Q&A with Mark Erelli while he's preparing for the Americana Music Awards

Singer-songwriter Mark Erelli is Curator of our 2nd SHIFT Music Series, booking musicians he loves to play live in our Main gallery — generally six shows each spring and fall. But this week Mark is in Nashville to participate in multiple events at the Americana Fest from September 10th-15th. This is particularly exciting for him because the centerpiece of the Festival week is the Americana Music Awards at the legendary Ryman Auditorium (think: Grand ol’ Opry) on Wednesday evening, and the haunting, beautiful, and timely song he wrote — “By Degrees” — and performed with Rosanne Cash, Sheryl Crow, Lori McKenna, Anais Mitchell, and Josh Ritter, is one of just four nominees for Song of the Year!

Winner in the Social Action Song category at this year’s Independent Music Awards, here’s “By Degrees:”

We’re so excited for Mark and will be on the edges of our seats on Wednesday evening hoping that he wins. We checked in with him and found that — surprise, surprise — he’s more relaxed and philosophical about the hubbub, seeing the big picture and living life in full. — We love his genuine warmth, relentless positivity, humility, and how much he cares about the world around him. — We’re also grateful that he took some time to answer a few questions we had for him at this special time:

Q: We here at the Charles River Museum are so excited for you and your well-deserved Americana Music Award nomination… Congratulations!! We’ve enjoyed your social media posts about rehearsing for the show and going back to your tailor to make sure you’re looking sharp on September 9th. What’s the experience been like getting ready for the main Event? [This could certainly be answered in the past tense, after you WIN!]

A: I’ve never done one of these awards shows like this before, so I’m not sure if you can call what I’m doing ‘getting ready.’ I’ll get emails from people asking questions such as “are you walking the red carpet?” when I had no idea there was such a thing or that I had a choice in such matters! But it’s been quite the trip, as I found out a month or so ago that I would be performing “By Degrees” at the awards ceremony at the Ryman, backed by the house band with some amazing artists singing the other verses. Buddy Miller is leading the band, and I’ll be on the way to pick my 9-year old up at school and I’ll get a call from Buddy asking about the arrangement or some other detail. So it’s just been a pretty heady time. — Nothing that I do is for an award, but I am grateful for the critical recognition for this particular song, and what it might do as far as raising awareness for the fight against gun violence. I truly do feel like the song has already won.

Q: It’s a beautiful song, but it’s also a hard, challenging song. What inspired you to write “By Degrees?”

A: I wrote it after a shooting at a community college campus in Roseburg OR back in 2015. I was in the Boston airport, waiting to fly to North Carolina for a gig with Paula Cole. I was scrolling through the reactions from both sides on social media, and was just trying to make sense of how we’d arrived at where we were, at the time. The American public seemed so far apart on this issue, and yet, at the center of each of these debates was a tragedy that demanded a response, something to make it even a little less likely that it would happen again. I boarded the plane and wrote the song in about 30-45 minutes. I love writing on planes because there are no distractions, and I find writing without my instrument helps to better clarify the melody in my mind, as opposed to singing over a random guitar chord progression.

Q: Touring with Josh Ritter and Lori McKenna; being part of the bluegrass band Barnstar!, writing your new single Her Town Now with Chuck Prophet… and you have sat in on a lot of 2nd SHIFT shows! What are your thoughts on collaboration?

A: I love collaboration because it takes the focus off of me, and puts it back on the music, on this special thing created by a group of artists who may or may not work together very frequently. It shakes me out of any similar patterns or tendencies I might have in how I approach my craft, and forces me to react to things in a very present and immediate manner. And, perhaps best of all, when you’re collaborating you have a friend nearby to share the joy whenever something really cool happens.

Q: We love the work you're doing curating the 2nd SHIFT Music Series. What's that experience been like for you?

A: Thank you, I love it too! I grew up in the Boston area, going to all ages venues like coffeehouses and concert series. I was pretty much always the youngest person in the room, by a lot, but I have always been grateful that there were places I could get into to see the singer/songwriters that I loved up close and personal. For me to be able to help program the 2nd Shift series and provide some all ages cultural options in the Boston area is a great chance for me to give back to the community that nurtured and inspired me.

Q: What's next for Mark Erelli?

A: We’re putting the finishing touches on a new Barnstar! record this fall, so hopefully that will come out sometime next year. I have a new album, my 12th solo record, all ready to go for a 2020 release. I am just trying to see if there’s a record label I can partner with to help give it the best chance to be heard. I will put it out on my own again if that makes the most sense, but I’m really proud of this one and I want to make sure people give it a fair shake. There’s just so much music that comes out every year that there needs to a plan in place so that it doesn’t get lost in the deluge. And of course while I’m doing all that, I’m playing solo shows, playing in Lori McKenna’s band, and trying to be a good husband and father. I’m certainly not bored, and I haven’t been since about 1996!

Mark has released two great new singles this year, most recently “Her Town Now, and in late spring —perfect now, too, with baseball season peaking — “The Hitter:”