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Mark David Manders - A Commentary

By David Okamoto, KERA 90.1 commentator

Dallas, TX – [Track 11: "Fat Tuesday"]

The first time I saw Mark David Manders at Poor David's Pub nine years ago, he was an unfamiliar local opening act but he left a lasting impression. Maybe it was his voice, a comforting, denim-coated baritone equally suited for honky-tonks and hootenannies. Or maybe it was his towering stage presence, no doubt inherited from his father Dave Manders, the center for the Dallas Cowboys between 1964 and 1974. Or maybe it was the way that in one song, he partnered "your picture" with "on my light fixture," making a rhyme that seemed clunky on paper sound like pure poetry on stage.

Today, Manders is a crowd-rousing lynchpin of the Lone Star country-folk scene and the founder of Blind Nello Records, an independent label now co-owned with likeminded artists Max Stalling, Houston Marchman and Kevin Deal. The 40-year-old Plano resident also is the father of 4-year-old triplets, whose birth immediately altered his life when he decided to forgo the standard cover charge at some of his 1998 shows and instead requested Huggies and Pampers. Tour schedules soon had to be coordinated with soccer games. And common new-parent concerns about compromise and sacrifice began to seep into his music.

Manders' moving new album, titled "Highs and Lows," examines his mixed emotions of bewilderment, frustration and joy and also showcases the subtle wordplay and melodic flair that have earned him comparisons with longtime heroes Robert Earl Keen and Jerry Jeff Walker. But with its winning balance of self-depreciating humor and conscience-wracking intensity, "Highs and Lows" also harkens to John Hiatt's landmark "Bring the Family" and Jon Dee Graham's marvelous "Escape From Monster Island" by basking in the giddy afterglow of first-time fatherhood while realizing that diapers aren't the only things that will change.

[Track 3: "Just Me"]

Manders in the past two years also experienced the death of a friend, to whom the album and a touching tune called "Ward's Song," are dedicated, and an audit by the IRS, which fuels the sardonic lyrics of "Fat Tuesday." But he channels that pain, as well as his inner struggles, into face-slapping reality checks delivered as a narrative character study in "Hell's Half Acre," a lighthearted allegory in a talking blues called "Suicidal Pigeon" that may become his "Alice's Restaurant," and a heart-tugging family portrait titled "Halloween Costumes and Leftover Pizza."

[Track 4: "Halloween Costumes and Leftover Pizza"]

The car is the vehicle for many songs on "Highs and Lows." But references to San Angelo, Clovis Highway, Amarillo and Oxford, Mississippi are just mile markers. Manders knows that success isn't measured by what's passing you by - it's about who's behind the wheel.

[Track 2: "Drive"]


David Okamoto is a senior entertainment producer at Yahoo Broadcast and a contributing editor to ICE magazine. If you have opinions about this review, call (214) 740-9338.