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Miko Marks Is Freeway Bound
By Timothy Peters
(more articles from this author)
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If Miko Marks is freeway bound, it's for good reason. With a hook-filled, deeply felt debut CD under her belt and a bona fide hit single to go with it, this Michigan native is definitely going places in contemporary country music. Released by Oakland-based Mirrome Records, Freeway Bound is the CD, and the Sunny Russ-penned title cut has enjoyed international airplay, including 11 weeks on the European Country Music Association charts, not to mention the attention of Nashville cats here at home. Fans of Shania Twain, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill, and Patty Loveless will want to check out Miko's positive country sound, tinged with a little R & B sass. And it doesn't hurt that she looks great in a cowboy hat.

Produced by legendary guitar and studio ace Ron Cornelius (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Confederate Railroad) at Music Row's FunHouse Studios and assisted by crack session players like David Hungate on bass, Jo Spivey on fiddle, and the wonderful Brent Mason on electric guitar, Freeway Bound is a splendid mix of honky-tonk heaven and clean, crafted Nashville pop. It features seven of Miko's own songs, with their strong, affirmative lyrics and irrepressibly catchy choruses.

The autobiographical "Mama" - yes, she proves that the classic country theme still has life in it - and "Feeling the Rain" are particular standouts among her own compositions, while Miko makes the Sunny Russ, Marty Rainone ("Kickin' Back"), and Bobby Atkins ("Don't Come Crying to Me") tunes completely her own Miko Marks - Freeway Bound.

Born of Mississippi stock and raised in the industrial heartland of Flint, Michigan, Miko Marks took to music early: "I can honestly tell you that I can't remember a time when I wasn't singing. I was raised in church and was a natural at singing in the choir and gospel plays." Like many of the northern factory towns that were magnets for job-seekers, Flint was a melting pot of cultures and musical styles: "I had friends from many different backgrounds and I became aware of country music at a young age. I remember that along with rhythm and blues and gospel, I was also being exposed to Kenny Rogers and Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline."

As the new single "Mama" recounts, the precocious Marks entered her first talent contest at age 5: "I sang a song called 'Searching for Love,' which was a mature song for me to sing at such a young age, but I put my heart and soul into that tune." She lost the contest and felt the sting, as the new video of "Mama" poignantly depicts, but her career path was established. The young Miko started writing songs "at 8 or 9" and, following a Flint Central High School choir stop at Carnegie Hall, wound up with a music scholarship to Grambling State University in Louisiana, where her classmates included hip-hop diva Erykah Badu, who remains a friend to this day. Marriage brought her to San Francisco and northern California, where she now lives.

Producer Ron Cornelius gives Freeway Bound a full but clear, uncluttered sound, totally compatible with Miko's own philosophy that "there is beauty in simplicity." Jump-started by Brent Mason's sputtering Fender guitar and Eddie Bayers' drums, the title cut leads off with a take-no-prisoners exuberance, and "Kickin'Back " continues the celebration of independence and self-empowerment. By time the slower, dreamy opening tempo of "Mama" kicks in, with Scott Sanders' classic country petal steel riffs, you know you're firmly in the pleasure zone. It's straight-ahead country, but utterly contemporary no phony retro touches, just crisp, committed playing and a vocal style Miko characterizes as "very raw and earthy with an unforced innocence."

Miko praises the session players and producer Cornelius for making her feel comfortable in the studio: "The players, like David Hungate, Eddie Bayers, and Jo Spivey, made it so easy for me to see that I could be free and relax and do what I do because they sure took care of the rest. Ron Cornelius is an awesome producer. We both knew we were working on something special and everyone treated it as such."

Miko is also a regular performer on the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo circuit, founded by the African-American rodeo pioneer. As Miko says, "It has been one of the most surprising times of my career. In every town people really love the music and don't hesitate to tell me so." A fledgling rider, she admits: "They say horses can feel fear one day I will conquer that fear and own horses of my own. One of my dreams."

While some listeners may be surprised to hear an African-American singing country (tell that to Ray Charles, Al Green, and Charley Pride!), Miko Marks feels no constraints on her musical creativity: "I am a singer-songwriter who loves country music and loves to tell stories. I am doing what I love and feels right!" For her, country is a musical home base, not a prison. The pop and R & B accents of "Excited," "Feeling the Rain," and "Don't Come Crying to Me," testify to the fact that musical honesty is more important to her than industry labels. Indeed, "I Believe in You," with Billy Davis' shimmering backup vocals, could be mistaken for a Whitney Houston or Celine Dion single, if not for Miko's own distinctive voice.

The truth is that Miko Marks' way is free and unbound, and a meeting with country giant Charley Pride confirmed her confidence in herself and in her future: "He gave me the 'thumbs up' and advice that I will cherish throughout this journey." As her "Find My Way Home declares, "I'm going to keep moving on/Find the place where I belong/I'm going to find my way home." If you ask about her plans, she says, "All I can say is that I know I am on the right path. Who knows what's next, but I'm having the best time right now!" Freeway Bound provides plenty of reason to go along for the ride.

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