Country songs are at their best when they tell a compelling story, and singer/songwriter/actor Mark Collie has always been a master storyteller. His new album, Book of My Blues, is an ambitious effort derived from the graphic novel Rockabilly Hitman, Collie’s collaboration with film director Jonathan Hensleigh, well known for his work on The Punisher, Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon.
“It’s a 15-song collection representing songs that were selected for or derived from the Southern gothic tale of a rockabilly hitman,” Collie explains in a recent phone interview with Sounds Like Nashville. “That story has been walking around in my head for some time and Jonathan Hensleigh and I have been sort of taking our time developing this together.
“As I began writing these songs, they all seemed to point towards this tale of Jesse Wayne Hardin who grew up playing music in rural Tennessee,” Collie says of the fictional character. “He grew up playing in the church houses and roadhouses. He’s a singer/songwriter. Being a roadhouse performer is basically his gig, but he’s also he’s an avenger of evil. It’s a story of love, lust, lost, winning, losing, betrayal, salvation and damnation or it’s just another Tuesday in the music business.”
Though the project will eventually be a film, the principals are slowly bringing different aspects of the project to fruition. “Rockabilly Hitman will come out in sections or in phases,” Collie explains. “You can go now and look at the website and see some first look images from the book and also some first script notes. It won’t be ready until later in the year for anybody to really get their arms around what all is going on with the Rockabilly Hitman, but the record was derived from that and the record is ready to go. So if you want to learn about this story, you can follow along in song.”
The album released June 4 via BFD/Audium Nashville/Orchard in association with Harvest Entertainment, Creator Label Co., and Collie Kuhl Music. Hensleigh, who directed Liam Neeson’s new film Ice Road, has already directed videos for several of the album’s key tracks, including “The Son of a Gun,” written by Collie and Hensleigh; “Born Ready,” by Collie, Kenny Greenberg and Gary Nicholson; “Sinking Sand,” by Collie, Greenberg and Chad Cromwell and the title track, “Book of My Blues,” which Collie co-wrote with friend Billy Bob Thornton.
“Mark Collie is back,” Thornton says in a statement. “Better than ever, if that’s possible. What a record he’s made for us, both musically and lyrically. Classic Collie. I’m proud to be just a small part of it. We started writing ‘Book of My Blues’ somewhere, and finished it somewhere else.”
“Billy and I go back for some time as friends and collaborators,” Collie says of the acclaimed actor/songwriter/musician. “When I was working through ‘Book of My Blues,’ I called Bill and said, ‘Here’s where I’m going with this I need you to tell me, give me your thoughts.’ He jumped right in and created what I feel like is really a great anchor for the album and a great anchor for the story. He’s a storyteller and one of my favorite people and one who I trust to collaborate with. And he’s actually singing on the record with me on ‘Book of My Blues.’”
Hensleigh also filmed a video for “Wings of your Love” that features Collie’s lovely wife Tammy. “Jonathan talked Tammy into appearing in the video,” Collie shares. “And that video is more personal to me because that song represents what I’ve come to know about love after meeting Tammy. We’ve been married 12 years, been together for 13. When I wrote that song just prior to meeting her I was sort of writing how I dreamed about how love could be and what I prayed love could be, but I really didn’t know what love was until I met Tammy. Now I know what love is and her name is Tammy.”
Brought to life by Collie’s powerful, distinctive voice, the songs on Book of My Blues range from the tender emotion of “Wings of Your Love” to the edgy “Sinking Sand,” which describes a dangerous encounter with a femme fatale that includes the chilling lines, “She got me really drunk/I woke up in the trunk/I heard a bubbling sound as the car went down.”
“It’s part of the story of the Rockabilly Hitman and it’s part of the story of life,” says Collie, who has written songs recorded by Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, George Jones, Martina McBride, Alabama and others. “It’s part of the story of betrayal and trust and the kind of trouble a man might find himself in if he makes the wrong choices at the crossroads of life.
“Jonathan helped develop this story as a tall tale and these songs were born out of that,” says Collie, who admits this album feels like an homage to some of his musical heroes. “I loved Johnny Cash and the way he could take me anywhere, put me on a train, take me home, take me far away from home. My favorite albums as a kid were Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Lullabys, Legends and Lies by Bobby Bare. Those were my heroes. I wanted to make a record for my heroes, and I think this is it.”
Of the 15 songs, there are 12 are originals and the three covers that round out the collection also honor his heroes. Collie includes his take on the Carl Perkins penned “Matchbox” as well as “Hey Boba Lou,” written by Ronnie Hawkins, Jacqueline McGill and Robbie Robertson. The album closes with “Night Train to Memphis,” written by Owen Bradley, Marvin Hughes and Beasley Smith.
“The first time I strummed an electric guitar, I was trying to play Carl Perkins and so it all began with Carl Perkins with me,” he says. “I was blessed to get to know Carl a little and share a stage or two with him. He encouraged me to get my first pair of blue suede boots. I’ve actually got a picture of me and him. I’m sporting my blue suedes with him at the Ryman Auditorium. That’s one of my favorite photographs. So, I wanted to pay tribute to Carl. Without Carl, there wouldn’t have been rockabilly. There wouldn’t have been rock and roll. There may have been something, but it wouldn’t be what we have today and so that’s my way of saying thank you to the original hip cat.”
In paying tribute to Hawkins on “Hey Boba Lou,” Collie says he always viewed the song as a cross between Ricky Nelson and Conway Twitty. “It’s a tale,” he says. “It’s like what I was trying to do with my rockabilly roadhouse storytelling. I thought let’s tip that hat to the Band and to Ronnie Hawkins, so we took a shot at ‘Hey Boba Lou.’”
In recording “Night Train to Memphis,” Collie tapped into his piano playing youth. “I started out playing piano as a kid, playing in church first, church house on Sunday and then roadhouse on Saturday nights. I went to the first school of Jimmy Swaggart piano so I knew most of the [Jerry Lee] Lewis chops,” he says. “I felt like that song was a great place to put a bookmark in the telling of the Book of My Blues, sort of book one, and so I sat down at the piano and it just kind of came out like that. Kenny [Greenberg] and Chad [Cromwell] got it and said, ‘That’s it! That’s the performance!’ It’s kind of a cross between Charlie Rich and Jimmy Swaggart, but it’s me, I guess.”
The day the album released, Hensleigh joined Collie at the Grand Ole Opry, where he made his first live performance since the pandemic. With Hensleigh on violin, they performed “The Son of a Gun,” a song the two friends penned for Book of My Blues. “Our fathers were veterans of the second WW, survivors and wounded warriors,” Collie says. “We have discussed often what that was like growing up in a home with an American hero who was struggling with what we now know is PTSD and all the things that have changed in our lives as a result of that and how much we owe them and we owe all of our veterans and all of the men and women who pick up a firearm every day to make sure that we can be free and live in our wonderful nation.
“Also the song fits our character and story so well,” he continues. “Jonathan had the title. We sat down in a hotel room in Vegas and he just started playing fiddle and violin. I started playing and the song just began to come out. I’m very proud of it. We get a lot of great response, and we dedicated the video to our fathers.”
Collie looks forward to hitting the road this summer and sharing these songs. “I felt like if I’m going to make another record, I should make one that I feel most proud of,” he says. “I was in a place where I felt like I’m just going to tell these stories as honestly and as accurately as possible. I want to paint a bigger picture on a greater canvas.”
He hopes his heroes would be proud. “It’s not going to be anything close to what Cash did or what Bobby Bare or Willie did, but this is my way to thank them for inspiring me to believe that there were no boundaries when it comes to music, music you make, songs you write and songs you choose to sing. I’m just glad that I can finally get to a place in my career where I can make that record honestly and openly.”