Wills Looked Beyond Ballads for Latest Hit

Of the last volley of country albums released in 2002, who could predict that Mark WillsGreatest Hits would contain the biggest single? After all, Wills’ compilation arrived in early November, around the time the national media was shining the spotlight on new albums from the Dixie Chicks , Shania Twain , Faith Hill and Tim McGraw .

Referring to his six-week stay at the top of the country singles chart, Wills says, “It’s what every songwriter and publisher will tell you. It’s about the song.”

The song is “19 Somethin’,” one of two new tracks Wills recorded for his Greatest Hits project. “I felt like it was a huge hit the first time I heard the demo,” Wills tells CMT.com. “The reason I say that is that I’m going to be 30 this year. I kind of felt like, ‘If I can relate to this, most of the country music listeners can relate to this.’”

Offering a series of images dating back to their childhood, songwriters Chris DuBois and David Lee created a song that’s perhaps bigger than its lyrics. In hearing Wills sing about distant memories, listeners tend to reflect on their own lives. “It spawns the memory bank to just start rummaging,” Wills explains. “Your mind just starts taking off and you start thinking of all these things you used to do, all these things that got your hind end whipped when you were a kid. It kind of takes you back, and that was the selling point of the song for me.”

At their best, greatest hits albums are a milestone. At their worst, they’re a tombstone for a career that has run its course. Despite a string of hits including “Wish You Were Here,” “I Do (Cherish You),” “Don’t Laugh at Me” and “Back at One,” Wills’ was in a lull when “19 Somethin’” began receiving radio airplay in October.

“You’ve got to be realistic,” he says. “We just hadn’t had the success the last couple of years that we had wanted. We had originally started recording a new album. We didn’t think we were going to have time to get the new album out, so Mercury said, ‘Let’s put a greatest hits package out for around Christmas.’ It was one of those things where I was thinking, ‘We’re not going to have anything out in the stores to sell. We’re just gonna be releasing our single, so we might as well get it out there.’ We put it together rather quickly to basically get it out for Christmas time. Little did we know that ‘19 Somethin’’ was going to take off and run like it has.”

In analyzing why his chart success had declined, Wills is refreshingly candid in blaming it on slow songs. “You can only tap an oil well one time,” he says. “Not to point a finger, but we didn’t try to branch out. We didn’t try to do anything else. When I say ‘we,’ it was kind of a collaborative thing — myself, the record company, everybody. You’d hand in a record [to the label] and then we’d try to pick the best three ballads to make the singles — not what we needed at the time. Country music is one of those things where this song may work great right now and that song might work great a year from now, but you’ve gotta come with something that’s fitting for the time.

“We kind of put ourselves in a hole where we were just trying to find the best ballad to put out there. I got sick and tired of that. Come to my show and you’ll see that we have a lot of fun. We laugh and joke and have fun with each other.” Wills laughs, adding, “And then if you go strictly by what you hear on the radio, man, I’m a depressed SOB because all I’m doing are these ballads.”

Wills’ next single, “When You Think of Me,” is the other new track on Wills’ Greatest Hits. Written by Troy Verges and Brett James, the song also allows listeners to recall their own experiences. “What attracted me to that song was not what’s gonna attract somebody else to that song,” he says. “One day it just hit me — what this song could be about and the different ways to make up your mind what it’s about. There are so many things it could be about. I have one of my best friends whose mother passed away from brain cancer. It could be about that. This song could be about loving someone so much and just knowing that it’s not going to work. It could be about several different scenarios that I’ve already heard. People have said, ‘This is what the song is about,’ and I say, ‘I never thought about that.’”

Capitalizing on his revitalized chart success, Wills is already recording his new album that’s set for release in late summer or early fall.

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.