Mark Edgar Stuart was 36 years old when he first felt the pains in his chest.
“They were bad,” he says, now just-turned 39. “I went to a doctor and they told me it was heartburn and they gave me some medicine. But I knew that wasn’t it. We know our own bodies.”
Soon after, Stuart realized the pains coincided with alcohol consumption. So he went back to the doctor.
“They said, ‘Oh, you’re allergic to alcohol, just quit drinking,’” Stuart remembers. “They gave me a cortisone shot in the ass and I quit drinking for six months. I wasn’t much of a drinker anyway.”
Then he noticed a visible bulge where the pain was.
“I thought, hell no, that’s not heartburn. That’s not an allergy.”
Stuart went back, this time to a minor medical center. They called for a scan and told him to go to the West Clinic the first thing the next morning.
“I didn’t know what the West Clinic was,” Stuart says. “I went home and told my wife what they said and she burst out crying. She knew what the West Clinic was.”
Stuart was diagnosed with lymphoma, a form of cancer.
“It was second stage,” Stuart says. “I started chemo and the whole bit. It was a wild few months that kind of changed everything.”
Stuart, an ace bass player who’s played in or with local acts such as the Pawtuckets, Alvin Youngblood Hart, and currently John Paul Keith & the One Four Fives, recounts this episode on “Things Ain’t Fine,” the second song on his unlikely debut album, Blues for Lou.
“I felt a bump in my chest that I knew wasn’t right,” he sings to open the song, then comes home with a diagnosis:
She never worried if I came home a little late She’d fix me a plate and she’d wait there Hopin’ soon that I’d walk in To squeeze her hand and tell her Everything is fine When things ain’t fine We laugh for a while But things ain’t fine
Later he sings about, briefly, shielding his mother from the news: “Nothing hurt quite as bad/As calling mother up and have to tell her/Everything is fine/When things ain’t fine.”
“You spend more energy convincing everyone else that you’re okay,” Stuart says. “I was exhausted from saying ‘I’m fine.’ But Mom — that was the hardest phone call to make.”
Stuart’s mom had plenty to worry about at the time. Stuart’s dad was sick and Stuart’s older brother had found a tumor in his bladder. “He was going through the whole cancer thing too,” Stuart says.
Stuart and his brother were lucky, surviving their bouts with cancer, but their father — the “Lou” of Blues For Lou — took a turn for the worse.
“I was kinda getting over it in October 2010,” Stuart says. “I came home for Christmas, still a little bit bald-headed. He died that February. We knew it was coming.”
Despite being a local music fixture since joining the Pawtuckets in the late ’90s, Stuart had never written his own songs. He says he never even thought about it until his cancer diagnosis. Sitting at home, trying to get better, he started playing around with a guitar.
“I was so not the sensitive singer-songwriter. I made fun of those dudes,” Stuart says. “Now they get to make fun of me.”
The first song he wrote is “Arkansas Is Nice,” a deceptively simple tribute to his home state: “Late at night or if the morning’s early/We hear songs on my radio/None say Arkansas is nice/But they don’t know.” His home-recorded demo of the song ended up on Blues for Lou.
But after Stuart’s father died, his writing sharpened and intensified.
“When my dad died, I wanted to make this tribute to him. I was just going to do it myself. Print up 50 CDs, do all the artwork, and give them to family and friends,” Stuart says. He let a few trusted friends hear his home demos, and they started getting the word out. Local singer Jimmy Davis asked Stuart to open one of his shows — Stuart had never performed as a solo performer — and producer Jeff Powell told Stuart he needed to make a real record.
“I had 20 songs about my dad, but I didn’t want the whole record to be doom and gloom. I really struggled with that,” Stuart says. “I wanted some upbeat stuff.”
What Stuart ended up with is special — a 12-song beaut of a debut whose conversational, folk-country style lands somewhere between John Prine and Roger Miller. It’s funny. It’s touching. It’s spirited. It’s personal without ever being cloying. And it gives a rich, full portrait of a complicated period in one person’s life.
“Things Ain’t Fine” is the only song that references Stuart’s cancer scare, and then only glancingly. His father’s death — as the title suggests — is more central, driving five of the album’s 12 titles. Most prominent of these are the opening “Remote Control,” which relays a very specific childhood memory, and the unnervingly intimate farewell “Tears in Bubba’s Eyes,” which was also included, at Powell’s insistence, in its home demo form.
“That was recorded the week after I buried my pop,” Stuart says. “My mom had him buried in Pine Bluff, but my brother wanted to get half his ashes and bury them in his family cemetery, where he always wanted to be buried. We didn’t even know if this place still existed. It was called Wood’s Chapel, in Goobertown, up past Jonesboro.”
It was a little cemetery “way back in the woods,” Stuart says. “It was all grown up, and sure enough every tombstone in there was a Stuart. We looked for his mother and there she was. And we just did it. Started digging a hole. It started raining on us. Not to be morbid, but there was something neat about it. It was closure.”
Stuart commemorates this by naming his album-closing instrumental “Goobertown.” It’s jaunty and kazoo-driven. He didn’t want to end the album on a down note.
But Blues for Lou also has great marriage songs (“Wrapped Up in Nothing New”), including a tribute to his mother (“Jacquelyn”) that doubles as a great marriage song. It gets lusty (“Quarterin’ Time”), and rowdy (“Third D.U.I.,” the only non-autobiographical song on the album, though Stuart says it was inspired by someone he knows). He gets particularly sharp help from longtime rhythm section partner John Argroves (credit: “drums, percussion & friend”) and Powell, with Al Gamble adding keys and Kait Lawson background vocals on a few tracks.
It sounds like the album of a lifetime, but Stuart is eager to follow it up.
“I’m not much of a performer,” he says. “I can barely remember the damn lyrics, thanks to radiation, I guess. I’m not much to look at. I don’t dance around. I like doing it, I’m just still not very comfortable. But I want to do it.”