Over the past few years, Mark Wright, Executive Vice President of A&R for Sony Music Nashville, has become a member of the small, bold élite of Nashville music creators. His richly felt and arranged hit productions -- for artists as diverse as Lee Ann Womack and Brooks & Dunn, Gretchen Wilson and Gary Allan have rendered it impossible for people to think of successful cutting-edge country music without considering his name. Because he refuses to consign musical innovation, stylistic progress, and, not least, plain old artistic passion to the boutique sidelines of the industry, Wright has assumed his place, at 44, among Nashville’s handful of chief studio architects. His work represents broad-appeal country music not as a place of stultifying rules and conventions, but a land of genuine excitement. He seeks freshness right in the middle of the mainstream. Or, as Wright himself says, “It doesn’t do any good to be hip if nobody hears it.”
Music has always consumed Wright. As a boy he sang in the choir his father, a Baptist Minister of Music, directed in Wright’s native Fayetteville, Arkansas. As a Belmont University student he worked as an assistant to various publishers and producers, successfully finding his way -- “I wanted a key to the studio,” Wright recalls, into Nashville’s professional recording arena, which fascinated him. By the late-‘70s and early -’80s, Wright had already become a successful songwriter; today, his credits in that realm range from compositions recorded by Amy Grant and Reba McEntire to Kenny Rogers and George Strait. In 1994, Wright was appointed Senior Vice President of Decca Records, MCA Nashville’s now-dissolved sister label; five years earlier, he had worked as an A&R talent manager for RCA Records, a tour which ended with his co-production of the highly acclaimed 1989 multi-platinum debut of Clint Black. Just before joining Decca, Wright’s production of Mark Chesnutt helped spawn another significant platinum career; a little later, his work with Lee Ann Womack ultimately yielded a new superstar.
Wright’s tremendous enthusiasm for music itself, he says, motivated in the early-‘90s his return to full-time record company life. “When I was an independent, I ended up doing some records because I needed to make a living,” he explains. “But then I found myself being miserable. I found myself making music that I really didn’t believe in. I decided to go back to work for a record company so I could pick and choose what music I turned my attentions to. This has made me a much happier person. I really want to be passionate about every project. If I can’t, I just don’t think I can be any good at it. I need to be musically intrigued, musically satisfied.”
Before assuming his current position as Sony Nashville’s creative executive in June of 2003 Wright served as Executive Vice President of A&R for MCA Records/Nashville; he possesses, clearly, the business acumen and awareness requisite for any high-level executive. Yet that remains not his central focus. “My contribution, the essence of what I do, is to continue to ensure that Sony Music Nashville be driven by music,” Wright says. Although he may have moved up in the ranks, what he hears will continue to function, for Wright, as the primary evidence. “I’m not going to begin to base my decisions on reading spread sheets,” he says. “ I didn’t go to the Wharton Business School. I base my decisions on music.”
“Getting involved with artists and watching them progress,” says Wright, an enthusiastic husband and father of four, all of whom “sing like birds,” he claims, is like “having a bunch of children and watching them go off to school, getting their first driver’s licenses. It’s all one to me; the whole thing, from signing to recording to going to radio to going to retail; it’s all one big passionate thing to me. I’m a sports fan, too, so I guess you could say that I love to see the ball carried over the goal line. And if you just hand in a record, you don’t get to see that all the time. I like being a coach. But I also like being in the huddle.”
But for Mark Wright, an arranger who loves to experiment with instruments and sounds and melodies, and push them well beyond the expected, the conversation always returns to the music itself. “Artists have the key to the door,” he says. “I think it’s their responsibility to help us kick in a few more of them, provided that musically it fits their personas. Part of my place is to push that along with some of them-not to change them. Just to challenge them.”
*For more information on Mark Wright contact Joe Fisher at UMPG Nashville (615) 340-5400.