There’s a new name in Southern Gospel, from Nashville, Tennessee: Welcome the Country quartet Mark 209. At the retirement of the Mystery Men Quartet name and group, several members of the quartet: Nathaniel Justice, Jym Howe and Joe Armstrong, along with Jimmy Reno reformed into a Country/Southern group with a new name and a new focus. SGM Radio had the opportunity to chat with Nathaniel and Jym at the National Quartet Convention and find out what is unique about Mark 209.
“ We are the Nashville quartet,” begins Justice. “We are the only quartet that comes from Nashville itself. There are a lot of quartets around Tennessee but none that are directly based in Nashville.” Howe interjects, “Also, we are the only ones with the ‘Nashville sound’. There are other groups from the area but they have a traditional quartet sound. We have a Nashville-country sound.” But how does the name Mark 209 relate to the Country Music Capital?
“If you go to Nashville and you want to go to the Ryman Theatre or the Country Music Hall of Fame or the Southern Baptist Convention Home Office, you have to get off on exit 209,” says Justice. “It is the hub for all of Nashville. So what better place to be from, then mile-marker 209. So that’s where we got the name.” The group also wanted a title that crossed easily into the Country market as their music is now getting played on Country stations.
“That was a fluke by the way,” says Howe, referring to Country radio playing Mark 209. “We were not planning on that, but it happened and we are getting played on some major stations across the nation. In fact, they called us when they didn’t receive our last single.”
Justice agrees that it was a surprise to the group. “They called us!” You know our music. This is Gospel music, it’s incredible and it blows my mind. We got a call from a lady in North Carolina who ordered five copies of our CD. I asked her where she’d heard us, and she named a country station. I said, ‘Do they have a Gospel Hour where they play us?’ She said, ‘No, they play you during the drive time during the week.’ I was shocked. Country fans love God and love Christian music, but they don’t about Southern Gospel because everyone equates it with older music. And it’s not!”
“So we want to show them that it is up to date, it is fun and even young kids enjoy it.” Justice continues, “We had a youth group come and hear us two months ago. They’d heard us Sunday morning, and instead of going to an ice cream social that night, they loaded up in a van and followed us to the next date because they’d had so much fun.”
“We wanted people to be able to connect with us and to know who we are, but we also wanted Country fans to feel associated with the name. They love Nashville, Tennessee, and they know what the name means. It goes over great.” However, the significance of the title isn’t apparent to all who see it, at least, not at first. “Many Christians at first think it’s a Bible verse, Mark 20:9. And it gives you chance to witness, because the next time someone says, ‘Yeah, that 20th chapter..”, you can pull out your Bible, show them that Mark doesn’t have a Chapter 20 and that begins a good discussion. So the name has changed but the music is the same. The heart of the music, the reason behind the music and the style of the music is all the same.” New baritone Jimmy Reno is now traveling with Mark 209. Formerly, Justice, Howe and Armstrong sang with Ed Crawford who has begun a solo ministry.
To connect further with fans old and new, Mark 209 is having a contest for those who text. Justice explains, “If anyone reading this will text the word mark209 to the number 90210, a number everyone knows from the television show, they will be automatically entered to win a free set of CDs. We are giving away one set every week for the entire rest of 2011. All you have to do is sign up once to be in the contest.”
Justice continues, “If you sign up for this contest, this also means that the next time we come into your home area, I, Nathaniel, will contact you personally. I will send you a text message to tell you where we will be playing. If you attend the concert, bring your cell phone and show us the message, we will have a special gift for you at the table. We want to know that you are getting the message and that the word is getting out. It’s a wonderful way to keep in contact with the group and then everyone feels a part of what we do. Our listeners are the mile markers who are keeping us on the road.”
Mark 209 is consistently garnering new mile markers and reaching many with their music. Whether the current performance is perfect or not, their ministry is seeing results. “We see so many people get saved,” says Justice. “We were in Texas recently and saw 27 people get saved in eight concerts, along with over 30 rededications. We saw eight people at one church just a few weeks ago, including a little boy called Nick who was just seven years old. We had the worst concert in the world! Everything that could have gone wrong did.” Justice laughs as Howe continues the story.
“Nathaniel was coming on stage and his foot stuck and he stumbled and fell. When he fell, he hit the mike out of my hand. Joe caught him and was laughing!” Howe himself is chuckling at the memory and Justice finishes the tale. “At the end of the concert, a boy walked up to us, crying and sucking on his bottom lip. I thought he was getting in trouble with his Daddy. But no! He walked up and told me that Jesus found his heart tonight. That’s why we do it.”
“So we need support from fans and family members and churches out there that pray for us and help us every month. It’s people like that, that keep us on the road.”
As Mark 209 continues to develop their following and their sound, they are building on the past experiences and successes of their members. The previous album recorded by Howe, Justice and Armstrong had a distinctly Country style, moving away from the more traditional Southern flavor. Justice comments, “On that last album, Ronny Milsap’s people worked with us. They are helping us move further into the Country sound.”
“We are hoping to open for Ronny and help him with his Gospel segment,” continues Justice. “That creates an entirely different market for us, because those fans don’t know about Southern Gospel. So we get to go and do different venues that we normally wouldn’t be asked to go to. The fans are going to hear Ronny’s secular music, and we get the chance to throw in some Gospel to get them thinking about it.”
“It opens a lot of doors. We’ve started booking a lot more fairs, campgrounds and Cowboy Camp Meetings.” Justice continues, “Cowboy Camp Meetings are so cool and are starting to take the nation by storm. There are about 35 of these meetings nation-wide. Cowboy churches are also starting to pop up. Thousands of people attend the camp meetings. We did one in New Mexico, out in the boondocks, and we had a couple of hundred people.” Cowboy Churches and Camp Meetings usually have a Country themed atmosphere, along with casual attire. Often the pastor or speakers will be wearing cowboy boots, hats or clothing. The music is also Country, from Western to Bluegrass to Grand Ole’ Opry.
“Most people wouldn’t expect to hear Southern Gospel there but they love the music,” states Justice. “It gives us a completely new market, not that we are worried about that. But it gives us new faces, new people to sing to and spread the Word of God to. They are on fire for God but they just don’t know about this music. When we say we are Southern Gospel, our fans say, ‘No you aren’t, you are Country!’ They see it as Christian Country music. So we’ve seen a lot of doors opening and God has really blessed us.” Howe says that the group doesn’t even do any secular Country music within their program, yet the Country fans still take to the quartet. The next album will take the Country sound further, incorporating music of other artists.
“There are a lot of Christian Country singers out there that have put out some wonderful Christian music,” says Justice. “But the radio stations won’t play that.” Howe agrees, “These are Country artists that are Christians, who have done Christian songs. But the Gospel radio stations won’t play these songs because they are Country artists. And Country stations won’t play it because it’s Gospel music.” It’s a catch-22 for these artists. But Mark 209 is hoping that their newest album will assist these Country acts in finding a new audience.
“We have gone to them and said, ‘Hey, let’s work something out and do something together,’” Justice says. “’We will market it in Southern Gospel where the people will love it and the radio stations will play it.’ So we’ve started to test the market and fans are going crazy for it. They love the songs but they could never get a hold of them.” Like the Country artists they hope to have on the new project, Mark 209 is not the usual quartet sound played by Southern Gospel radio.
“We are way outside the box,” admits Justice. “We are not your typical four-suits-with-matching-ties quartet, and we never do the same show twice. We tell people that it is not just a ministry; it’s an adventure because you never know what’s going to happen. We just have so much fun.”
“We want people to be touched, we want people to be involved and understand that God loves them no matter where they are at or what walk of life they are in. He’s there with them. Instead of just singing in churches we want to go to campgrounds or Country shows or rodeos. Who sings at a rodeo?” Justice laughs. “We do!”
As an example of their wide audience appeal, Howe tells a story of a recent church booking. “We sang at a contemporary church service a short time ago. The church had booked us for their traditional service. The youth pastor was the one who did the contemporary service, which followed the traditional service. He was at the first service and said, ‘I really liked that, would you do the second service too?’ They asked if we could do more contemporary songs and we said we could, so we did the service. It was just harder Country with more guitars.”
Howe continues, “We opened up the program with the straightest hymn we have. It was so traditional and the youth were just looking at us like, ‘Oh no!’ Right in the middle of it we stopped and said, ‘Wait a minute! This is supposed to be a contemporary service!’ We went straight into the hardest song we had. They loved it! The kids came up after and said, ‘I did not know this was Southern Gospel!’”
Justice says, “That’s just it. We have to open it up to the kids and they will enjoy it once they hear it. I have people coming up to me all the time, saying, ‘I just love to see young people in Southern Gospel.’ It’s not such a rarity really. The kids just aren’t around because the music is too old. They will love the music if we just put it in their hands. We want to think outside the box and start getting into other people’s ears and hearts.
Mark 209 would like to reach out into other countries and has visited Canada often in the last few years. They laughed about their last trip to the Sandy Creek Gospel Jamboree, held in Saskatchewan. Justice begins, “We love going up there. We are hoping to go up to Red Deer next year. Customs didn’t like us, I think they thought we were smuggling something.” Howe interjects, “No, they had roads that were washed out, and bridges were gone. They said they had no traffic come through there and they were bored. They stripped the bus, pulled the carpet up, stripped the beds, all of that.”
“We were supposed to start singing that night at 9:00pm and we pulled in at 8:30pm,” continues Justice. “We hopped off the bus and ran right up on stage and did our program. It was fantastic.” He laughs and continues, “We want to get further a-field so we are working toward that. Anyone in Canada or anywhere that wants to book us, all they have to do is contact us using the information on our website. We have a bus so we will travel! We will come to a church or wherever, even a backyard barbeque!”
The members of Mark 209 profess a love of people and being able to personally minister to their audience. Justice says, “We are usually at a venue hours before to set up, and 90% of the time we are inside an hour before it starts, shaking hands and talking to people. We want to get to know the people. We are not there to do a concert; we are there to worship and fellowship with people. We are there to be interactive and not only bless them but be blessed ourselves. You can’t do that unless you are interacting with the people. If it weren’t for the people out there allowing us the opportunity to do this, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do. We love getting to meet with people.”
Justice continues, “It’s one of the unique things about Southern Gospel and throws Country fans right off. They will come out to the show and they see us out shaking hands afterward, and they are shocked. For them it’s not normal but they love it. That’s what changes them and starts planting seeds.”
As Mark 209 continues to travel the roads, building their audience and meeting their fans, it won’t be long until their name becomes as familiar as other quartets who have gone before them. This Nashville group with the Country flavor has determined to keep the Gospel as the center of their music. That is what will leave an indelible mark on their listeners, from churches to rodeos and everywhere in between.
For more information and concert schedules, click on to www.mark209.com