“Don’t let me fade with the morning light. Don’t leave me to become diluted by the mundane affairs of tomorrow or allow the noises of convention and expectation to drown me out. Listen. Feel. Open your eyes! Drink me down, eat me up, write me, play me, save me, and for God’s sake, if nothing else, remember me.” -Mark Elliott, Another Wake You Up Song / Published on Substack, Words From The Hollow
If you’re reading this in hope of discovering every detail of Mark’s life, you won’t find that here. There is no possible way to chronicle his intrepid blue-highway adventures in under 1,000 pages. Nor could one list all his places of work, friends, and relations. It would take volumes.
A celebration of life will happen the only time it can happen, according to his mom, when we can get outside. She’s absolutely right. If you don’t own or haven’t downloaded the Runaway Home album “Gotta Get Outside!” (a compilation of nature-themed songs written by Mark and his brother, friend, and creative partner of over 30 years, Gary Culley), that’s a critical first step.
Sometime in late spring or early summer we will gather to lift a glass of brown liquor and toast everyone’s honorary brother and the most unrelenting creative this world has ever known. And as Mark said, “A creative life comprises four, sometimes unequal parts: joy, purpose, addiction, and mystery. The subparts, of course, are poverty, frustration, jealousy, and self-doubt.”
For now, let’s gather around the proverbial campfire with Mark, and listen as he tells his story in his own words.
If you can hear him saying, “Well, hey my friends. Mark coming to you from Cub Creek Hollow,” you know how the rest of this will go.
He was born Mark Stuart Elliott in his father’s hometown of Chickasha, Oklahoma on May 30, 1967. He is preceded in death by his beloved father Dr. C. Courtney Elliott (2014) and survived by his resilient mother Phyllis Tanner Elliott.
Yes, his middle name was Stuart, if you didn’t know.
Of course there’s a story behind that, because Mark’s life was a story from beginning to end. When he was born, the hospital wouldn’t allow his parents to take him home until his birth certificate had a middle name. But they didn’t have a middle name. Phyllis shared her opinion about this policy with hospital staff. (Of course she did. Have you met her? Mark came by his strong voice honestly.) But the hospital was insistent. Phyllis and Courtney knew they wanted their son to have a simple name. His paternal grandfather was Franklyn, spelled with a “y,” and his maternal grandfather’s first name was literally WF. Just the letters “W” and “F,” with no “T” in the middle, though his last name was Tanner. Luckily, most people called him Red. So Phyllis and Courtney chose Mark to make it easy on everyone. You can only imagine Phyllis’s reaction when she was asked, “Is that Mark with a “k” or Mark with a “c”?” With no middle name and a strong desire to leave the hospital, Phyllis did a very Mark-like thing. She read the nametag of the next nurse who walked in her room and just like that, Mark had a middle name. She would later tell him he was lucky that nurse’s last name was “Stuart.” “Can you imagine if it had been Dusseldorf?” Although that might’ve been close enough to Deutschendorf to make Mark’s John Denver-loving heart soar. Phyllis would look back and wish she had given Mark her maiden name of Tanner as a middle name. Mark Tanner Elliott is a good solid name. But ask yourself what Mark would rather have: the name or the story.
Mark’s entire life was about the story, the chasing of it, the catching of it, and the living of it.
His journey to Nashville took him from Chickasha to Morgantown, West Virginia to Tallahassee (where he met the friends who later inspired his book The Sons of Starmount: Memoir of a Ten-Year-Old Boy), to Falls Church, Virginia where he graduated from nearby Catholic University of America in 1989 with his Bachelor of Social Work.
As Mark wrote in his essay My Hometowns:
“This is my last hometown because all my past hometowns somehow lay within its borders. I am a prairie Midwesterner, a mountaineer, a barefoot Southern Huck Finn, an eighties parachute-pant teen, and most of all a word junkie. Like some kind of Appalachian song catcher, Nashville gathered all the memories I kicked up walking through this world, including when I propped my feet up in arguably the best music van ever and used those memories to convince me I am a writer. I’m never leaving home again.”
If you’re feeling heavy this fall, remember Mark loved the fall. In fact, his most recent release is a light little bluegrass ditty he co-wrote with his buddy and co-parent of Bubba the dog, Gabe Burdulis. The hook of The Only Fall feels oddly prophetic: “I pick myself up when the leaves hit the ground. It’s the only fall that don’t bring me down.”
Mark wrote often about wildlife, nature, and the seasons. Some of you may know Mark was writing a book about the wilderness and the life lessons it taught him. In his essay Dear Spring he tried to let “love’s sanctioned season” down easy by telling her “I like fall better than you, and I adore winter.”
“I won’t bore you with all the reasons. Let’s just say I don’t sweat in my tent or swat at mosquitos while camping along a narrow November creek cutting through the Cumberland Plateau. I am not a fan of bright light and clarity. To me, obviousness is unimpressive. So the long dark hours of December intrigue me more, plus I’m not scared of the dark - so it doesn’t hold me back. Smores, hot chocolate, whiskey, and my beloved flannel shirts are all the better without you [spring]. So, too, are night skies, deep breaths, snuggling, and sad songs - and I must confess, I love a good sad song. But that’s just me.”
As though anyone could hear Not Even New Orleans and doubt that Mark loved a good sad song. Mark could break your heart and heal it, often in the same song. Sometimes in the same breath.
His voice was a cocktail you couldn’t stop drinking, made with equal parts silk and smoke. In reality we all know it was one glass of whiskey with ice to chew, a cold bottle of Shiner Bock, and another glass of ½ pineapple juice ½ water - an elixir he swore by for vocal health and recovery. Mark would claim his big ol lumberjack of a voice was also a “big ol baby” that needed to be pampered. Although most audiences would never have known that by how he took to the mic with his folksy ease, then rocked their faces off.
Anyone who wrote with him (who is everyone) knows that when he wasn’t writing, he was writing, because he never wasn’t writing.
He talks about the never-ending chase in his essay Another Wake You Up Song:
“Another Wake You Up Song hit me in the middle of the night. My songwriting brethren will understand what that means, as will my author friends and fellow creatives. Like a calling, or more like a commandment, the muse comes forth when we are the least prepared for it, like deep in REM sleep or when our cell phones are dead. Song ideas, books, poems, and any manner of epiphany whine like needy children, demanding attention, needling, mocking, and daring you to leave them unattended.
I stand like a creature in waiting, wide awake in the gloaming and then hours later in the pinkness of pre-dawn. I stand poised with a guitar, pen, whiskey, and coffee, ignoring mirrors but feeling the weight of dark circles beneath my eyes. It doesn’t matter if I think I’m going to miss out on a song that will change my life, a book idea that may spark a second career, or the chance to simply drink a cold Shiner Bock with a friend at my favorite bar.
I don’t want to miss anything.
I will go to the ends of the earth to be available to whatever life has in store.”
And he did. As Mark said, “You can’t win if you don’t play. I play!” He dared us to do the same:
“Write your own Wake Me Up Song the next time it comes around. I dare you. Do it in the middle of the night, after everything that should be already is. Do it when fawns sleep in the tall grass and coyotes run the tree lines. Do it when the birds go to nest, and the bats fly. Do it when shadows crawl the walls and the winds die down. Do it when you hear the freight train ten miles away and when loneliness is more of a warm hoodie than a heavy blanket. Do it when it doesn’t make any rational sense. Pry your eyes open, roll to your side until your bare feet tap the cold floor, and rise. Allow ridiculous odds to inspire you. Risk losing a good night’s sleep for the off chance of catching one single strand of starlight or winning the lottery of dreams.”
In his essay Things Are What They Are, Mark warned how fleeting the muse can be and why it’s important to give chase. While high in New York (meaning his proximity to Canada, not his personal state) with the Adirondack mountains to the South and the St. Lawrence Seaway to his North, Mark chased a song into a cornfield beneath the Perseid Meteor Shower.
“I armed myself, not with bug spray, a stick, or a jacket, but with a 1974 Martin D-35 guitar, a bottle of locally aged 601 Bourbon, and a guttural sense that a song awaited.
Words flowed, maybe because I dutifully pursued my muse, or perhaps it felt guilty about the possibility of me becoming mud-soaked, chigger-bit, and drunk, all without ever getting a new song.
Over the next hour, life offered the lyrics to my new song. The opening words blazed across the mid-line between my conscious and unconscious mind like the first streak of stardust overhead, so fast I almost missed it. Good songs come just that way, like comet tails.
That night in the cornfield was not sad. It was not happy either. But it was everything else. I understand something about life when I speak of bridges, telephone poles, porches, and sunsets. So too, when I sing of shooting stars, regrets, and loving memories. And here’s a fact of life I know to be a blessing and a curse, but mostly a blessing. Things are what they are. Until you see them as so much more.”
A couple of years back, Mark tried to put into words why he wrote songs in an essay he cleverly titled, Why do I Write Songs? He admits, “That’s not a question I asked myself as a young writer, and if I did, I did not expect or need an answer,” and adds, “Writing happened without me having to try too hard and ask anyone who knows me; I am a guy who tries too hard.”
“I understood the power of words after taking a year-long course in creative writing during my junior year. After that, writing became my drug of choice. I realized I could catalog the ups and downs of my past, sweet spots and struggles of the present, and dreams of my future. And later I learned I could do the same for others.
Over the years, writing has been no less expensive than cocaine, no less destructive than alcohol, and no less addictive than meth. So even though I only dabbled in some of those real drugs, writing would not spare me from an addict’s dysfunction and its consequence.
Writing has made me an unstable spirit hidden behind a mostly capable body.
It has enabled the worst financial decisions of my life and humbled me in ways I never thought possible. Writing has cruelly ruined relationships, and in a mocking rebuke, allowed me to chronicle love’s demise eloquently in verse. It’s made me money, lost me money, and gained me notoriety, only to strip it away the moment I learned to enjoy it.
Writing has gotten me hired and fired by some of the biggest publishing houses in Nashville and more than a few songs recorded.
It has been both pitch-fork and blister while digging for fool’s gold.
I have written for money and some minor fame. I have written to show off, leverage an invitation to the cool party, cast off bouts of boredom, and scare away the winter wolves of loneliness. I have written songs to bind and to sever. I have written to cast light and to shade, to truth-tell, and much, much, less.
Writing for me has been a binary, almost bi-polar existence. In the best of times, it has left me ecstatic and relatively prosperous, if only temporarily. It has provided purpose and left me feeling proud, admired, and peaceful.
At its worst, writing has left me distraught and relatively poor, possibly permanently. It has stripped me of a rudder and burst open the floodgates of self-doubt and mockery. And it’s rendered my soul unsettled, just when I thought its job was to soothe the same.”
In the same essay, he touches upon his life-changing work as a staff-songwriter with Music Therapy of The Rockies. “Their program pairs veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder with professional songwriters.” Amy Grant and Vince Gill host these retreats locally on their farm South of Nashville. He described how these experiences changed the songwriting calculus:
“The process, for the songwriter, involves talking less and listening more, catching stories instead of creating them.
Helping someone put into words a story that can and has made the difference between life and death is a stark reminder of why art, songwriting, in particular, is essential.
Wounds open and close when I write them down. Fears crescendo and subside when I write them down. The past becomes the present and then relegates itself to the rearview where it belongs. Doors open, forward momentum kicks in, tears fall, frowns form, and then lift into smiles. Apologies offered and accepted. Promises kept, friendships formed, while love fills the vacuum of hate, all because I and so many others write them down.”
He concludes this seminal essay on why art is essential in typical Mark fashion: “Why do I write songs? Who the hell knows?”
That was Mark. He was as mischievous as he was wise, as simple as he was complicated, and as witty as he was profound. A female interviewer once asked Mark on-camera, “Boxers or briefs?” Mark cocked his head to the side in his way, chin tucked and eyebrows raised as if over glasses he wasn’t wearing, and answered her question with a question: “Is there a third option?”
Mark would love that we’re reading his writing. When did he ever not want a co-writer credit? He’s probably wondering where to pick up his mailbox money for this piece. That’s the kind of thing he would say. He loved making people laugh.
Mark was an honorary brother to everyone. And he considered everyone he met the same. Who among us (and this includes audience members with no personal connection other than his music) wasn’t labeled “Sister” (Sis) or “Brother” by that man? He was an honorary son and uncle, too.
The keyword here is “honorary.” It was an honor to know Mark. It was an honor to be his friend. It was an honor to consider him family. It was an honor to hear his music and if you were among the lucky ones, to create it with him.
You may not read your name here or see the place where you met Mark. But that doesn’t mean you weren’t a meaningful piece of his puzzle.
If you wonder if Mark loved you, he did.
If you wonder if you were important to him, you were.
If you wonder if he even remembered you, not only did he remember you, he stole your story to put in a song. I’m sorry. He was “inspired by” your story, so much so that he told it through a song…of his own.
He wrote a love letter to his fellow artists titled 2AM Waffles and Shower Curtain Rings, wherein he says:
“Society calls us creative types by many names. Some of those names: dreamer, passionate, and star, feel comforting across the shoulders, like a broken-in jean jacket or the soft touch of a lover’s hand. While some of those names: lazy, self-absorbed, egomaniac, and sellout, drive our bodies, shoulders first into the ground like a sledgehammer drives a railroad spike. All those names are true, and all those names are false. They are painfully honest lies. Honest, because artists are all those beautiful and terrible things. But lies too, because, like any human being, most especially artists, you cannot boil the soul down to something as superficial as a label.
Creatives exist in the gray areas between those labels.
We own the shadows making up the not-quites and the more-thans.
Rejection is the oxygen artists breathe. Don’t avoid it. Embrace it.
You can run forever on rejection because it makes you taller by cutting your knees out from under you and stronger by vanquishing your soul.
It makes you humble by putting you in front of an ever-constant morning-face mirror. But being humble equals having inner strength.”
He adds this caveat:
“On your mother’s grave, never allow rejection and failure to sit as judge and jury of your worthiness. You’re not strong enough for that, nor should you be. You’re too innocent for that, and thank God you are.”
He acknowledges the reality that nobody is for everybody, and implores us to accept that reality as artists while noting that serendipity exists:
“But sometimes, the stars align, as do the needs of the artist and the audience, and all is right with the world. In a moment, we become the music to someone’s ears and the joyful puzzle piece missing in a stranger’s life. You know how that feels. Every artist does.
Pain and pleasure are twins, and you learn to love them both.
Don’t worry. You won’t have to know rejection in the absence of acceptance. And acceptance is worth the rejection.
When at our best, we deliver in the worst of circumstances.
When you are an artist, you must be your best on the worst of days…you must be no less than a light in the dark.”
He closes with this:
“This is a love letter to my fellow artists, struggling or not. You inspire me, and you scare me in a good way. I want to share a 2AM waffle with you before we head in opposite directions. I want to believe in your lyrics and rock to your groove like a brainless cult follower. I want to write the best song I ever wrote, alone in a hotel room, after opening for you in a sold-out hall. I want to argue politics with you, agree with your grandiose life philosophy, and listen to all your old road stories, especially those that aren’t true. I want to share your dreams and your bed and then never see you again. Oh yeah, and I’d also love to get your agent’s number before you go.
But most of all, my dear troubadours and fellow sideshow freaks, I want you to be kind to yourself when the world is cruel.
Be forgiving of and mighty in your singular desire to create your art.
Remember, the world sometimes, most times even, is clueless of how empty it would be without you. But I know how empty I would be without you, and I hope that now, you know it too.”
Mark had a healer’s heart. In a book (as yet unpublished) touching on his twenty-plus years counseling troubled teens at Vanderbilt Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Hospital, he wrote:
“It’s a privilege to be in the position of crossing paths with a young person at the exact moment they need you the most. A privilege I don’t take lightly.
I’ve rarely worked full-time in the field, but I’ve worked a long time in it. Having one foot in the business and one foot out has afforded me an outsider status that kids recognize and in their more vulnerable moments, respect.
I get to hang out during a 3-11 shift and talk to teens in trouble. I get to eat dinner with them, facilitate groups, and then later in the evening, beat them in basketball down in the gym after they look at me and say, “You’re too old to play me.” The “O” word, old, always seems to light my fire. Especially now that I am.
It turns out that affecting the world is a slow grind and much harder than I first thought. I know now that it begins with small acts of kindness and service to others. And if you stick with it through the sluggish pace, the disappointments, and a world that sometimes refuses to be saved, it is possible to build a life capable of changing other lives. Despite myself and a music career that has always taken my first efforts, I have lived a life of human service and advocacy on behalf of children who struggle to see themselves worthy of the air they breathe.”
Mark wanted to help every person he ever met. But he was also a deeply private person, more than his outgoing public persona made it seem. As Mark put it, “It’s the artist thing. One part extrovert - two parts introvert.” He wrote about introverts and extroverts as lock people and key people, respectively, in his essay Locks & Keys. In fact, he went so far as to say, “I can’t be sure, but I believe the secret to life, be you a comfortable homebody or a wanderer of this world, and maybe even a wanderer in the next world, rests in finding the right locks and keys for the time.”
To conserve his social energy and make sure he could devote his attention to anyone who needed it, Mark compartmentalized. In that way, he was like pointillism. Every dot on Mark’s impressionistic painting was of paramount importance to him. You mattered, and he wanted you to know it. Only when you pull back from the canvas that was Mark Elliott do you realize how many points were on that painting. He touched the lives of so many, and we are all an essential part of his masterpiece.
It makes sense that many are in a season of deep grief with Mark's untimely death at 56 years old.
Unsurprisingly, Mark had some words to say about grief in his essay Advice to a Friend on the Dying of a Dog:
“I don’t know what makes us think that we can bask in the glow of a dog’s adoration without straining in the cold shadow of its passing. But we all do.
The basking and the straining are twins. Arguably one is an angel, and the other is the devil. And you can’t have one without the other. The greatest burden turned blessing is in understanding that the amount of pain you feel in losing your dog is equal to the love you put into that sweet thing.
And like the passing of all friends and most family members, the initial days are filled with feelings of guilt and the impact of the if I had onlys and the if I just wouldn’t haves. And eventually, when the answers predictably fail to land, the I knew betters arrive in their place.
And thank God they do. Because there is no true solace in being unburdened. No lasting peace in painlessness. And no redemptive quality in forgiving too easily.
So allow the guilt to take hold. There is no stopping the chaotic progression of grief. And expending any energy fighting is the definition of throwing good after bad. When we most need it to be, guilt is there to stand in the stead of utter despair. It is there to allow us to pretend that we can control what we cannot. It is there to fix in our minds what we cannot fix in real life. Guilt punishes our present by attempting to assuage our past and alter our future. But that feeling is only temporary. It is excruciating, but it plays a vital role in letting go.
Letting go so that we might hold on again.
Love plagues us with the terribleness of bitter ends, seen and unseen. But eventually, that same love returns us to a state of remembering joy without pain.
For now, train your soul to measure love in deep guttural aches, acidic longing, and tears that every good person you know will understand. Because they’ve been there.
Recognize momentary pain as lasting love because someday, sooner than it feels today, you will allow that love to exist in pats on a furry head.”
Although we couldn’t pat Mark on his furry head for some time (much to his dismay) his words are there to guide us.
The love we have for Mark will never die. And it doesn’t have to. His music lives on, and his words will be with us forever. Allow his unrelenting passion for a creative life to inspire your work. In Mark’s words, “The life of a creative is ninety-nine percent Why am I here and one percent, Oh, yeah, that’s right. Even though I’ve lived those percentages in my professional life for decades now, how the ninety-nine percent is worth the one still escapes reasonable thought. But it is.”
Mark never gave up, ever.
On August 18, 2023, just months before he passed he wrote, “I have a mountain to climb, but at least I have a mountain to climb.” That was Mark’s spirit.
Mark’s spirit is with us all.
If you’re feeling lost right now, Mark got lost all the time. As he said of himself, “I’ve held tight to a lifetime of under-knowing my way.”
Whatever phase you’re going through, there’s a great likelihood Mark spoke to it through his writing and his music.
We will meet in another season to honor his life. Until then, do what Mark would’ve done.
Tell your stories.
Throw on your flannels, build a campfire, pour a whiskey, grab your guitar, snuggle up with someone you love, and tell your stories.
If those stories are about Mark, make ‘em good. Make ‘em funny, make ‘em true - or if you embellish, make sure you make ‘em better than the original. And give him back his hair while you’re at it. You can even put some weight back on him. When looking at a picture of himself from 2010 in recent weeks, he wryly remarked, “I miss being fat.”
He also said, “I miss being the old Mark.”
Now he doesn’t have to.
He is the old Mark.
As you’re playing his music to help you through this time, give a special listen to Top of The Hill.
As with everything, Mark said it best.
“I’m a king on a throne,
I’m a wild heart, rolling stone.
I am strong, I am happy, I am free.”
Mark was a special man. And now he is free.
“Don’t ya’ know it’s a lucky soul that winds up where it always wanted to go.”
-Mark Elliott, Back To The Garden
Everything from his biography to his discography can be found online.
Visit www.markelliottcreative.com for more information on his songwriting, solo career, his band Runaway Home, and his work as an author.
Visit 3 Minutes Away Music Publishing, LLC at www.3minutesaway.com where he was a veteran staff writer and artist, and look for a future release of his bluegrass music.
And as ever, visit your streaming service of choice to download his music and remind yourself that he will always be with us in spirit and in song.
Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.neptunesociety.com/location/nashville-cremation for the Elliott family.