He may not be Bruce Wayne by day and Batman by night, but Marcus Hummon leads an artistic double life almost as vivid as any caped crusaders.
The citizens of Music Row know him as one of the most successful songwriters in Nashville. But to an ever-larger audience in the theater community, Hummon is known for increasingly challenging, innovative and intellectually stimulating musical dramas.
Both of these careers achieved new peaks in 2005. Hummons cowritten “Bless the Broken Road” has become the biggest country hit of the year. It and his other chart-topping songs will be showcased when he stars in Portrait of a Songwriter at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium in April. Hummons new musical Atlanta was staged in January by Actors Bridge in Music City. His American Duet musical is slated for an off-Broadway production in September. The premiere of his chamber opera Surrender Road will take place in November.
One of the things I like about country music is that it seems always to be rooted in the ground, and thats the kind of person I want to be, says the singer-songwriter. Thats my commercial world. Thats how I make my living. The theater is an altogether different experience. It satisfies my itch to talk about the human condition, to express myself in my deepest way. Its really extraordinary to see your work performed. Ive never felt anything quite like it. Live theater has its own magic.
Marcus Hummon was a performer for years before either of these careers took off. Ironically, it was after he lost his recording contract in 1997 that both blossomed.
I kind of went into a little bit of a depression, he recalls. Heres the thing Ive been trying to do my whole life, and I’m failing at it. How do I turn this into a positive? Well, two things happened. One was, I stopped holding onto my songs for my own albums, which Id done for years. As soon as I told my publisher to start pitching them to others, I started having hits. The first notable one came when Tim McGraw took One of These Days, which Id had on my own record, and turned it into a hit.
The second thing that happened was that a director buddy of mine named Bill Feehey said, Im going to do this piece on Edgar Lee Masters Spoon River Anthology, this wonderful literary work. Can you musicalize some of the epitaphs? And I said, Why not? Ive always loved theater. I just had never thought about writing theater. When I watched the show, it was like a great big hook dug into me.
The hits piled up as Patty Loveless, Sara Evans, the Dixie Chicks, Steve Wariner, Kathy Mattea, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other stars followed McGraw in recording Marcus Hummon songs. His initial foray into theater during the same period led stagings of his original works American Duet (1998, 1999, 2004), Francis of Guernica (2000, 2002), Warrior (2001), The Piper (2004), Atlanta (2005) and Surrender Road (2005).
A country songwriter whos also penned an opera isnt someone you find every day. Hummon thinks his unusual upbringing has something to do with this artistic double life he leads. His father worked for the State Departments Agency for International Development, so the family was quite nomadic. Born in 1960, Hummon was raised in Tanzania, Nigeria, The Philippines, Italy and Saudi Arabia. He finally finished high school back home in the states.
My parents were both very musical. From a very early age, I was exposed to great art. That and just moving around the world the way we did, certainly affected me. I was going into the 10th grade when we moved to Riyadh in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A European or American can’t go to secondary education in Arabia unless youre studying Arabic or at an Islamic school. So I took correspondence courses. It was very lonely, and Riyadh wasnt a real swingin’ town, if you can imagine.
My mother had studied art history and music history. She had all these portfolios of the works of Monet, Manet, Rembrandt and so on. Then she had a collection of classical records: Debussy, Chopin and whatever. I had to study a particular painter or a particular symphony. I had to read J.D. Salinger, Fitzgerald, Hemingway from her reading list. It was like a gift she gave me, the gift of art. I always appreciated that.
Around the same time, he also learned to play piano and guitar another gift to a lonesome teen. He began writing songs when he was a student at Williams College in Massachusetts. He lettered in football, track and volleyball at the school. But when his songs started winning amateur contests, he knew where he was headed.
Marcus Hummon and his sister Sarah landed in Los Angeles in 1984 as a musical duo. He parked cars and worked as a waiter while they nearly starved.
I found out about the Nashville scene in 1986, I heard there were exciting things going on there in acoustic music. So we drove across the country.
An L.A. lawyer had set up some appointments on Music Row. The duo auditioned for a song publisher and were signed on the spot. Sarah decided to back to college. Marcus Hummon stayed in Nashville.
My publisher would say, This place is for hillbillies. You have long hair. I didnt have a country pedigree. I didn’t have an accent. I was a tenor in a land of baritones. I remember saying to him, I think this is the place I need to be. I saw myself as part of this community.
He was scraping by on just $300 a month from the publishing company, but Marcus Hummon didnt care. Hed found fellowship in Nashvilles songwriting community. He also became involved in the citys religious culture. He took theology courses at Vanderbilt University, where he met Becca Stevens. Today, she is the Episcopal chaplain at Vanderbilt, plus the mother of their three children.
At the time of their marriage, Hummon was still trying to become a recording star. He signed with MTM Records, but the company closed in 1988, two weeks before his debut single was to appear. He got the news when he returned to Nashville from his honeymoon.
Fortunately, a few key songs made money. That same year, Michael Martin Murphey became the first to record one of Hummons compositions, Pilgrims on the Way. In 1993, Wynonna scored a major hit with his ballad Only Love, and a year later Alabama had a hit with his baseball song The Cheap Seats.
Today, Hummon characterizes those hits as pure happenstance. He was still saving his songs for his own career. In 1995, he finally got his songwriter’s showcase with All in Good Time, a CD on Columbia Records. For the next two years, he toured relentlessly to promote it. Bone tired and separated from his loved ones, Hummon realized he wasn’t happy. When the curtain came down on that chapter of his life in 1997, he was transformed.
Bryan White’s Love Is the Right Place (1997), the Dixie Chicks Ready to Run and Cowboy Take Me Away (both 1999), Sara Evans Born to Fly (2000) and Rascal Flatts Bless the Broken Road (2005) were all huge hits cowritten by Marcus Hummon. He formed his own label, Velvet Armadillo Records and marketed solo CDs such as The Sound of One Fan Clapping (1997), Looking for the Child (1999), Revolution (2003) and Nowhere to Go But Up (2005). He published a book of poetry and wrote lyrics for the PBS childrens cartoon series Book of Virtues. And then there was that new door to open, the one that led him into theater.
The night they closed that Spoon River Anthology show, I remember sitting in a bar with a piece of napkin. I drew a picture of a black country-music singer and a white kid with an Afro. I wrote the words American Duet. I said, I am going to write a play called American Duet. A few months later I had 40 pages. Bill Feehey became my cowriter. American Duet was my own story, about my growing up in Africa. It was about who gets to tell you what kind of music you do, or who you are. It was reflecting on civil rights. It was reflecting on things that were and are deeply important to me.
Previewed in 1998 and premiered in 1999, this piece has evolved into a cabaret-style presentation with the band members serving as narrators. Hummon sent it to an agency in New York, which staged a reading in 2004. Darius Rucker of Hootie & The Blowfish has now signed to play the African American role with Hummon leading the band in the upcoming off-Broadway production.
Francis of Guernica came next. Its a lecture, a straight play and an opera rolled into one work. It focuses on the six weeks it took Pablo Picasso to paint Guernica. But it also deals with insanity, the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Fascism.
On the last night of its initial run, officials from the Tennessee Performing Arts Center saw it. They realized the piece had a strong educational component and introduced Hummon to Humanities Outreach Tennessee (H.O.T.) and the Tennessee Repertory Theater, which chose Francis of Guernica for a full-scale production.
I remember opening night. I cried. It was so embarrassing. But to see it done so beautifully was almost too much for me to take.
Then came Warrior, which premiered at the Country Music Hall of Fames Ford Theater in 2001. The show was the Jim Thorpe story. Again, H.O.T. saw it and thought it could be an opportunity to talk about Native-American history. As a result, the Native American Association of Tennessee gave him its Outstanding Achievement award.
In the midst of all this, Marcus Hummon formed a U.K. pop/rock band called The Raphaels with Scottish singer Stuart Adamson, whod previously fronted the 80s band Big Country. The Raphaels CD Supernatural appeared in 2001. But Adamson committed suicide that December at age 43.
His death precipitated the writing of The Piper. Suicide and Celtic music became the center of that play. Its actually a straight-ahead play that happens to have 17 songs in it. I knew that the Hartford Conservatory did one new musical a year, so I applied, and I won. In April 2004 The Piper had a full production in Hartford, CT.
All along, I was writing an opera called Surrender Road. That story is a day in the life of a boxer. Its told with Shakespeare soliloquies, sung with piano and string quartet. Its been picked up by Nashville Opera. It has also been chosen as a featured new work at Opera Americas upcoming national conference in Detroit.
Id been wanting to do a Civil War piece for about seven years, but couldnt find a story. Adrian Pasdar is the actor, writer and director who is married to Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. I was in Texas writing songs with them when he told me his idea of a Union guy killing a Rebel, finding love letters on the body and developing a relationship to those letters. I added other characters, a Southern colonel, slaves.
We had a wonderful run of that play, Atlanta, in Nashville. Now Adrian wants to get involved with rewriting. He wants to put it on in Los Angeles.
The actors and workers in all of these shows have all been paid, and thats cool. I havent made a dime, but Im developing my abilities. And Im enjoying the hell out of it. Im having a great time. Arthur Miller said, Other than saving someones life on a medical gurney, writing a great play is the best thing you can do for a culture. To me, theater is like church.