When a New York-based label executive suggested Mark Wills record a sultry relationship ballad written by Brian McKnight, Wills had no idea the song would lead to a friendship with the powerful vocalist.
But that’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago, when Wills found himself on television performing the soulful tune, “Back at One,” with McKnight as part of the Miss U.S.A. pageant. The two artists had released different versions of the song within weeks of each other and were asked to perform it together on the pageant telecast. The opportunity was a thrill for Wills, a longtime fan of McKnight’s soulful vocals.
“I’ve always been a big fan of a cappella groups, especially Take 6, the group Brian’s brother Claude is in,” Wills says. “And I love his voice. This song reminded me a lot of an ‘I Do.’ We were looking for a song about never-ending devotion and what you’d do for somebody, and this one just fit.”
McKnight impressed Wills with his vocal prowess. The country artist considered it an honor to trade singing licks with the R&B master.
“I got to hang out with Brian for about three days and go to the first show of his tour. We really hit it off,” Wills adds. “He’s from a totally different world than me, so it was kind of cool to get around each other and see how the two worlds interacted for a few days.”
The McKnight duet was just another in a long line of memorable moments Wills has enjoyed during his rise through the country ranks. His most recent honor, being named CMT’s Showcase Artist of the Month, follows chart-topping hits, a platinum-selling album (Wish You Were Here, released in 1998), a gold-selling album (the brand-new Permanently) and an Academy of Country Music trophy for Top New Male Vocalist.
Those achievements pale, however, next to a development that has made him, as he terms it, “worthless” as a person these days. His biggest fan, 2-year-old daughter Mally, has wrecked Wills and left him as mushy as a big bowl of Jell-O. He credits her with changing his entire life perspective and career up to this point.
“I was really looking forward to Mally getting here,” he admits. “But once she got here — oh, man! I’m just in love! Being a daddy really helps me out, because I have a lot more patience now. I love her like I’ve never loved anything before, and it’s a different kind of love, a die-for kind of love.”
His state of mind now is in contrast to two years ago, when his career ranked as his top priority.
“I was very selfish with my time to my wife [Kelly] and the people around me, because it was all about me,” he recalls. “Then Kelly and I had that little girl, and it was such a life-changing experience. It put everything into perspective. Now, instead of going to play golf every day, I’d just as soon sit home and play with my daughter. I try to book shows so I’m not gone too long at a time from the house.”
No doubt, selfless love has given Wills new inspiration when singing the tender love ballads that have defined his career up to this point. Something of a ballad king on country radio in the last few years, he has achieved success with songs such as the beautiful “I Do (Cherish You),” the heart-wrenching “Don’t Laugh at Me” and the wistful “Wish You Were Here” (which went to No. 1 in May 1999).
Those songs struck a powerful chord with listeners and set Wills on his path to stardom. Since climbing “Jacob’s Ladder” (his first chart hit) back in 1996, Wills slowly but steadily has won the hearts of fans with his easygoing manner, boyish charm and sincere and soulful voice. The 26-year-old has packed a lot of living into his short years, and his voice often belies his youth.
Focus never has been a problem for Wills, who set his sights on becoming a singer at the ripe old age of 5. A big fan of a cappella groups and harmonies, he originally was headed to college to sing lead vocals in a quartet. But the Blue Ridge, Ga., native began performing in area clubs instead and eventually landed at the famed Buckboard nightclub in Marietta, Ga. By 21, Wills had earned a ticket to Nashville and a record deal on Mercury.
His first album, released in 1996, introduced Wills to country fans and generated three hits: “Jacob’s Ladder,” “High, Low and In Between” and “Places I’ve Never Been.” Then he went through an artistic hiatus.
“It was a year and a few months between my first and second album with nothing on the radio, and for most artists, that’s a death sentence,” he recalls.
His follow-up, Wish You Were Here, left an indelible image on the hearts of country fans. Songs such as the wildly romantic “I Do,” and the sentimental title track landed Wills at the top of the charts again and again, driving sales of Wish You Were Here beyond the million mark.
The success of that album created heightened expectations for his new release, Permanently, which came out in January.
“The thing you go through as a new artist is trying to find exactly who you are. We’re on the third album, and we’re still trying to find out what our niche is,” he reasons.
“To have a record go platinum means that over a million people thought enough of the record to go buy it, and that’s a great feeling. But that adds more pressure going into the next record, because if you have a million people who loved the last one, what if that million people don’t like the next one? You want to try to improve yourself and get better, and sometimes people recognize that, and sometimes they don’t and want more of what they have. It’s a gamble either way.”
Permanently should prove to be a pretty safe bet for the artist’s fans. Already certified gold for sales of more than 500,000 copies, the new release is chock full of quality tunes, hand-picked for their lyrical power and emotional punch. Along with the heartfelt first single, Wills found another song from the pop world to record, “Almost Doesn’t Count,” which was a hit for pop singer Brandy. The song’s power struck him instantly when he listened to the demo, and he knew he had to record it.
“We found that song before Brandy recorded it, actually,” Wills contends. “The demo was basic but had this really BIG feeling. When I heard it, I just fell in love with it! It’s kind of weird — I have two pop remakes on this album. A great song is a great song, whether it’s a pop record, or country, or whatever. It’s up to the individual artist to make it a great song for him or her. You have to listen to your heart in a lot of instances. We cut songs on this record that I wouldn’t have cut on the last record or on my first one.”
One of those songs is “In My Arms,” a tune Wills penned for Mally with Monty Criswell and Michael White. The subject was special to all three. “Michael has an 11-year-old. Mally was six weeks old when we wrote this,” Wills remembers, “and Monty and his wife were pregnant. So Monty’s got this excitement, and I’m a proud new daddy and Michael’s got this older daughter. He can look back and see how far she’s come.
“Fittingly, Monty had a girl. So now he knows what it’s really all about,” Wills says. “Little girls make you worthless! They absolutely drain every bit of male energy you have and make you not want to do anything except play with them, and hold and love and kiss them. Me and my little girl have such a cool bond! It’s the best!”
Wills also feels particularly close to “Time Machine,” a song he almost didn’t get to record. Penned by Tim Mensy, Criswell and Tony Martin, it explores the idea of using a time machine to save the world from the loss of greats such as Patsy Cline, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, Elvis Presley and Martin Luther King Jr.
“I’ve loved that song since my first record,” Wills admits, “but Alan Jackson had it on hold then. So I went to get it for my second album, and Clay Walker had it on hold for his greatest hits project. And it didn’t make that album. So for the third record, we went in and it was on hold, and I said, ‘I don’t care if Garth Brooks has it on hold, I’m recording it!’ And I think it came off well for us.”
Wills recently tackled a new challenge, starring as the voice of Huckleberry Finn on the new animated TV special Tom Sawyer (premiering on TNN March 27 at 8 p.m. ET/PT) and the accompanying soundtrack (to be released April 4 by MCA). He recorded two duets for the project, with Rhett Akins and Lee Ann Womack, and found working with his fellow artists a total pleasure.
“I think everybody heard and loved Tom Sawyer to a certain extent when they were a kid,” Wills says. “It was fun to get to do that, something different. And it’s going to be cool for my little girl to grow up with her daddy’s voice being a cartoon character.”
With exciting new projects under his belt, a beautiful healthy family, an ACM trophy on his mantel and a million-selling record to his credit, one would think Wills would be eager to jump on the fast track and take things up a notch with his career. But the hardworking entertainer doesn’t believe in setting specific goals where his career is concerned. He’s much more content to let things develop at their own pace. If the pace is slower than that of some of his peers, that’s just fine with Wills.
“I don’t set goals like that, because if you don’t achieve them, it’s like you’re letting yourself down,” he explains. “I want to stay on a nice, upward climb like I have been and have a good, long career. If, in 20 years, I’m still recording songs and they’re being played on the radio, then I’ve been a success. I feel like we’ve already been successful to a point. But I want to keep it going. I try to take things day by day and song by song and pray that things keep going like they are. We’re having a great year, we’re having a lot of success and a whole lot of fun. To me, you really can’t ask for a lot more than that.”