The Tireless Spirit of Marcus Hummon

With an almost thirty-year-long music career, Marcus Hummon is a star-studded veteran of the Nashville country scene. But from the way he discusses music – the intricacies of a piece, his old favorites and newer artists to watch, and his song-writing strategies – you’d think he was a bright-eyed ingénu, unsullied by the industry’s grueling disappointments and endless demands. Driven by an artist’s soul and an open mind, Hummon has been able to stay true to himself, holding fast to his family, faith, and passions. Hummon’s winding way of tracing the path of his life felt less like an interview and more like an oral history because I got to view a series of cultural moments through his eyes. But in another sense, I learned not just about his experience, but also the human experience, the unending process of finding purpose and feeding the sparks of hope within your heart.

I’m going to be honest with y’all – this is going to be a long one. Around 4,000 words, to be exact. But I hope, while reading it, you will understand why I didn’t want to abridge this piece any further. When you sit down and talk with a man like Marcus Hummon, it is something special. He has a singular voice, honed through decades of writing, that is inspired even in conversation. That’s without even considering the strength of his perspective, charged by a moral sensibility and an artistic integrity that refuse to be eroded. While we made some edits for brevity, clarity, and relevance, we focused on preserving the purity of his thoughts. I hope that readers can experience even fraction of what I experienced while talking to him: that feeling of being led on a journey. It may be lengthy, but it is infinitely more rewarding. 

Jeneta Nwosu: Who are you?

Marcus Hummon: Well, I’m a husband and a father. And professionally, I’m probably first of all a songwriter, like a songwriter-composer. And also a recording artist, singer and multi instrumentalist. For me, what I do, it’s more than a vocation. It’s kind of an avocation. It’s, I look at the way I live as an artist as more of a calling and a way of life. 

JN: What was your start in music?

MH: When I was a little boy my father worked in the US State Department and we were living in West Africa. My [older] sister sent home a few records because we didn’t have record shops in Lagos at that time, at least in terms of American folk rock. We got this package through Sears and Roebuck if you can believe it, and they had Neil Young, Carole King, and Cat Stevens. I started to listen to our speaker and something just went off inside me like, the sort of the idea of being a troubadour in this world, and making music that was art, that it was poetry, speaking to your life, but also speaking to culture. 

JN: Why country? What about that genre is special to you?

A: That’s a very good question. Because, you know, growing up, it was never country music. My mom and dad listened to a lot of classical music, a lot of choral music and I had sort of an aesthetic education from them. But I’m also the generation that grew up with the Beatles. And we grew up with, I think, the greatest songwriter generation ever. A lot of the people I’ve already mentioned, and many others. Songwriting in the 1970s is not like songwriting today, in the sense that we look to people like Paul Simon, or Marley, or, you know, whether it was Carole King or Bill Withers – they were our cultural commentary, they were our politicians, they were our theologians. Now, I don’t know. I’m not sure who you would look to and say, I have this much trust, in the depth of their commentary on many subjects. At one point in my life, I got to meet Paul Simon. It was a party and I was going to sit in and play with him on what they call a round. I was already nervous about that. But he was one of my heroes on many levels. I said, “You provided a lot of the poetry of my youth.” And he did.

My parents had a rule, they had a rule that we all had to play an instrument. That wasn’t negotiable. But we could pick the instrument and they would buy the instrument for us. That was the deal. And the other part of the deal was you had to take one year of piano. And I now understand that that was a brilliant thing. So I took that year of piano. And then, of course, it was the 1970s, so I wanted a guitar because all my heroes were, you know, the Bob Dylan sort. And then Bob Marley was like a god where we lived in Nigeria. When I began my relationship with the guitar, it went on and off. I was a jock, and I would play ball, and I loved school, and I was interested in, you know, girls and the usual kinds of things. But periodically, I would focus obsessively on the guitar. And then I would focus away because it wasn’t my whole life. But that relationship was both one where you learn the guitar from listening to records. Then I had a couple of brief stints with professional guitar teachers, including when I was in the Philippines for a while. I learned a technique that I still use today which is Travis style picking. So I use all four – or Elizabeth Cotten style four-finger American roll. It’s the kind of guitar playing Paul Simon, James Taylor, a lot of different people did. So I use acrylics on my hands. 

It was in college that the real kind of virus kicked in. I was studying political science at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. called The Log where I got stints just playing folk songs. I could play all the James Taylor, all the Cat, and all the Joni, because I listened to and I learned it all. Then I would start slipping in songs that I was writing, that was really the beginning of it. 

JN: So why country music?

A: I ended up after graduation living in South Central LA and got a job cleaning and doing dishes where I eventually became a waiter. I did what everybody else that you know, in LA in the 1980s [was doing] –  you were either trying to get making music, acting or modeling or something like that. So everyone who had that kind of job in those days, that was our community. I would supplement my income by playing at a piano bar. I would have a tip jar, right. It’d be like, 45 on 15 off 45 on 15 off – three hour gigs. Basically doing the same thing I was always doing, playing the songs of that generation, the folk rock world, right? Not country, you know, I don’t think I played a single song that you would call country. And then I would play piano and then I would slip in a song of my own. 

One night, about a year and a half into my time in LA, I’m in my early 20s, a well dressed older guy came up to the tip jar, and he said “You’re you’re playing some of your own music, aren’t you?”

And I said, “Yeah, I am.” 

And he pulled out a card and said, “Can you get to my office on Monday?” whatever the date was. 

And of course, I said “Yes.” 

When I got in [his office], there was larger than life size posters of some of the most famous artists – mind you, pop artists. 

He sat me down and I’m just paraphrasing now what he said – he said, “you know, you’re like a thing in this world. A singer-songwriter, instrumentalist. The way you play is the way you sing, the way you sing is the way you think, circles back to the way you play. All these things are intertwined.” 

And he said, that’s a thing. And he goes, “really LA is dead. It’s like a wasteland right now.” 

And that’s exactly how I experienced it. Because they were still almost a decade from Sheryl Crow and another folk rock kind of generation.  

So he said, “You need to go to Nashville.” 

And I’m like, “Well, I don’t think of myself as country, I think of myself as roots.” 

And he was like, “Something’s about to happen in Nashville.”

I have no idea how he knew it. I really don’t because it had not happened yet. What happened in Nashville is the stuff of musicology. Garth Brooks outsold the Beatles in seven years. That’s how big it was. Just one guy, right? So much music came to Nashville. 

He said, “Look, the way you write and the way you play, it will work there. You’ll find your way. It’s literally built on people like you. That’s what’s going to happen and what is happening. Here, you’re just going to be lost.” 

He goes, “I’ll make three phone calls for you. Can you get to Nashville?” 

And I was like, “Okay.”

I didn’t even have a car, so my [older] sister gave me $700 to rent one at a place called Ugly Duckling. You go on a lot, you turn a car on. If it starts, you can pay for that car. But you have to sign a contract, which indemnifies their company so that when you leave the parking lot, if the car breaks down immediately, they’re fine.  So I picked a yellow Mazda, quit my job, packed everything up and started driving. 

And the car basically blew up just outside of Dallas. 

Yeah, it started smoking and everything. Fortunately, I sold the parts, if you will, to an auto store, and my uncle lived in DeSoto [just south of Dallas]. He had this old 1959 Saab and what few cattle he had and horses, he used to herd with that car. It didn’t go over about 45 miles [per hour] and it was the coolest car ever. Like if you saw that car, you would say, man. It looked like a prehistoric animal. But he gave it to me. And I didn’t want to take it. But he said “You have to take it, I’m not asking your opinion. I’m giving you a gift. Say thank you.” That was the car that got me to Nashville. 

And that’s how I began. That’s how I became country.

When arrived, I was immediately signed by one of those phone numbers he set up for me.  Once I was in Nashville, I wasn’t going to leave, because I realized very, very quickly that Nashville was this sort of magical place, particularly for songwriters— there was a culture here. We’re the largest professional songwriting community in the world per capita by far. Nobody’s even close. Even though I wasn’t particularly country in a sense, I was immediately taken seriously.

I only went to one of the places like such an idiot. I didn’t take all three meetings. That’s how young I was. They heard me play this one song called Beyond the River, and they thought I was gospel. They had a really powerful gospel division so they signed me on the spot for almost nothing. Then they found out I wasn’t gospel enough. But that was after they signed me, so that’s how I kind of began my career.

JN: I picked up on how there was a question of whether you were gospel or not. Then and now, what were the intersections for you between your religious and musical identities?

A: My faith is just in me. And it goes back to the way I see myself as prismatically passing everything that happens to me. It moves through the glass of music. So my faith is always poking its head up. But I didn’t feel like I was evangelical enough for what I think Christian contemporary music business actually is. At times someone would be telling you what to say, with regards to my faith, and that’s antithetical to what I think about faith. I think it’s your faith that tells you some of the ways that you need to go and what you need to say. Having said that, I know a lot of Christian artists who are really great people. It just wasn’t right for me as a business. 

But then, you write a song like “Bless the Broken Road.” I remember when I handed in that song, you know, that was only 28 years ago and it was well before Rascal Flatts recorded that song. I have a handful of songs that have been fortunate enough to do well, but that’s probably the biggest because it won the Grammy for song of the year – in country. But when I handed it in, I remember my publisher said, “well, it’s a nice song, but you know, it’s, it’s a little gospel.” And they meant that as a derogatory comment. So to understand that is to understand that in the 1990s, country was massive, and gospel was, by comparison, miniscule and perceived a lot of times as cheesy. And the reason for that comment was because it had the word God. It’s funny, because in the writing of the song, I never thought of it as a gospel. But of course, another way of looking at it is, what isn’t a gospel? Right? If you’re really writing, when are you not displaying whatever is in your heart, if you’re writing the way you ought to be writing. So it’s another big circular kind of answer. Am I a gospel writer? I definitely write songs from a faith position. 

But to me also, if you write about something very painful – I have a song called “Rosanna,” I wrote about a a woman who was kidnapped as a 13 year old to be trafficked, and eventually moved to Mexico [and endured] all kinds of abuses. In it, I’m openly critical of our own policies, but really based on a faith position, not so much on the Democrat or Republican [spectrum]. I’m all for rule of law but there is a point, when the rule of law kind of runs up against the idea [that] we have to take care of those who are most vulnerable, that is the thing. There’s no rule of law that supersedes that. The song talks about drug abuse, it talks graphically about sex. But if that’s not a song of faith, I don’t know what is. 

JN: Something that’s kind of funny, but also very appropriate, like when people introduce you, they usually precede it with Grammy Award-winning, right? So could you describe the whole process of how that happened? Both like the actual work you did and the pomp and circumstance of it?

MH:  It’s a lot of years of writing, and performing, and record deals, and things that mostly didn’t work out. Most of my career is just a series of people saying no, and then a few bright moments that turned into exceptional things. As I was being dropped by Columbia Records, they were bringing the Dixie Chicks in. Now, the Chicks had a record, which nowadays, you probably would call Americana, for a variety of reasons. I’m very roots-based – guitar, piano, banjo, mandolin, and so forth – so they already knew about me. When I was writing with them, they had a [first] record out and it sold like 10 million. The sophomore slump is this thing in the music business. Lots of groups have a great first record, and not a great second. But as it turns out, what they were about to put out was “Fly,” which, to this day, is the largest-selling female vocal album in all genres. They outsold the Supremes, that’s how big these guys were. I mean, they had to piss off half of America to stop them, and they’re still not stopped. So “Ready to Run,” got nominated for Song of the Year, Single of the Year, you know, and then of course, the album was up for Album of the Year. That was the first time I was nominated at that level at the Grammys. And that’s the pinnacle, no matter what anyone says. 

Several singles later, Rascal Flatts cut “Bless the Broken Road.” Bette Midler looked at it supposedly, Brooks and Dunn were going to cut it, but when Rascal Flatts did it I knew right away. I was like, “Oh crap, Gary sang his you-know-what off.” It’s recorded in a very open way which is not true of a lot of their records. They’re very dense. Not that song. Very beautiful. And it was massive. Suddenly, we were going back to the Grammys again, for Song of the Year for country, and it was an unbelievable experience. And we won.

The other big thing for me was the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I kept losing that too. I’d get nominated, and I would lose, get nominated, and lose. And then they have this thing where you can get nominated a couple of times, and then they take you off the nomination. My father was very, very ill [and], I remember him saying to me before he passed away “Well, you’re going to win that thing, right? You’re gonna end up in there” and I was like, “Oh, hell yeah, I am. Yes, I am. Of course, I am, Dad,” And I was thinking to myself, “I do not think this is going to happen. I feel like I’m lying to him because I know he doesn’t need to hear that I probably am not.” So when I finally got the phone call and they inducted me it was very emotional because I thought “God, my mom and dad, you know, they would have loved this.” 

Your life as a songwriter, honestly, truly is mostly just being told no. It really is. How you celebrate how you celebrate those yeses is so significant. I always tell young writers if they have a break, man, live it up. Honest to God, because it’s not like you won’t get kicked around again. You know, not long after not long after “Bless the Broken Road” did win the Grammy for Best Country song, my publisher dropped me. Yeah, I had the Song of the Year and less than a year later, they dropped me. I wasn’t making enough money for them. Like, welcome to reality!

JN: You told me you met your wife at the Vandy Div[inity] School. So what was your time there like?

MH: It was short and sweet, because I wasn’t going to go into the ministry per se. I really went there because I was hungry for diversity, and I was falling into a monolithic culture that I didn’t resemble. I just wasn’t finding people who had a similar kind of cultural worldview. I went over to the Div school, and it was like, you know, gay student union, liberation theology, black student union, all these different things, right? And I was like, this is where I want to be. It was just wide open in a really good way. 

You know, you think, well you go to div school, but your biggest memory is this woman that you met. Well, yeah. But I married her. And also it wasn’t just any woman. It was Becca Stevens. When I met her, she was 24. And she had just come from, like, Bread for the World. You know, she graduated from Sewanee. Goes right into working, speaking up on hunger issues, and then she’s here.

I took a homiletics class. And so they sent me out to this church to preach. Like it was part of my job, homiletics, to actually do a sermon. I was so used to being on stage. And I perform a lot of times, I’ll tell stories, I enjoy that dynamic. I got up there to preach. And I was amazed by how bad I was, like, I was uniquely bad as a preacher. I couldn’t. I had no rhythm. I was nervous. And I never get nervous. And I was nervous. And I was just, I just had this feeling while I was doing it. Like, you’re awful. This can’t be what you’re supposed to do. And then I remember one of the first times I ever heard Becca speak, I was like well, that’s what a preacher sounds like.

JN: You wrote a musical.

MH: Several. Many, unfortunately. When I got off the road when I was about 39, or 40, it was the last record deal. It was out of England, and it was a straight up folk rock record. It was a duo called the Raphaels and we had an album called Supernatural. The other side was Stuart Adamson, who’s a very famous rock star with a Scottish group called Big Country. He’s a great guitar player, great singer, great writer. He was friends with Bono and played Wembley like in his 20s. But he died. He actually took his own life. Right after we released our album and went on tour. By then I was in my late 30s, I had pushed being a recording artist for so many years and been on the road. There’s a song in “The Color Purple,” like “God is trying to tell you something.” That’s kind of how I felt. I just thought, what a disaster my life is. 

One of the things that kind of pulled me out of it was [when] a couple of friends set me right by telling me, “You just got to remember how grateful you need to be for all the things that have happened, and you’ve been lucky enough to have success, and that people are doing your songs.” So make independent records and don’t worry about celebrity. When Stuart died, it pushed me into a new place. I could write and hope that people would do these songs and that I would have, a livelihood, make money, and help sustain a family. But I wouldn’t even be in Nashville, wouldn’t be in this business if the artist isn’t fed. There’s just no point. I’m not going to do it. Otherwise, I’m just writing commercials. So I decided to write theater. 

I had a friend who had a little theater company, he said “You know, you write stories, songs, you know, and they’re very theatrical sometimes.” So I wrote my first play, and it was called The American Duet. And it was this piece that we did at church. We did it a few different places and suddenly I got the bug. I wrote a piece called Francis of Guernica, which was part opera – where you have a woman who’s speaking, and then she’s remembering meeting Picasso at the Sorbonne and he’s beginning to endeavor to paint Guernica. This wild, wild piece, but it goes on to sort of become my first regional show. The Tennessee Repertory Theater here did a beautiful version of it, they painted Guernica to size: 27 by 12. That was 20-some years agoit’s an obsession. 

I’m writing now. I’ve written, I think, six or seven musicals, and three operas. Well, I’m in my third opera right now. I was actually commissioned to write about the prophetic by the [Christ Church] Cathedral here. I chose Frederick Douglass and I said, “Would you mind if I wrote about an American prophet?” That was eight or nine years ago and it’s been a long journey. About three or four years into this piece that I created, I realized I had a bigger story and I decided I wanted some help. So I reached out to some New York folks, and I was able to get a guy named Charles Randolph-Wright who is a writer-director and helped create Motown the Musical. He’s just a fascinating playwright and he’s an interesting thinker. And then we connected with a pretty famous music director and pianist named Joseph Joubert, who did “Color Purple,” “Billy Elliot,” “Caroline, or Change”, “Motown,” and a variety of things. He’s one of the nicest human beings on the planet, and he’s just brilliant. Because he music directed those, but he also orchestrated. So I found myself in very good company, and we had a big production last summer, at Arena Stage right there near the Lincoln Monument. It was a huge, extremely expensive regional show and we had great reviews from the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Guardian. That’s actually all still in process. It looked like we had a contract on Broadway coming out of it, but it’s been put on hold. We still have offers in New York right now. But I don’t know. It may take a little while to get a Broadway theater. 

I am working presently on a new opera, which is going to be a collaboration between Belmont University and the Royal Welsh Academy in Cardiff, and in May, we’re going to do a reading, which means singing – the term is Sitzprobe. But, I’m in the process right now of recording, getting transcribed, this piece, and this piece is called No Man’s Land. And it’s about the Christmas truce of 1914. So it’s like in the midst of everything, once again, falling apart, I just kind of continue on. Towards what end? I don’t know.

You can find Marcus Hummon playing many Sundays with the band for St. Augustine’s Chapel, where his wife, Becca Stevens, serves as chaplain. He has three sons, all artists of some kind – including one who wrote a K-Pop single – and a series of paintings hanging in the Center for Contemplative Justice in Nashville.

Feature image by Jeneta Nwosu 

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