Mark Hanson has returned to the Colorado music scene with an avalanche of new creative energy. After 25 years of innovating as a multi-instrumentalist, a session musician and a member of some of the more inventive bands in the independent music universe, Hanson assembled his first solo project Beater Guitar. It is an emotive and genuine late bloom of an album for an underrepresented songwriter with a singular voice. At first listen, it feels like discovering someone’s labor of love laid down years ago and then covered with dust. It’s the location of a sculpture garden in the woods you overheard in conversation at the diner that only the locals know about. It’s the awesome piece of handmade furniture at the thrift store brought in by a nephew clearing out the estate of an uncle he didn’t understand.
Think about finding Tim Buckley’s music after he never made it big and died young. Then, his son, who despised him and barely knew him, unwillingly resurrected his name to a new generation. But all you have to do is listen for a few moments to appreciate how much treasure is packed in every Tim Buckley song. And you say, “Why doesn’t everybody know about this guy?”
Musically, there is a bit of Buckley in Hanson’s voice and earnest musicality. Other comparisons would be a less urbane Beck or updated Harry Nilsson. “Willie Nelson, Tom Petty,” responded Hanson when asked about the two musicians he would most like to hear sing one of the tracks off this album.
Hanson’s music is similarly hard to pigeonhole culturally because it is personal music. It emerges from years of his life rather than being assembled from the prevailing style. It speaks to his process. The songs of the album were literally the best of years of music he assembled at home for himself while playing in bands and working in restaurants and hospitals to pay the bills. His career so far has been spent keeping his own musical voice in the living room while he melded with group after group in the music business, lending support to the creative visions of others.
Beater Guitar exposes us to the “basement tapes” of a mature musician and writer for the first time. Curated and arranged for prime-time by Grammy-nominated producer Tim Stroh, these songs have an impact that a freshman solo album rarely contains. The last person to acknowledge that he was overdue to share these songs with the world was Mark Hanson, but luckily, they are ready for us to find. Stroh and the session players on his album were all excited to bring these songs together and give them the boost they deserve. “With this album, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. My name is the only name that hasn’t been heard of,” said Hanson.
Hanson’s credit as a sought-after stage musician has been built from his ability to pick up saxophone, guitar, drums or vocals with consistent spontaneity and style. Hanson’s musical diversity and freshness has been highlighted nationally and internationally with tours in his early days with Chicago funk band Uptighty and producer/DJ Pete Moss. He came up under the mentorship of Chicago producer Derrick “Suede” Stout of Darwin Records, who introduced him to an array of characters from the time Hanson was in high school and was invited to professional studio sessions.
Born in Boulder, Colo., Hanson moved to Texas as a young kid and eventually ran into some misdemeanors that are typical of creative youngsters without direction. His father recognized early that music would be the cohesive force in Hanson’s life, and they moved him to Chicago, which opened a whole new world. Hanson’s parents encouraged him with percussion and the saxophone. By the time he was 14, Hanson was touring with a high-school jazz combo and entering competitions all over the country.
These excursions were formative. Hanson describes being “ripped” for playing “like a white boy” by a judge in competition in New Orleans while emulating heroes like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, whom he saw perform with his mother at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. Criticism like this set the stubborn young Hanson at working out his own voice.
“The worst moment I ever experienced on stage was from those jazz combo days,” Hanson remembered. “We were performing at a school full of little inner-city kids and we came equipped with all our jazz standards to show them. I was doing the opening bars of Blue Bossa, solo on saxophone, and I go to make the first note and I just … squawked so badly (makes the sound of poultry slaughter). All I could see was a sea of little faces just laughing at me in slow motion.”
Hanson looked amused and mortified at the same time. “I was maybe a sophomore in high school, and I was so embarrassed with everyone looking at me. So, I just started squeakin’ it more and squeakin’ it more and making a thing out of it. And they laugh and laughed. When it seemed like they got it out of their system, I turned to my band mates and started to count off 1, 2, 3, 4 …. The rest went great.” That moment still sticks with Hanson when he is performing and is part of the way he sees live music as just a way of “communicating with an audience.”
The Hanson family moved to Colorado by the time Mark was ready for college. He formed musical connections with a scene that gave life to The String Cheese Incident and many other famous Boulder-area bands. This planted seeds for his involvement with Colorado’s well known live jam factories Curbside (with Shpongle’s Joe Russo) and Frogs Gone Fishing. During this period, he met bassist Adam Levine and created the band Specimen with Hanson on guitar. He was back and forth to Chicago and backing other local bands on both saxophone and guitar. Playing more experimental, “pre-Radiohead music,” he originated his “two-handed” guitar-playing style, where both hands do most of their work, including picking and finger tapping on the neck of the instrument.
Eventually, the carousel of exciting start-up bands which split for one reason or another awoke in Hanson the urge to start staking out territory of his own in both music and life. He moved to northern Maine and bought a farm. It turned out to be lonely, desolate and probably just what he needed creatively at the time. Harsh outdoor days and nights in his farmhouse recording track after track, mostly instrumental, laid the foundations for his solo work.
He spent some nights just recording backing tracks for hours with a mic’d high-hat symbol into a digital multi-effects processor. With friends he ventured to Portland and the resort towns in Maine to play with reggae and rap groups using whatever instrument the moment required.
About his willingness to experiment, he said, “I do think about what people want to hear when I am writing. Anyone who says they don’t is probably lying.” But his favorite music is simple and signature, “like Tom Petty. He does a lot that’s just, you know, C-D-G, but it’s the way he plays with phrases and weaves different subtle things in and plays with words. … You always know it’s him.”
Hanson returned once again to Colorado and made his home in Leadville in the early 2000s. After a shot at marriage and a job out of the music business, he realized his addiction to writing songs is permanent and returned to his music career full force. Although he has taken time to play drums in Lake County Rain, a country band; play saxophone with old associate John Popper of Blues Traveler on New Year’s Eve in Buena Vista; and play with friends Leadville Cherokee at a recent reunion show, his latest incarnation is a band called Miner Down. The band showcases his solo work and gets him back to the business of entertaining. He is writing music rapidly, deliberating on high-country life and people in Leadville, where he now lives.
Beater Guitar and his other new music give us his snowboarding-hobo-minstrel perspective on a life experimenting with music or to coin a new phrase, “snowbo music.” Hanson usually performs wearing historical Leadville-heyday finery as homage to the barroom minstrels that inspire his solo work. He loves to pull out his ’20s-style Martin guitar and put a blues-infused breakdown or two into his shows. Come and check out this snowboarding Leadville hobo doing what only he does for St. Patrick’s day at the Scarlet Tavern in Leadville. His album Beater Guitar is available for purchase here: https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/markhanson12.