By Shannon Seaton
Mark Edgar Stuart is never the type to shy from the difficult subjects.
These are trying times in more ways than one. Musicians find themselves in a moment of improvisation as Covid-19 keeps people inside their homes and away from their favorite venues. Stuart, with so much to talk about and explore, released his album Folk Beef in July of this year. With him are musicians familiar to the Memphis scene, including Art Edmaiston, Jana Misner, John Whittemore and Krista Wroten.
Folk Beef by Mark Edgar Stuart
Writing and releasing an album during quarantine must certainly have its hurdles, but Stuart has pulled off something that is both lighthearted and insightful. Folk Beef tackles our country’s current political and moral climates with a jovial and intuitive tone.
Stuart has a way with storytelling that makes you feel like you are sitting on a front porch in Arkansas shelling peas and chatting with your uncle or your cousin. He makes you feel both the magic of the musical styles adapted from W.C. Handy to B.B. King, and the weight and responsibility that our current times carry. His musical style mixes Folk, Blues and Rock and Roll in an unconventional way that feels like home. His work is almost familial; it brings comfort and allows the listener to observe his viewpoint, while savoring his funky flair.
The track “Happy at Home” comes in with a funky bass line and gives listeners a peek into the softer side of quarantine life. He expresses the beauty in the small seemingly meaningless parts of life that have become essential for many of us. Artists too are at home, and reflecting and innovating the way we hear and experience music. Stuart himself has been livestreaming shows from his living room, and “Happy at Home” walks in refreshing and sweet. It reminds us that, even though things are tough, home is good. Stuart melds his folk style with traditional delta blues in this track, and it is a feelgood musical moment when we all need one.
“Color Wheel” is a track that recognizes the construct of race as something that applies to and affects each of us, whether we are aware of it or not. Stuart was raised in Pine Bluff Arkansas, a place and life that are often themes of his music. He delves deep into how being raised in the rural south made him blind to the effects of racism, but not impervious to them. Here Stuart seems to suggest that we all need to wake up, a reminder that knowledge is powerful. The track is a catchy little tune with country undertones and strong horns that have a New Orleans jazz ambiance, and Stuart manages to tackle an issue at the forefront of our minds while bringing nostalgia to the table.
The double entendre in the title of Folk Beef is made apparent in “99 Percentile Blues”:
This land is my land not your land
And your land is my land too...
From NYC to the KGB,
All the way down to El Paso,
Don't forget China, ain't nothing finer
Than to grab em by the pussy willow
~"99 Percentile Blues"
Like many of us, Stuart is weary, and he has a plenty of issues to sing about. We have learned and heard throughout history that personal, moral conflict have the makings of inspiring music and art. Stuart’s recognition that the best way to bring up these griefs is the way Memphis Musicians have been for decades: You sing the blues.
Memphis, being the blues Mecca that it is, appears to have inspired Stuart for this album especially. It is hard not to find inspiration in the genre. The presence of the blues in the historical roots of our city abound, it is both a way to celebrate and to grieve. Stuart understands and honors this concept, his captivating melodies, quirky rhythms and perceptive lyrics make Folk Beef both powerful and surprising.
This is Shannon Seaton’s first article for StoryBoard’s SoundBoard. Shannon has a Master’s Degree in Literature, grew up in a very small town in rural Tennessee, moved to Memphis at 18 and didn’t look back. “I fell madly in love with the grit and soul of this city.”