DECATUR, Georgia — Miko Marks has played music for a long time, but her first show at Eddie’s Attic showed why the talented singer-songwriter may now be hitting her artistic stride.
More than a decade ago, Marks made a run at becoming a mainstream country artist. Finding hesitancy and even resistance in Nashville, she left town and made her way to Oakland, California.
On her two most recent albums, Our Country and Race Records — both among my favorites of 2021 — Marks has more fully embraced and explored her love for traditional country music and its undeniable connections to gospel, soul and the blues.
A gifted singer and song interpreter, Marks is among the best of the growing number of Black country-roots artists who powerfully weave those styles together.
“From the Mississippi Delta on down to New Orleans,” sang Marks, as she and her outstanding band, the Resurrectors, began their show here with One More Night, a song from her new album coming this fall. As the song rolls on, it takes listeners to other formative stops in American music, including Memphis, Houston and Muscle Shoals. (Update: One More Night is now available for download.)
From the start of her May 15 performance just outside Atlanta, Marks’ band added impressive three-part harmonies rooted in soul music, making it clear their performance would dig down deep.
Her longtime guitarist Steve Wyreman (who’s kept company such as Leon Bridges, John Legend, Jay-Z, Common, Rhianna and many others) and keyboardist Jansen Verplank were joined ably by Nashville bassist Rhees Williams and drummer Brian Braziel.
“Know where we’re going, sure as I know where we’ve been… Guide my feet as I walk this road… The strength of mothers and fathers watching over, watching over me all of the time. And I’m callin’, callin’ on the ancestors now,” Marks sang on Ancestors, an upbeat number from her 2021 album, Our Country, at the time her record in 13 years.
The song began with a Spooner Oldham-influenced keyboard opening by Verplank and then built on Wyreman’s electric guitar solo. “Can you hear me? Can you hear me? Can you hear me callin’?” Marks sang to a deepening rock ‘n roll groove.
As she often does, Marks’ performance took the song beyond any genre’. Soul or rock or country? Mostly, it's simply Miko.
“The ancestors are with us. I can feel ‘em,” she told the audience.
Shedding real tears between some songs, the Flint, Michigan, native noted that several friends from her hometown were at the show in the storied Atlanta-area venue.
“I see a lot of my childhood friends here tonight,” Marks said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and I’m just now starting to gain some steam.”
Her stunning version of Stephen Foster’s Hard Times (Come Again No More), from Race Records, her latest EP, was inspired by Mavis Staples’ version for a Foster tribute album.
To a thumping bassline, Wyreman’s playing sounded like the Hi Rhythm Section’s Teenie Hodges or players at Stax or Muscle Shoals. The final chorus soared, and for a song written in the 1850s, its sentiment still resonates.
When she was finished, Marks couldn’t help but wipe her eyes. “I didn’t even last three songs,” she said, laughing and crying, too.
Later, Marks sang a romping, boogie-woogie version of Hank Williams’ 1947 country standard, Move It On Over, drawing a direct thread from country to early rock ‘n roll (influencing Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock in 1956) back to earlier 12-bar blues.
On Peace of Mind, another new song from her upcoming album, Marks began delicately. “I’m gonna find it, I’ll keep looking” for peace of mind, Marks sang.
Wyreman’s played a bluesy guitar solo almost entirely on the smallest frets and highest notes. Then Marks’ passionate, ad-libbed vocals grew louder the guitar became more pronounced, and the song just kept going.
Her terrific, soulful version of Whiskey River, which became Willie Nelson’s theme song but was written by Texas roadhouse singer Johnny Bush. On her album version, Marks’ backing singers all seem to be women, but her live band again acquitted themselves nicely. Wyreman’s guitar solo would’ve made Dickey Betts or Duane Allman proud.
On the final chorus, Marks sounded like a gospel singer come to a honky-tonk. She made you believe what she told that whiskey glass. “You’re all I got,” she sang, lending a gospel fervor to a drunkard’s plea.
“Don’t I just got the baddest band?” she asked the audience.
At last year’s AmericanaFest in Nashville, Marks emotionally described her musical journey. “I got to Nashville in about 2005 and I met with a label that I won’t name,” she said in a panel discussion among Black roots musicians at the music conference. “They held the keys to the gate, and when I was told I wouldn’t sell (many records), it literally made me stop pursuing my career.”
“It was earth shattering,” she continued. “It took some growth spiritually, mentally, emotionally for me to get myself back. And right now, I make songs for me.”
Later in an interview during AmericanaFest, she made clear why she never let country music go.
“My family is rooted and grounded in country,” Marks said.. “My family is from Mississippi, and when we migrated north … all of that history moved with us. Blues and gospel and country — all the music Black people helped to carry.”
“So when I get the question, ‘Why country?,’ I don’t understand it,” Marks said.
On Race Records, she performs The Carter Family's Foggy Mountain Top, “because they were really closely associated with a Black man … who gave them the origins of their songs,” said Marks, speaking of Lesley Riddle, who helped A.P. Carter travel the Appalachia searching for songs.
During her show at Eddie’s Attic, Marks told the audience why she covered both “hillbilly” tunes and songs by Black artists on Race Records.
“Really, the music was all the same,” she said.
River, a new song with a cadence that resembles the spiritual Wade in the Water, gradually built into the hardest-rocking performance of the evening. “If there’s one thing, one thing that I know, that river’s gonna roll,” Marks sang with certainty.
She slowed down a bit on Travel Light. “I’m leaving in the morning,” she began, only her singing and Wyreman’s acoustic strumming on the first verse. “All that’s left is to run, and so I travel light.”
She also sang Mama, from her 2005 album Freeway Bound, a request from a fan in the audience. Marks wrote the song in tribute to her own late mother, portrayed in the song’s 2006 music video by the incomparable Erykah Badu, a former classmate of Marks at Grambling State University in Louisiana.
The song’s narrative has the specificity and authenticity of great country storytellers like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, with Marks mentioning a son who was 9 years old and wanted to be an actor. “Mama, can you tell me what it’s like to view the world from the windows of the sky?” she sang. “I feel so lost in this world without you.”
Marks then told the audience her musical director, Wyreman, had called an audible, easing into J.J. Cale’s River Runs Deep. “The river was deep, the water’s cold as ice,” she sang, almost in a whisper. “Ain’t nobody gonna make a fool out of me.”
Stepping into the audience to sing part of the song, a blues, Marks took a seat at a table like a sultry blues woman of the past — a tradition she’s carrying on, in her own way.
Closing the show, Marks sang her new single, Feel Like Going Home, staying with her favorite themes of travel, searching and arrival. One of her most funky originals with mostly open chords and an early 1970s rock-and-gospel feel, the song’s music video is being featured on CMT.
“I’ve spent a lot of time waiting,” she sang, adding in her spoken voice, “For real.”
Her band’s full-throated harmony behind her, Marks sounded more than ever like an artist who’s finding her place, bringing her music to more listeners — and satisfying her own soul.
“Years that I have wasted … they feel like a dream,” she sang. “It feels like going home.”