewhere. 

DA —    I always ask this question of those I interview, with all the people you touch with your singing, was there ever a time when you said, “This is the reason I do what I do?

Mark:  I think that happens just about every week. I am glad that as the songwriter of these songs, I am also able to see firsthand how they are received in concert. One of the great things about Southern Gospel music artists is the accessibility to the audience. Every concert is also a “meet-and-greet”. And because of that, we get to hear the stories of how God has used a song in a special way. Scarcely a week goes by that someone doesn’t come up and say, “this song got me through a tough time when my husband died, or we lost our child, or when I was going through my divorce”, or any number of life circumstances. God uses Gospel Music like a medicine I believe. I am reminded of it constantly.

DA —    I was a teacher and in every school I taught, we had a mission statement that helped guide us, in your ministry what Bible verse would you use as your guiding mission statement?

Mark:  I can’t say that there has been one Bible verse that serves as a mission statement for this music ministry. Like you, I turn the pages of the Bible and glean something different every time. My spiritual journey is always in motion and the scriptures come to life for me in different ways as each new chapter of my life presents itself. I guess that’s why they call the Bible “The Living Word”. Not only is it the heart of God, it lives and breathes with us throughout the chapters of our lives. I guess if there is a verse that seems to pop up in my mind often, it would be Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”. Ha! I feel like I have to think about that verse just about everyday!

DA   —     I see where you will be in North Carolina later this month and your father will be joining you.  Do you have many opportunities to sing with him and how is doing in retirement?

Mark:  I got dad back in the studio a couple of years back and we recorded a song together. He just picked up right where he had left off about seventeen years earlier. Yes, if I’m singing around here, I get him up on stage and we sing a few things together. He’s still got it. He has never really retired. He pastors a little country church now. That keeps him pretty busy.

DA  —   For a little lightheartedness, is there that one time when things just didn’t go right during a concert that is very memorable.

Mark:   Oh wow… we all have road stories. There are hundreds probably. Some I will never be able to tell! You don’t want to embarrass anybody… I guess I could tell you about the night we sang Lazarus Come Forth to an auditorium full of people and Lazarus actually came forth. The guy got up on stage with us and said, ‘I am He”.  My dad said, “He who?”  And the guy said “I am Lazarus.

DA —    What plans do you have the remainder of the year?

Mark:  Even though the new album just came out, I am already writing and working on the next one. It’s kind of weird. By the time we finish an album and it comes out, my head and heart has moved on to the next project. Don’t get me wrong… I am really enjoying this new album and I’m having a blast performing the songs live in the concerts, but the creative side of me has already begun to chase some other rabbit down a different trail. It just comes with the territory I think. As far as the end of the year, I will enjoy getting together with family that I don’t get to see as often. I’ll enjoy my grandkids for sure. I’ll get to go to my dad’s church a little more. You know… the REALLY important stuff.

I would like to thank Mark Bishop for taking the time of his busy schedule to do this interview.     

Dave Angle
Staff Writer/Reviewer